Aug 13, 2010
Advertising vs Spam

You just built something and are trying to get the word out. What are the ethics of telling a bunch of strangers about it? Is all unsolicited communication spam? If I send a message to three people, is that bulk? What if I send a million mails, each email by itself? What if the wording of the messages is different? How different does it need to be?

Calling @addressed tweets and facebook events “spam” is increasingly meaningless; let's reserve the word for truly egregious messages. Instead, if you're considering telling acquaintances or strangers about something new, this formula may be useful:

Likelihood the receiver will find it undesirable * Volume of messages

The first component measures harm to the receiver and the second measures harm to the service provider. Let's try out a sanity check: A random email from your spam folder. It is undesirable to you, and the sender clearly knows it. They've sent out another batch a few hours ago with negligible click-through rate, they've been sending these messages for months, maybe even decades. They're forging headers and adding nonsense words to try to evade spam filters. And it's going out to a few million people and significantly adding to internet traffic. Verdict: definitely spam.


If you're considering telling acquaintances or strangers something, this formula translates to advice:

  • Is there almost no chance they'll like it? Stop.
  • Is it very uncertain they'll like it? Tell just a few people. If it does well you can increase volume in a subsequent campaign.
  • Are you seeing signs that they didn't like it? 1 in 100 people complained about it? Only 1 in 300 responded? Stop transmitting.

If you genuinely think some of your recipients may find it useful, if you're not trying to tell too many people all at once, and if you're prepared to stop and take stock of how the first batch did — go for it.

There are no numbers in this reasoning, but I don't consider that wiggle room. It's hard to translate the sender's opinion into a number. If you are wrong in your opinion you'll find out from the recipients of your initial small batch. If they tell you and you don't heed them, you're spam. If you try to sidestep their comments in superficial ways, you're spam.

The volume measure is even more relative. What would be considered spam 10 years ago wouldn't today. Especially if you stop transmitting after one batch.

One corollary of this analysis: if it's unsolicited and in bulk, and you're sending it anonymously, it is spam. Period. Advertising requires accountability.

(Triggered by this discussion on HN. Thanks to Jonathan Tang, Ranganathan Sankaralingam, Ke Chen, Srikanth Agaram, and Jonathan Nelson for reading drafts of this.)

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