June 14, 2006

Is it weather spam or a public service announcement?

Just as the first tropical storm of the 2006 hurricane season was threatening, my mother, who lives along Florida’s gulf coast, forwarded me an email she received. The subject line read:

PSA: HURRICANE WARNING! — URGENT NOAA MESSAGE — HURRICANE WARNING!

The content of the email message included a lengthy release from the National Weather Service, which was useful, informative, and geographically relevant. But it also raised my spam-watcher’s eyebrows for a number of reasons: the sender was clearly part of a private enterprise, the message contained misspellings, advertising, a lot of links, and instructions on how to be removed from future emailings. All these are common traits of spam.

So, is it spam — or not?

First, the content. While most of us share an understanding that spam is “unsolicited commercial email”, the definition remains very fuzzy around the edges. Over 90% of email users consider email messages with adult content to be spam, while we express a higher tolerance for messages – like the above – with arguably more worthy content. Some 65% of emailers consider unsolicited emails from nonprofits or charities to be spam, 74% from political or activist groups, 78% of those containing software offers. Spam, it seems, is at least partly in the eye of the beholder.

Second, the sender. Who sent this email and how did they get my mom’s email address? My mom told me she had never signed up for any kind of alerts. When I called the telephone number listed in the email message’s contact information, the line went immediately dead. A second contact number deep within the website connected to a recording that the number has been “temporarily disconnected”. A third number, which was listed for the president and CEO, eventually rang through to a fax line.

And so, does any of this matter? We’ve all been scarred by spam. Some casualties among us have lost their money or identity. Most of us have just lost time and our peace of mind.

But we should wonder if still-rare messages like these are early warning signs of more than hurricanes.

How do we recognize legitimate public service announcements, and how can we preserve their integrity? The long-standing traditions of PSAs in radio, TV, and print leave no room for doubt. We hear and see these media clearly outline and introduce the message. We know the messages are closely monitored, and we implicitly trust them.

The internet is still new to this game. Delivering public service announcements, particularly serious warnings, is something the internet could do very, very well. Hundreds of millions of Americans could receive important messages in an efficient and timely way.

However, this public service will only be effective if the system is beyond reproach. Necessary ingredients include reliable sources, trustworthy gatekeepers, and unmistakably identifiable messages. It will be much easier to institute such a system before the internet experience becomes tainted by a surfeit of quasi PSAs.