Most think junk e-mail messages are a pain in the neck, the national study concludes. However, some of the responses are surprising.
By DAVE GUSSOW
Published October 23, 2003
Dennis McCarthy receives hundreds of junk e-mail messages a day at work, and he's fed up with spam.
"The thing that bothers me the most is the X-rated stuff," said McCarthy, senior vice president and chief information officer for Superior Residences, a group of assisted living facilities.
McCarthy, who works in Spring Hill, has to spend time sorting through the junk to find legitimate messages, which make up only about 10 percent of the total.
The steady stream of messages takes up valuable bandwidth for the company's Internet access, as well as system resources for its computers.
Such frustrations are shared by many others, according to a national survey released Wednesday by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Its conclusion: "Spam is beginning to undermine the integrity of e-mail and degrade life online."
Among the findings from a phone survey of 2,200 Internet users: 25 percent of U.S. e-mail users say they use e-mail less because of spam, 52 percent say it has diminished their trust in e-mail, 75 percent are unhappy that they can't stop it, and 70 percent say it has made being online unpleasant or annoying.
But the survey has some seeming contradictions: 59 percent say spam is "annoying but not a big problem," 40 percent of e-mail users spend less than five minutes a day handling it, and 40 percent of people at work get no spam at all.
"It's a real interesting kind of counterplay," said Deborah Fallows, a senior research fellow at Pew and author of the report. "When it gets right down to it, people are disgusted, offended, etc., by the spam, but they have perspective on it."
And here's a clue about why spam continues to grow, now making up about half of all e-mail sent: 7 percent of the respondents said they had bought products and services through e-mails, although the survey indicated that not all those messages may have been unsolicited junk mail. That's because users have what Fallows calls "a fuzzy definition" of what spam is, and some may have been from businesses the users frequent.
It takes only one response out of 100,000 messages sent for the spammer to make money.
Messages with pornographic content have been the target of many complaints, with 76 percent objecting to offensive messages. The survey found that porn messages are more of a problem at home than at work.
But McCarthy says it's a problem in his office, where it's easy for others to see his computer screen. "It goes beyond discomfort," McCarthy said. "I just don't want to do that to people."
Despite the gloomy tone of the report, Fallows said she thinks spam will eventually be corraled by a combination of technology, legislation and user awareness, which "are all convening so the balance will tip against the spammers. Right now, they have control."