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Saturday, July 29, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Don't think hard about spam, just delete it

Special to The Seattle Times

I have what can only be described as a naive view of the e-mail ecosystem.

Why else would I so readily accept the idea that you should think before reporting a message as spam, because to award such a designation to an undeserving message is to essentially cast a vote against an undeserving small business (Inbox, July 22, 2006)?

Why would I ever characterize this mislabeling as "irresponsible," if I were not under the spell of a marketing sympathizer?

Perhaps it was because I really wished this to be so. I've always wanted to share the digital playground with everyone who will follow the rules. For this reason, I've sought rules that marketers could follow, so they could ply their trade and not annoy the rest of us.

These rules would work under a neatly ordered system, perhaps one that charged admission from the start and made it unappealing for a scam artist to send out a million false messages at a time. In fact, life online is excessively messy. There are no real rules in this particular jungle. It's too late to change, even if we wanted to: It's reminiscent of the notion that democracy is the worst form of government except for the alternative.

My disenchantment with the idea of determining what to report and what to delete preceded the reader mail that gently outlined the idea's faults. After writing that column, I sought to immediately implement the plan, but was thwarted. Instead of a fast decision, it required mulling over the source and purpose of the mail, determining if the sender was a legitimate businessperson and then looking for the Unsubscribe button. (There was no ambivalence about wanting these messages gone forever.)

It didn't take long to develop a new rule: If the message was not obvious spam (physical enhancements, trips to Nigeria), I would select Unsubscribe; but only if the option was clearly visible. This would often require me typing my address into a little box. Otherwise I would report the message as spam. But this turned into a waste of time. I was now spending 20 seconds on what was once an instantaneous decision.

Then, the question from several readers: If you respond to spam, doesn't this let the sender know you are a "live one" and therefore increase the spam? For this I went to the original source, Stefan Pollard, director of consulting services at Email Labs. He said this used to be true, but a "legitimate" marketer (one that would be unfairly tarred by the spam brush) would offer several ways to unsubscribe. He also cautioned against typing in my address to an unbranded page, because this could be part of an e-mail harvesting process.

So all of a sudden this "responsibility" has become way too complicated, and dangerous. I had already unsubscribed to several lists and typed in my address. So instead of acting responsible, I ended up wasting time and increasing the stress (and perhaps spam) level.

Email Labs has several guidelines for "best practices" e-mail marketing, viewable at www.emaillabs.com/articles/email_articles/email_best_practices_audit.html.

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Reading these will help determine whether you should designate something as spam, unsubscribe or just delete.

So we have the "new" new rule: If a sender's veracity and legitimacy isn't immediately obvious, it feels right to just call it spam.

Final note: Several POP 3 users wrote in to ask where to find the Report Spam button in Outlook. It's not there, as the feature is only available on Web mail systems. POP 3 programs move everything they detect as spam to a special folder, but it's up to the user to register a complaint.

If you have questions or suggestions for Charles Bermant, you can contact him by e-mail at cbermant@seattletimes.com. Type Inbox in the subject field. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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