The tragedy of the commons is a well-recognized break-down in any free-market. To summarize brutally, any resource held in common ownership will tend to be overused. You don't have to go further than your own kindergarten experience to know that you eat the candy shared by the whole classroom before you eat what you brought for yourself. Well, candy is pretty straight-forward, but some resources are renewable if husbanded carefully (the name comes from common grazing grounds for sheep). Over-use will destroy the resource, but since nobody owns it, nobody has any incentive to cut back and a very real incentive to use the free resource while it lasts.
I bring this up because I often see spam presented as a tragedy of the commons--the common being internet use, first email, but recently blog comments and trackbacks. In other words, the internet is a shared resource prone to over-use. I think this is a flawed diagnosis and leads us to ineffective corrective action.
Not a Commons
The first problem is that spam doesn't use a common resource. Somebody owns the emailbox and the blog posts that are being high-jacked for selfish purposes. Trackbacks and comments are a way to build community and are for the use of that community. Co-opting the community space for unrelated adverts just because you can is the equivalent of someone burning down the commons because they want to roast marshmallows.
The second is a bit more wobbly because it involves a judgement. Since it is, in this case, my judgement I'm okay with that. The reason the usage of a commons is a tragedy is that two goods cannot be satisfied simultaneously--you cannot open the commons to community grazing and have a healthy commons. Spammers serve no useful purpose. Spammers are parasites on the stupid, playing the long-odds because their costs are so low they can afford a business plan that consists of fractions of a percent response rates. I know five-year-olds who know better than to believe any claim presented in all lower-case. Spam exists because standard marketing methods--methods that are, make no mistake, fifty million times more effective--won't work for their products. And that's assuming any of the spam actually leads to product changing hands.
Not Giving Up
Unfortunately, discussions about spam seem to me to have a certain sense of doom and the inevitability of eventual defeat to them. It's like we've given up because solving the problem is simply too hard. Yes, the evil is large, but the fight is worth it. That's my paladin side. Here's my rabid part:
Things to do about spam
- Support those who are fighting the technical side of this battle. Bayesian filtering techniques are a good start and other technical hurdles are being put in place to weed out the college boys and also-rans. This is a good thing. If you are being annoyed by spam, look for and implement the solutions other smart people are creating to fight the menace.
- Mock anyone stupid enough to fall for the snake-oil. Seriously, with response rates that low, every denied sale is a win. People too old or too young to know any better should probably be, kindly, escorted to more age-appropriate activities. Anyone stupid enough to go from receiving spam to sending someone money probably shouldn't be allowed near electricity.
- Advocate laws with some real teeth in them. I'm not talking the useless piece of crap I have to put up with here in Utah*. I'm talking something with maybe a geometric fine structure--i.e. $1 for first email, $5 for second, $5 million for every one after that. Or real drug-dealer-type jail time. Or any of my previous ideas if you think they're feasible (probably not).
- Look for opportunities to hit back. I have to be careful here, because I'm not talking about physical violence (necessarily). I'm talking about learning who they are, what they do, and applying your own creativity to how to go about hurting them.
- And finally, if you ever actually learn the identity of a spammer, don't hold back--within legal limitations, of course. Let them know what hard-working, honest folk think of scum-sucking parasites like they are. Be colorful (and complete) in your own personal idiom. Make them fear exposure like those perverts being caught on camera making appointments with 13-year-olds. Fear is healthy--particularly for fart-weasels like these.
I'm honestly not plugging to become Mr. Angry or anything (though I can go into a good rant now and then). I have just come to despise the total waste of skin embodied by these leeches and want them to die in screaming balls of metallic wreckage.
*summary of Utah's "anti"-spam law: small-claims court, $12 per spam. note: it costs $40 to place a small-claim--potentially recoverable as damages, but that's a bet with long odds...