20 Billion Reasons Why Email Spam Is the Worst Thing Ever

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I don't know what a Zoosk is. And I don't want to. But I know it exists. Because it won't stop emailing me.


Email spam isn't just the annoying, inane and irrelevant. It's a drain on the economy too. It has what economists call negative externalities. In other words, it imposes big costs on people who aren't sending or clicking on email spam. (Although, really, who is clicking on email spam?). 

The costs might seem innocuous, but they pile up. There's the opportunity cost of time wasted sifting through junk mail. Then there's the cost of buying spam prevention software. And the cost of that software mistakenly flagging legitimate messages. Of course, all this spamming and counter-spamming means we need more computing power -- five times more server power to be exact. If you add it all up, as a pair of Google and Microsoft employees did, and it turns out that spam costs us around $20 billion a year. That's less than half as much previous estimates, but still a sizable chunk of change.

Especially compared to spam's pitiable returns. Consider that spam made up approximately 88 percent of all emails in 2010 -- and it only generated $160 to $360 million or so for spammers. Now, that's worth it for them since the marginal cost of sending out emails is negligible, but it means that spam inflicts more pain for less gain than almost anything. The chart below looks at so-called externality ratios for driving a car, stealing a car, and spam. In plain English, it looks at the social cost and divides that by the private gain.

Spam is far, far worse than auto theft. At least stealing a car turns a real profit for the thieves!

SpamEmail.png

It's official. Email spam is just about the worst thing ever. It is electronic pollution. Please make it stop. And let's start with Zoosk.
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Presented by

Matthew O'Brien

Matthew O'Brien is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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