Media Perspective: Spam's not cheap when you consider all the hidden costs

The most annoying thing about spam is that it works. For someone, somewhere, that millionth e-mail brings them exactly the information, the offer or the enlargement they're looking for and they click on it with pleasure: delighted that a smartly target message has sought them out and delivered them salvation.

Of course, it takes billions of random e-mails to get that result, but the spammer doesn't mind. Spam's so cheap, that a tiny, tiny strike-rate will return ample rewards. And that's fine and dandy, except that it's only cheap for the spammer. It's massively expensive for the rest of us, for society at large.

Masses of bandwidth, money, expertise and time are thrown at the spam problem, it clogs our networks, pollutes our inboxes and wastes the time of some of our finest computer scientists.

It's just that the cost and the activity are disconnected. The spammer isn't linked to the consequences of his (and I bet they mostly are men) action.

And as soon as you start to think of spam like that, you see it everywhere you go. I see service spam at retailers all the time. I'm sure we all do. You know how you get to the counter to buy something and they try to push an enormous bar of chocolate on you for half-price, or a DVD for only £5?

I think of that as Service Spam. A numbers game that only works because they try it on so many people.

Of course, at head office, it looks like a great idea. Every now and then, someone will want a Dairy Milk as big as a gravestone and revenues will tick up a little. Job done. Shareholders happy. It's just that the transaction doesn't capture all the real costs of the activity, just like spam. No-one notices how this horrible little manipulation makes you hate that shop just a little bit more than you did before. No-one measures how the checkout person is robbed of just a little bit more dignity and pleasure in their job.

It's those poor people in the Post Office I always feel sorriest for. Clearly instructed to up-sell at every opportunity, they try to find an angle into the conversation, wondering if my purchase of airmail stamps betrays an interest in foreign parts that will one day necessitate travel insurance. This up-selling isn't free. It has real costs, in trust, in goodwill, in the strength of the relationship. It's just that those costs aren't captured and measured.

I suspect thinking about "spamminess" might be a useful filter for a modern media schedule: where so much wastage is accepted in exchange for a few useful clicks. All those untargeted eyeballs may be very, very cheap, but they're not entirely free.