1. Bailey, Donna W. RN, PhD

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As annoying as SPAM can be, it may be useful to think of it in the context of how we have progressed over the last 50 years. In recent years, we have moved from an agriculture and manufacturing culture to a service and information culture. This transition has resulted in a shift from minimal physical invasion of our personal spaces to increasingly physical and virtual invasions. As technologies have evolved to make us more connected, we have experienced the unintended consequence of unwanted solicitations and information overload. Over time, we have used a variety of solutions to manage these unwanted intrusions. Because of our earlier experiences with less technological intrusions, it is useful to note that not all of the solutions to manage unwanted communications need to be high tech. This article uses a historical vantage point to remind us of some of our less complex solutions to unwanted invasion of our personal space.


Transitioning from agricultural communities to increasingly mobile and connected communities, producers of consumer goods and services took advantage of physical proximity and mobility to use door-to-door salesmen to inform potential consumers of their products. Mid-twentieth century door-to-door salesmen were eventually replaced by junk mail. Junk mail gave way to telemarketers. Telemarketing is now supplemented by SPAM. One could view SPAM as the evolution of our sophisticated technologies originally intended to make us better connected. Figure 1 (p. 166) illustrates this perspective.

Figure 1 - Click to enlarge in new window A historical perspective on unwanted intrusions into our private lives.

Given this way of thinking about SPAM, we can call on strategies that have been useful in the past in minimizing unwanted invasion into our personal spaces. Actually, this perspective highlights several key principles that we are probably quite familiar with and that are outlined in Table 1. These points are elaborated upon in the following paragraphs.

Table 1 - Click to enlarge in new windowTable 1. Summary of Principles for Non-software Approaches to Managing SPAM


The first principle places SPAM management within the context of an overall plan. This approach helps you think deliberately about whether you can use simple approaches such as deleting the e-mail or whether unwanted communications are frequently and consistently distracting your from your primary focus of work or interaction with others. Similar to not opening the door to a salesman, you make a conscious choice to limit access to your space. Along with this choice, comes management of incoming communications through such strategies as having specific e-mail accounts for specific purposes. In family settings, have individual e-mail accounts for each member of the family because one person's SPAM may be another person's "need to know information." By having a communication plan in mind you can implement specific strategies proactively or "on the fly" rather than waiting until you are frustrated or overwhelmed by SPAM.



E-mail addresses make their way to spammers through a variety of ways: personal Web pages, mailing lists, message boards, and newsgroups. Purchases online, requests for services (even free ones), responses to surveys, and requests for information are other ways that we innocently provide access to our e-mail addresses. Translated to today's virtual space, the principle is "limit access to your personal contact information." Be careful about how your e-mail address is actually and potentially made available to other people and organizations. This approach requires that you think carefully about providing your e-mail address when you move around in public spaces on the Internet such as newsgroups and discussion groups. For example, the Federal Trade Commission suggests using a screen name that is not linked to your e-mail address when you participate in chat rooms. 1


Because the battle to minimize SPAM is basically the responsibility of the user, having two e-mail accounts allows you to minimize the disruption of unwanted e-mail by having a public address that you use in newsgroups and discussion boards and a more private address that is more tightly controlled. This solution is similar to the one used with snail mail where a person has a post office box for business or public use and their actual residence address for their private mail communications. Compartmentalizing your e-mail is a useful proactive approach that gives you some flexibility in moving around in public spaces.



Sometimes we think we are safe from SPAM when we interact with Web sites, but the recipients of our e-mail address sell our address to others. In fact, there are people who search the Web for e-mail addresses with the expressed intent of selling them. Others generate potential addresses and send out SPAM with an opt-out option that is simply a way to confirm a legitimate address. That brings us to the principle of knowing how your contact information will be used. Know what the privacy policy is for the individual or group with whom you are dealing. Most companies today post their policies and make sure they include a statement that assures users that they do not distribute or sell personal data, including e-mail addresses. The key with this principle is that you should be wary of giving your personal contact information to an individual or organization that does not have a privacy policy. As a part of your communication management plan, explicitly tell others that you do not want your e-mail address used for any other purposes than the reason for immediate encounter. You will also want to indicate that you do not want your e-mail shared or sold without your consent. In the event that you receive information that you did not request, report the mailing to the organization so that they can follow-up on removing you from mass distributions.



Telemarketing is notoriously annoying. Telephones have long been our way of connecting to family and friends. Telemarketers know this and leverage the natural impulse most of us have to answer the telephone or to respond favorably to callers who address us by name. Spammers have borrowed on our child-like trust to open e-mails that seem to be personally directed to us. To address this ploy, we need tools that help us efficiently select our communications. Much like using an answering machine to weed out unwanted phone calls, this approach deals with critically reading the sender address and subject line of incoming messages. Known as filtering, you can do this manually or electronically. Filters "blacklist" known senders or subject material and reject or reroute senders or subject lines from which you have chosen not to receive e-mail.


Many e-mail clients can be set to move messages that appear to be SPAM to a folder that can be examined periodically or emptied without being as demanding as manual review and deletion. The advantage of having a folder where e-mails you have defined as SPAM or junk mail can be filed is that you can browse the e-mails at your leisure, if you so desire. This is important to some people because, sometimes, unsolicited material serendipitously addresses an immediate need or may spark an idea or thought that would have otherwise gone unmet or undiscovered. It is also helpful to ensure that your filters are not removing legitimate e-mail.



Finally, the last thing to consider in a nontechnological approach is to evaluate your SPAM management approach and attitude. Managing unsolicited material should not be overwhelming to your thoughts, emotions, or daily activities. Having an overall plan helps you to take a systematic approach to unwanted communications. At its simplest, deleting unwanted e-mails is a powerful strategy. Taking advantage of filters and rules can manage a large number of intrusions. Implementing strategies to manage SPAM is a proactive approach to managing your personal life.



Table. Most Annoying... - Click to enlarge in new windowTable. Most Annoying Types of SPAM



1. Federal Trade Commission. Email address harvesting: how spammers reap what you sow. November 2002. Available at: Accessed January 25, 2002. [Context Link]