Brodsky: A call for spam reform

Generally, I have a lot of confidence in the invisible hand. Even though my conservative dad calls me Comrade Brodsky (I voted for Obama), I am generally happily surprised by our world’s ability to regulate itself — economically or otherwise. Overwhelming majorities in Congress tend to result in dissatisfaction with the reigning party, and so the system tends toward moderation. Our campus swings along the spectrum spanning the overly politically correct to the offensive, each side pushing back when we deviate too far from a healthy medium.

Tragically, it seems there is one issue we cannot manage alone: e-mail spam. The Invisible Hand of the Inbox has failed. We need to call in Comrade Levin.

Most of us would agree that students receive too many e-mails about random events they will never attend. I am not talking about the messages from all the parties of the Yale Political Union that seemed like such a good idea during Bulldog Days. The real perpetrators are those who send blind carbon copies to every panlist they’ve ever been on, and the many who have programs to cull e-mails from Yale Facebook.

Now, I’ll admit I am one of the greatest criminals. My intentions are good, I promise. I genuinely believe everyone should come to see the WORD performance poetry show and do a Moment of Service with Dwight Hall. The problem, of course, is that everyone thinks their cause is worthy of 10 seconds of your day.

We are stuck with a quintessential collective action problem. The volume of e-mail means each piece commands less of your attention, which, in turn drives spammers to attack even more aggressively. While sometimes this means more colorful e-mail, usually it just means more junk.

While social invisible hands can often regulate problems of conflicting social goods to our collective benefit, here we have failed: To cut down on inbox mass with minimum effort, we categorically dismiss all common types of e-mails, rather than exerting social pressure to stop e-mails from unworthy causes.

For instance, I received an e-mail — addressed to “close friends/Yale community — from someone who wanted every undergraduate student at Yale College to know that the next day was his friend’s birthday (hope it was great, Stanley Seiden ’10). Though cute, this is generally not a smart way to use Webmail — but most of us do not like our friends quite enough to press send. Thus by allowing such a message, we do not risk thousands more and, as a result, do nothing to discourage the practice. But we know that once we decide a cause is worthy enough to make mass emailing socially acceptable — say, opportunities to volunteer at soup kitchens —there is no limit to the well-intentioned e-mails flooding our inboxes.

The result? Student groups who send e-mails for worthwhile events receive far more negative pressure to stop e-mailing than the guy whose friend’s birthday is tomorrow. And Cullen, my friend who lives directly under me, has set up his server to automatically forward my e-mails to his trash.

Unfortunately, Yale’s Information Technology Services staff offers no help. While Yale does use basic software to keep out the more threatening spammers — the Nigerian princes who would like you to have all their money — there is no real mechanism in place to keep out student-driven spam (no matter what the fancy flowcharts on the ITS Web site claim). And ITS policy also states that “misusing e-mail lists” and spamming are against Webmail policy and are punishable by disciplinary action. This sort of policing is probably unrealistic.

ITS needs to take a more active role in regulating spam by setting up a notification system that alerts the administration to e-mail accounts used excessively during multiple short-periods of time. Before it cracks-down, however, it should first grant certain student organizations the ability to send campus-wide e-mails as the YCC does with its special, supersecret panlist that reaches the entire student body. Weekly campus-wide performance and service e-mails including all relevant student groups’ messages would allow all of us to hear about the cool things going on around us in one condensed form, which means happier inboxes and more students actually reading about the events.

Countrymen, our system has failed. Let us start the spamming revolution.

Alexandra Brodsky is a sophomore in Davenport College.

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