October 22, 2003

Spam: How it is hurting email and degrading life on the Internet

Spam is hurting email and degrading life on the Internet

Spam is beginning to undermine the integrity of email and degrade life online.

The huge increase in email spam in recent years is beginning to take its toll on the online world. Some email users say they are using electronic mail less now because of spam. More people are reporting they trust the online environment less. Increasing numbers are saying that they fear they cannot retrieve the emails they need because of the flood of spam. They also worry that their important emails to others are not being read or received because the recipients’ filters might screen them out or the emails might get lost in the rising tide of junk filling people’s inboxes.

In short, our new data from a national survey suggest that spam is beginning to undermine the integrity of email and to degrade the online experience.

In large numbers, Internet users report that they trust email less and some even use email less because of spam. Why? Users worry that the growing volume of spam is getting in the way of their ability to reliably send and receive email. They complain that it uncontrollably clutters their inboxes and imposes uninvited, deceptive, and often disgustingly offensive messages. Here are the key figures:

  • 25% of email users say the ever-increasing volume of spam has reduced their overall use of email; 60% of that group says spam has reduced their email use in a big way.
  • 52% of email users say spam has made them less trusting of email in general.
  • 70% of email users say spam has made being online unpleasant or annoying.
  • 30% of email users are concerned that their filtering devices may block incoming email.
  • 23% of email users are concerned that their emails to others may be blocked by filtering devices.
  • 75% of email users are bothered that they can’t stop the flow of spam.
  • 80% of email users are bothered by deceptive or dishonest content of spam.
  • 76% of email users are bothered by offensive or obscene content of spam.

Email users are evolving defense mechanisms against spam.

Many email users believe they know how to behave in a spam-saturated environment. Most email users are judicious about guarding their email addresses in hopes of avoiding spam. A minority employ their own filters, either in work or personal accounts. Many more say they benefit from employer-installed filters on their work accounts. The most popular way of dealing with spam is to simply click “delete.” Despite their dismay, Internet users keep the issue of spam in perspective. For them, spam takes its place next to life’s other annoyances, like telemarketing calls.

  • 73% of email users avoid giving out their email addresses; 69% avoid posting their email addresses on the Web.
  • 62% say their employers use filters to block spam from their work email accounts; half of them get no spam at all in those accounts.
  • 37% of those who have a personal email account apply their own filters to their email system; 21% of those with filters say less than a tenth of the email they receive is spam.
  • 86% of email users report that usually they “immediately click to delete” their incoming spam.
  • 59% of email users describe spam as “annoying, but not a big problem”; 27% of email users say spam is a “big problem” for them; 14% say it is no problem at all.

Confusion and contradictory definitions compound the problem of spam.

The capacity of the culture to fully and effectively respond to spam remains hampered in a variety of ways. For all the good intentions of most, there are enough email users who respond to offers in unsolicited email to sustain spam as a viable, lucrative endeavor. Internet users may sometimes just not know what to do and may be fooled into behaviors that actually contribute to keeping spam alive. Email users are rightly perplexed, for example, about the effect of the “remove me” button. Should you click to “remove me” from future mailings, or will this just confirm your existence and earn you a place on more spammers’ lists?

And email users are not entirely clear on just what is spam, an issue that is an absolute stopper for writing effective, enforceable legislation against spam. While Internet users generally agree that spam is “unsolicited commercial email from a sender you don’t know,” there is plenty of room for fuzziness around the edges. Messages with religious, political, or charity-fundraising content is spam to some, but not others. Users also have varying answers about how businesses should interpret their relationship with potential customers. There is not a clear consensus among users about the circumstances under which they are “known” by a seller or “have a relationship with” a firm.

  • 7% of email users report that they have ordered a product or service that was offered in an unsolicited email, although not all of this is pure “spam.”
  • 33% of email users have clicked on a link in unsolicited email to get more information.
  • 92% of email users agree that spam is “unsolicited commercial email from a sender they do not know or cannot identify.”
  • 92% of email users consider unsolicited messages containing adult content to be spam.
  • 89% consider unsolicited email offering investment deals, financial offers, or money-making schemes to be spam.
  • 76% consider unsolicited messages containing religious or political information to be spam.
  • 32% consider unsolicited commercial email to be spam, even if it came from a sender with whom they’ve “already done business.”

Spam’s burden is heavier on personal email accounts than on work email accounts.

Overall estimates of the burden of spam disguise the important differences between the burden of spam in personal email accounts and in work email accounts. The trouble people experience with spam is considerably greater in personal email accounts (generally on open, commercial systems like Hotmail, AOL, Yahoo, etc.) than in work email accounts, most of which exist in a controlled system where filters and other screening mechanisms are designed to protect accounts from spam. While email users receive slightly more email of all kinds in their work accounts than their personal accounts, there is generally a higher proportion of spam in personal accounts. Email users spend much more time dealing with spam in their personal lives than in their work lives.

» Personal email accounts

  • 54% of personal email users receive 10 or fewer emails on a typical day; 10% handle more than 50.
  • 7% of email users get no spam; just under a third says 80% or more of their inbox is spam.
  • 40% of email users spend fewer than 5 minutes a day dealing with spam; 12% spend a half hour or more.
  • 55% say it is sometimes hard for them to get to the messages they want to read.

» Work email accounts

  • 44% of work email users receive 10 or fewer emails on a typical day; 11% receive over 50.
  • 40% of email users get no spam at all; about one in ten say at least 60% of their email on a typical day is spam.
  • 40% of email users spend no time at all on spam; 10% spend more than one half hour a day.
  • 34% say it is sometimes hard for them to get to the messages they want to read.

Women are more bothered by spam; young people are more tolerant.

  • Women are more bothered than men by everything about spam, and in particular, 83% of women are bothered by offensive or obscene content of spam, compared to 68% of men.
  • More young people (18–29 years old) than older people are tolerant of spam; 32% of them say spam is “just part of life on the Internet and is not that big of a deal,” compared to 18% of older people.
  • 81% of parents who have children under 18 object to the adult content in spam, compared to 72% of non-parents.

Summary of findings at a glance