Remember Fried Green Tomatoes? One of the best scenes is where Evelyn loses the plot over a parking space – two younger women zip in and steal it from her. After trying to be polite and getting nothing but lip in return, she flips out and rams their car with her own a few times.

Evelyn: Excuse me. I was waiting for that space.
Girl #1
: Yeah, tough!
Girl #2
: Face it, lady, we’re younger and faster.
: … Towanda! (screams and smashes into the car again and again) Towaaaaanda!! Yes ma’am!
Girl #2
: what are you doing? Are you crazy?
: Face it, girls. I’m older and I have more insurance.

You can see something like this developing around a desk with a computer on it, can’t you? Guy has a really bad day at work, fight with the wife, intractable teenagers, burned dinner, and now his dog just bit him too. This dude is in a dark, bad mood, and he decides to get away from his insane family and work day, and go read his email. He powers up the machine, clicks Get Mail and then sits there aghast as his inbox floods with email. (The little deliverability angel on his shoulder could, with clucking disapproval, tell him that his email had been “shared”, and he is now enjoying what is called “co-registration” but he can’t hear her.) Hundreds of junk emails: complete this offer to win a laptop, try this free product, win an iPod, refinance your house, fix your credit, lose weight, acai berry! Somewhere, lost in the deluge of spam, are some emails he actually needs to read, and he can’t find them. He feels like his personal space has been violated, he feels powerless, and he’s really angry.

So he pulls a Towanda – calls his ISP, leaves a screamingly enraged voicemail, and then reports as spam his entire mail box content, ham along with spam. Metaphorically he just rammed that snarky girl’s car, didn’t he? He damaged his own car, yeah, but he got the brief satisfaction of having Done Something, however useless and expensive that thing ultimately turns out to be – and it was entirely useless, which means that the next time it happens to him, he’s going to get even more angry. And you know it will happen again.

Frustrated, angry people who feel powerless tend to do intemperate things, like calling ISPs and leaving mp3-worthy voicemails, reporting their entire inbox as spam, and doing blanket boycotts of the senders of the offending emails – Gevalia may be good coffee, but I will never buy any to find out! They tell their friends about it, too, and at enraged length! Never under-estimate the power of word-of-mouth, especially when fueled by outrage. They have very little control over the situation, so they will exert what they do have to the best of their ability in order to feel like they’re Doing Something, up to and including abandoning their mailboxes. ISPs don’t like it when that happens.

I try to avoid the “so what do you do for a living?” conversation, but inevitably it happens…and when people find out what I do, I am often treated to a frothing diatribe about spam, and frequently also get desperate pleas for help even if they don’t use the ISP I work for.

The only way I can truly help them is to do my job to the very best of my ability, and that means finding new and better ways of separating the spam from the ham in the streams of commercial mail, and blocking more of it. The ISPs have spent the last few years focusing heavily on botnet spam, and things of that nature. I wouldn’t presume to say that the problem is solved, but we do have a pretty solid handle on mitigation, and now we can look around at what else is happening. What I see happening are myriad permutations of the scene I described to you just now – there are so many other ways other than co-reg to abuse a recipient.

Do you think that man has warm fuzzy feelings about his inbox? About his ISP, or the people that sent him the mail? I’d say the answer is a resounding NO on all three counts.

My job as I perceive it, is to fix the first two counts. We want happy users. Hm.

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