It used to be a very clear line between what was considered spam and what was not.
Things have changed over the course of the past decade. I'm with the Wikipedia definition of spam: "to send unsolicited bulk messages indiscriminately," but I would now willingly remove the words "bulk messages" and change it to just "messages." The sheer volume of spam is staggering. I'm not just talking about the ridiculous requests from Nairobi sheiks who wish to give you millions of dollars or creams that are guaranteed to correct any form of erectile dysfunction. A few weeks back, Sanford Wallace (aka Spam King) was accused of mass spamming on Facebook (more on that here: USA Today - Las Vegas man accused of mass spamming on Facebook).
Is nothing sacred?
Spam is most irritating not because it clogs up every channel of communication and not because it is clearly a speed bump in everyone's productivity. Spam is most irritating because it gets lumped into marketing. Spam is not marketing. Much in the same way that shoplifting is not shopping. I get frustrated (beyond words), when the media portrays spammers as marketers. Then again, Marketing has not done a great job of distancing ourselves from these types of people. At the end of the day, there are many people who consider the advertising part of the marketing industry a spamming engine unto itself. If people can't place their shoes in the bin at the airport or take a pee without being exposed to an ad, it's hard for us Marketers to argue that spamming is not some kind of bastard step-child, isn't it?
We do it to ourselves.
There's no shortage of articles and conversations about visual pollution and advertising (see The Economist from 2007: Visual pollution), but when it comes to spam, we're talking about a hybrid of both marketing and communications. I often say that I used to be a Journalist, but the truth is that between the Blog and Podcast and my columns in places like The Huffington Post, Vancouver Sun and Montreal Gazette, I still get treated like a Journalist by many public relations and communications professionals. The results of these interactions are often appalling (this is only augmented by the fact that I have spent some time working in a PR agency, so I've been on both sides of the equation). In the end, they're spamming me to death. Just this week, I've received multiple lame press release pitches that were either immediately deleted or sent to my junk mail folder only to have these communication professionals re-email me with a follow-up to see what I thought of their initial spam. On multiple occasions, the follow-up emails included PDF attachments and more (as if a PDF press release or picture of their thingamajig was what was holding the big story back). I've even had instances where their spam messages are "recalled" by the sender (with an email message being sent to notify me of their "error) and then the "corrected" version is sent later in the day.
All without permission.
In February 2009, I published a Blog post titled, Attention PR People: Here's How To Pitch A Writer. While some considered that Blog post to be a little harsh (check out the comments!), I stand behind each and every point. If you're sending a message to anyone in any of the communications channels that we all have at our fingertips, and you have not received my permission to communicate or reached out in an earnest attempt to create rapport and gauge my interest in the work you're doing, you are spamming. Too harsh? Possibly. But now that every channel has become a spamming mechanism, maybe we need to reverse course and get overly rigid in what types of communications are really "fair game." Perhaps by getting this serious about what constitutes spam, it will force the Marketing, Communications and yes, even the real, nasty and evil spammers, to think differently about hitting that send button, messaging people on Facebook, blasting out tweets on Twitter... and more. In the time it takes to be annoying, you can use that same amount of time to make your marketing and communications moment shine.
Why waste it?