Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, ...

By: Steve Outing

(The following discussion might seem at first glance to be a bit off-topic, but read on. The running of mailing lists is relevant to newspapers, some of whom are beginning to operate lists as a means of creating online forums for their readers. Last Friday I reported about a list run by the Globe and Mail in Canada. And "spamming" is a problem that you will have to deal with in any form of online discussion or chat forum you may create as part of a newspaper online service.)

Among my various online activities, I operate 2 Internet mailing lists on the topic of online publishing. On one of the lists, online-news, someone recently posted -- or I should say, spammed -- a very large advertisement for discount magazine subscriptions. (A number of other lists on the Internet were targeted, also.) This did not make online-news subscribers a happy bunch. The list has a very narrow range of appropriate discussion topics; breaching the list's code of online conduct will get you flamed or worse. From my reports, I know that the person who posted the ad received a lot of nasty notes; and that one ill-considered posting generated dozens of messages posted to the list pondering what to do about "spammers."

Online-news is not a moderated list and it is open to all who want to take part. (It currently has about 1,400 subscribers from more than 30 countries.) I make no claim, as the list "owner," to control what gets onto the list -- and thus is broadcast to the email boxes of those 1,400 people. My role is not as a "moderator" as much as "administrator" -- handling subscription requests and keeping things running, and I keep discussion on topic by occasionally responding publicly and privately to off-tune postings. But if someone wants to post something inappropriate -- say an ad for general interest magazine subscriptions or something obscene -- there's nothing I can do to stop him/her before the fact.

This has not been a serious problem on online-news in the year and 8 months that the list has been operating. Occasionally, someone will spam the list, then we won't see another one for several weeks. Generally, when something inappropriate has been posted, the culprit receives a public lashing by list members -- and that's typically enough to get the person to stop.

I have chosen not to close down or restrict online-news, primarily because it is not yet much of a problem. I hope not to be forced into locking down the list to keep out all outsiders.

I could, for example, close off the list so that only subscribers could post messages to the list. But that would be easy for a "spammer" to circumvent. They simply would need to subscribe to the list, post the offending message, then unsubscribe. Meanwhile, I would have created some list administration nightmares for myself, because some legitimate members of the list would not be allowed to post since the email addresses they use are different from the address that they read the list on. (If you really care about the gory details, it's because some people receive list messages via an office LAN account, then use a private email address to reply to or post new messages to the list.)

To take it one step further, I could make the list restricted entry, where I approve subscriber requests based on what they tell me about themselves. (I do this for my other list, online-newspapers. To gain access to that list, you must send me a note telling me your professional affiliation.) For a small list like online-newspapers (500 members), that's a viable approach; but for a larger list like online-news, that's a major administrative headache. Because my lists are not a source of significant income (although I am in the process of seeking corporate sponsors), I do not have the time to handle non-automated subscription requests for online-news.

So, I rely primarily on "netiquette" to keep spammers at bay. Just as in any society there are rules of conduct that normal people live by, so too are there rules to live by in cyberspace. If you break those rules in a significant way, expect to pay the consequences: criticism in private and in public of your behavior, and -- though I don't condone this -- retaliation and revenge, in the form of mail-bombs, blank faxes or worse by technically savvy list subscribers.

Things could get worse, of course, in which case I may need to take Draconian measures to insure that the lists remain valuable resources to the online news profession. If too many spam posts get onto the list, subscribers will get fed up and drop out of the discussion. If spamming were to get out of hand, it could potentially kill the list.

There are signs, unfortunately, that spamming is about to become more of a problem for online services operators and list operators like me. Internet World's online edition reports that a fellow named Jeff Slayton charges $450 to do a spam to numerous Internet mailing lists and Usenet newsgroups. He reportedly does 30 spams a week and claims to be making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. IW reports: "In February or March of next year, he plans to open up his own site with a T1 to the Net dedicated to spamming mailing lists and newsgroups daily."

You can be sure that Slayton is not the only one out there with this get-rich-quick scheme. The problem is that as much as Internet users loathe spammers, and despite the fact that Netters have a reputation for retaliating against them, spamming is good business. Successful spammers have reported receiving significant positive response rates from email spammings, some as high as 5% orders vs. 95% flames. Typically, spammers get mail-bombed by irate ad recipients, but that's considered by spammers to be the price to pay for a response rate to an ad that's better than direct mail.

Slayton and his ilk are a threat to your online services as well as to my lists. If this problem indeed does worsen, online service operators who operate discussion or chat forums need to be prepared to do battle. Here are some suggestions:

* Run moderated forums. This solves the problem, because a person on your staff filters all submissions to the forum and posts only those messages that are appropriate. The downside, of course, is that this is a labor-intensive task that may take up a major chunk of an employees' day. And forum participants may feel like their discussion is being "censored" by an editor.

* Post rules of conduct for all discussion forum participants to see, and demand that they "Accept" the rules before allowing them to subscribe to the forums. Spammers who violate the rules can be barred from future participation.

* Have a staffer monitor all unmoderated discussions and deal with inappropriate postings after they occur, including removing from participation those who spam the forum. Occasional notes about what's appropriate and what's not by the staffer can help keep discussion on track and spammers at bay.

* Post to the list or forum a monthly reminder about the rules of conduct, and penalties for violating them.

* When someone spams your list of forum, write a note to the administrator of the site where the offending message originated. Ask that they confront the offender and (ideally) terminate his/her account. If the spam message is from, then send a message to, which will get to the right person to deal with your complaint. Most site administrators want to know when users are abusing their sites.

* Educate your advertisers. Spamming seems so easy (it is!) and cheap (it is!) that some advertisers who don't understand the online medium may be tempted to try it, without realizing the negative consequences it can have for their companies. Let them know that you do not tolerate it, and that it's a bad business decision for them.

* Establish legitimate, paid advertising slots on discussion forums. This whole discussion should not suggest that discussion forums are not appropriate advertising vehicles. In fact, they are. A beer company, for instance, might be the official sponsor of the post-game NFL chat room of your service. Since you want paid sponsors, you should do what you can to discourage spammers who want to advertise for free.

Movin' On

John Goecke has left the Baltimore Sun to become design director of @Home, the Will Hearst-TCI venture that plans to bring super-fast Internet access to your PC via cable modem.

Steve Got a tip? Let me know about it

If you have a newsworthy item about the newspaper new media business, please send me a note.

This column is written by Steve Outing and underwritten by Editor & Publisher magazine. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at


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