[Originally published in the Vanuatu Independent newspaper.]
As Internet services become more common in Vanuatu, local businesses have been using it to supplement their normal advertising and communications channels. In their enthusiasm – and, it must be said, naivete – they’ve overlooked a few fundamental rules of good online behaviour.
Businesses and individuals (there’s no need to name and shame; they know who they are and, if you have an email account, so do you) have more and more often taken to sending unsolicited promotional and editorial emails to hundreds of Vanuatu addresses.
Regardless of their good intentions, these companies and individuals are spamming. In other countries, it would be illegal. Here, it’s a nuisance for virtually all involved.
Before I go on, I need to emphasise that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the idea of promoting one’s business via email. It’s a core marketing practice for virtually all businesses with ready access to the Internet. The problem here is not what these people are doing; the problem lies in how they go about it.
The Devil, I often say, is in the details, and IT consists entirely of details. So bear with me as I walk through a few small but critical details that make all the difference in the world between a friendly email that will likely be welcomed and what we all know as spam (and a few other unprintable terms as well)….
When you send an email with a lot of people listed in the TO or the CC field, anyone who can see the email can see the address of all the other recipients. Not a problem, you might think; Port Vila’s a small town, and we’re all friends here. That’s true enough, but we’re not the only ones who can see the distribution list. Virus- and bot-infected computers quite commonly ‘harvest’ addresses by trawling through people’s inboxes.
Human scammers can take advantage of this information, too. In one notable recent case, someone pretending to be a ni-Vanuatu man trapped in London without funds sent around an email asking for money. As far as I can tell, no one was fooled – this time.
On more than one occasion in the past, I’ve seen these mass circulation emails descend into online chaos. One person clicks the Reply To All button and says, ‘please stop sending these’. Within a few minutes, a few others pipe up and say, ‘Me too!’. Before too long, what began as one unwelcome email has become a maelstrom of online ‘noise’. Between those replying to all asking to be removed from the distribution list, others lecturing them on proper online behaviour (or ‘netiquette’), and still others telling everyone else to shut up and leave them alone, everyone’s inbox becomes polluted with useless, irrelevant messages and angry, increasingly belligerent replies.
It goes without saying that none of us would ever want our name associated with this kind of situation.
There’s a world of difference between a loud party at a neighbour’s house and a loud party at a neighbour’s house… that you’re attending. The difference, of course, is choice. If you choose to receive promotional emails, then you hardly have any cause to complain if they arrive. In fact, one would expect you’d be glad of them.
If you have not chosen to receive these emails, though, they can seem pretty darn intrusive if they distract you from more important correspondence.
During an online discussion of local spam, one local vendor complained bitterly that he couldn’t use his own distribution lists, consisting entirely of clients who had voluntarily signed up for his notices, because TVL was blocking him for spamming.
The problem here was unfortunate, but understandable: TVL has no choice but to take administrative steps to shield its customers from abusive spammers, but sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between legitimate email behaviour and illegitimate. Mass circulation spam is so common these days that it’s hardly surprising if TVL, in its zeal to provide a reasonable and enjoyable Internet service, occasionally blocks the good with the bad.
The local business houses and individuals who spam have effectively ruined things for the rest of the community who do occasionally circulate email to a large local audience.
Port Vila is a small town, and circulating email is a timely and effective way to get in touch with many in the community. But if you’re thinking about doing so, either to promote a cause or your business, you really do need to get professional assistance with this.
It might seem simpler and more efficient to simply blast out messages at everone in your address book, but you really do need to think twice before proceeding. Before you do, imagine you’re sitting in a jam-packed movie theatre, at the very best part of the very best film, and then ask yourself what it would take to make you jump up and start shouting to everyone in the theatre.
That is what spam looks like to the rest of us.
It may look like spam works, but appearances can deceive. When you send unsolicited email to large numbers of people at a time, you may think you’re gaining business, because the only people to feed back to you are those who took no offense. Those who did take offense, on the other hand, will likely never talk to you again.
They do, on the other hand, talk to me. I’m writing this column at the urging of numerous individuals and local organisations.
You may not think your spamming is hurting you. I’m here to tell you that it is.
Be a good neighbour. Stop spamming. If you want to use email to promote your business, talk to one of the several local IT services companies. They know how to do it right.