Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Book excerpt: Mark as spam, the long fight to keep emails and texts useful

(This is an excerpt from my book. Please let me know if you like it and want more.)

The first email on the internet was sent in 1971. Back then, the internet was a small place used only by a few geeky researchers affiliated with ARPANET, an obscure project at the Department of Defence.

Oh how the internet has grown. Five billion people now use the internet, including nearly everyone in the United States, as well as most of the world. A lot of the time, we use the internet to communicate with our friends using email and text messaging.

As the internet usage grew, so did the profit motive. The first email spam was sent in 1978, an advertisement for mainframe computers. By the mid-1990s, as more and more people started using the internet, email spam became ubiquitous. Sending a spam message to millions of people could get a lot of attention and earn spammers a lot of money. All it took was a small percentage of the people responding.

It got to the point that, by the early 2000s, email was becoming difficult to use because of the time-consuming distraction of dealing with unwanted spam. The world needed solutions.

The problem is aggravated by executives often unwittingly measuring the goals of their marketing teams by whether people click on their emails, which has unintended harmful consequences. If you measure teams by how many clicks they get on their emails, the teams have a strong incentive to send as much email as possible. And that means customers get annoyed by all the emails and start marking it as spam. This long-term cost – that you might not be able to send email anymore to customers if you send them too much email – needed to be part of the goals of any team sending email to customers.

The bigger email spam problem was that spam worked for the bad guys. When bad actors can make money by sending spam emails, you get a lot of spam emails. Spammers could make a lot of money by evading spam filters. So they worked hard to trick spam filters by, for example, using misspellings to get past keyword detection.

In the early 2000s, email was dying under spam. It was bad out there. Spam filtering algorithms were in an arms race against bad actors who tried everything to get around them. Anti-spam algorithms filtered out spammy keywords, so the bad guys used misspelling and hordes of fake accounts to get back in that inbox. The good guys adapted to the latest tactics, then the bad guys found new tricks.

What finally fixed it was to make email spam unprofitable. If you never see spam, it is like it doesn't exist for you. Spammers spam because they make money. If it becomes more difficult to make money, there will be fewer spammers sending fewer scams to your inbox. But how can you make spam less profitable?

What worked was reputation. Much like TrustRank, known spammers and unknown senders of email tend to be unreliable, and reliable and well-known internet domains tend to not send spam. Reliable companies and real people should be able to send email. New accounts created on new internet domains, especially if they have sent spam before, probably should not be able to send email. Treating every email from unknown or unreliable sources with great suspicion, and skipping the inbox, means most people nowadays rarely see email and text spam, merely an occasional nuisance today.

Email spam is barely profitable these days for spammers. Reducing the payoff from spamming changes the economics of spam. To discourage bad behaviors, make them less profitable.

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