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About a good tool

By Terry Joseph
July 18, 2003

Among the less-publicised consequences of computer literacy is the fact that, almost daily, a fresh batch of pesky graduates from Online Marketing 101 can gain access to your Inbox.

But let me be clear here: For high-speed communication, e-mail is undoubtedly a good tool. The timeless tribute to the postal service, trumpeting determination to deliver in any environment, merely touts dependability of foot-soldiers. The electronic version makes a superior statement, exposing the foibles of snail-mail, showing it as truly pedestrian.

The e-system has however proven equally useful in sinister applications and its route deliberately more difficult to trace, where data exchange is dedicated to despicable activities like child molestation, fraud, racism and increasingly; bold invasions of privacy.

I can only suspect how the precise dimensions of my body parts came to public notice, but global e-mail response to a resulting perception of inadequacy has been overwhelming.

Presumably misled by persons claiming "privileged information", e-mail marketers erroneously deduced a phallic deficit and now bombard me with assurances of instant growth, or prescribe hands-on therapy over extended periods; both approaches promising astonishing results.

Apparently, every Tom, Dick and especially Sally has been assigned to the project. They open with sympathetic pleasantries then, through the same window, pitch products guaranteed to mollify the imagined embarrassment, some hoping to clinch quick sale by showing pitiful pre-treatment images, then fast-forwarding to awesome outcomes.

All attempts at convincing these solicitors of their redundancy have so far failed. Sally Summers, for instance, clearly doesn't believe my personal confidence in this regard is well-founded. As you too may have discovered, to "unsubscribe" is to unwittingly conscript an expanded support group or, if all else fails, get a blizzard of offers for bargain-priced Viagra.

Now, I didn't raise Cain when the deluge of useless offers (spam) started coming in: The deck of Iraqi Most Wanted playing cards, unsecured platinum credit, online medical diagnoses, investment opportunities in Guatemala, bootlegged Harry Potter DVDs, a free bag of M&Ms, car loans in two minutes, or US$25,000 just so.

Apart from those puerile Nigerian swindle attempts, some of the mail was occasionally comical. In a definitive show of superfluity, they tried selling me tanning lotion. The quintessential oxymoron hawked free pay-per-view television and for howler of the month, Ring Stop swore it would cure Tinnitus.

Even the supernatural is on sale. Reams of unsolicited e-mail are generated daily by religious zealots. Interestingly, all of it comes from Christians, who seem to have clinched a monopoly on God as an online commodity. Niche prayers are available in several varieties, with invocations ranging in intensity from requests for benign marvels to dispensing of the fearsome "spirit-lash".

Unintimidated, I dutifully process all bible-thumping, although if caught in foul mood, it is difficult resisting temptation to respond with news of a significant sci-fi breakthrough that torpedoes their theories, like the one about hieroglyphics experts chancing upon a discovery that @ is really The Mark of The Beast.

Forwarding, e-mail's adaptation of passing the buck, allows users to purge themselves of guilt on several levels for the price of a local telephone call. Digitised chain letters now facilitate high speed delivery of good fortune.

Syrupy stories about oriental orphans, petitions for petty causes, fund-raising by dubious characters, pyramid schemes and other opportunities to get rich doing mundane tasks, are easily shunted to the next lower rung on the gullibility ladder, replete with instructions on how to share the wealth.

Like you, I receive bundles of these messages each day and by all indications, things will only get worse. As a percentage of e-mail worldwide, spam grew by a staggering 150 per cent in 2002 and is now said to be doubling every six months.

For every device engineered to sift or block spam, online marketing firms come up with an equally clever way to frustrate it, like the inclusion of random letter/ number combinations in the subject line to confuse scrutinising filters. Analysts say it takes a sales ratio of just one thousandth of one percent of canvassed addresses to turn a profit, so don't look for relief anytime soon.

And it costs more than just time. Bryson Gordon, product line manager for McAfee Security, says: "The sad truth is it costs a spammer basically as much to send a million e-mails as it does to send one. The economics of the business are completely weighted in favour of the sender and always at the expense of the recipient."

Then there are viruses, which can disable the system, hackers who may relieve you of your fortune, pranksters spending their days at irritating the recipient and those who send complex pictures that take forever to open; using your time online to satisfy their craving for fun.

All of this is vexing but not intolerable. In my line of work, the more effective the spam-filter, the greater the risk of dumping valuable communication from persons who genuinely need to make contact, so unsolicited mail is a job hazard and consequently finds a happy haven here.

Keystrokes to delete unwanted offers do not rattle me as, for the most part, they come in stacks that may be obliterated with little effort. My residual problem is, therefore, continuing reference by online marketers to penis enlargement methods, if only because it is such a clear misunderstanding of what has already been universally agreed as a good tool.

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