This column will save your life: Spam - is email only the start?

Until quite recently, the received wisdom was that spam might one day kill email – that civilisation might drown in a rising tide of stock tips, advertisements for V!@gra, and scams involving embezzled money "in the sum of 40m US dollars". It isn't turning out that way, though. Spam now accounts for 97% of email, by Microsoft's estimate, yet thanks to spam filters and the ceaseless efforts of activists, the unthinkable has happened: for me, anyway, it's now a pleasurable distraction to check my spam folder for the latest antics of Mountainous A Fumigated, Vermin O Trucker and Barrister John Gary of England, who always seems to be emailing from JFK airport, where my "funds package" is ready for collection. Spam, in short, isn't really a problem.

Or so I thought before I encountered a troublingly accurate insight from Jason Fried, of the forward-thinking software firm 37Signals: spam is a way of thinking about life. Unsolicited email is only its most acute expression. "Spam is just throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall to see what sticks," he told me. "It's not really communicating. It's harassing a large number of people to see if anyone responds." (He explores such ideas in Rework, a new book on work culture, co-written with David Heinemeier Hansson.) Spam flourishes because of a radical asymmetry: since it costs nothing to send millions of messages, a tiny response rate is fine; the irritation of countless others is irrelevant. The effort of distinguishing between willing and unwilling recipients is eliminated. Or, more accurately, it's outsourced: we, the recipients, aided by spam filters, have to do it.

Seen this way, all sorts of daily annoyances suddenly appear spam-like. As Fried notes, business life is full of examples: generic press releases are spam – oh, my God, are they spam – and so is firing off an identical CV to 300 employers, thereby informing each one you don't care about their specific job. Junk mail is spam, obviously. But isn't most advertising in public spaces, too? A scary thought for journalists: is mass media inherently spammish? Perhaps it's only slightly overstretching the metaphor to suggest it's possible to spam friendships, too, by failing to tailor your contribution to the person involved.

The underlying point is about effort: even if I do want what you're selling, there's something about you exerting no effort to seek me out, specifically, that corrupts the transaction. Sacrifice matters. Just as a gift doesn't mean much if it costs the giver little in money or time, nothing sours me on a commercial exchange, or a social one, than the feeling the other party can't be bothered. That great lie, "your call is important to us", writes Laura Penny in her book of the same name, "best exemplifies the properties native to bullshit. It tries to slather some nice on the result of a simple ratio: your time versus some company's dough. Like most bullshit, the more times you hear it, the bullshittier it gets." I confess I even feel this about self-service checkouts at Tesco: if they can't be bothered to pay enough people to staff the tills, I resent shopping there.

One upside of this is the truism, seemingly supported by studies on the psychology of giving, that when you do put in the effort, it cheers the giver at least as much as the receiver. So there's my appeal to the spammer behind Mountainous A Fumigated: speak to me personally. You'll be happier that way.

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