Email spam is a scourge upon humanity. Not only does it steal our valuable and limited time away from more important or fun tasks, but it also costs untold billions of dollars in terms of bandwidth, and very often it's downright offensive. A pox on it and they who send it!
I don't claim to be an expert in the area of eliminating email spam, but I have all but eliminated the scourge of spam in my life and I have 8 separate email addresses, all of which are published on the web in various places so they've all been picked up by email spammers.
What follows is a brief history of my attempts to eliminate spam and my eventual solution of choice.
In the Beginning: Visual Scan
In the beginning, around 1997 to 1999, it was my practice to download all my emails into my desktop email client (remember Eudora?). After downloading all the email, I would simply perform a visual scan and try to pick the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. This took a lot of time and was prone to errors, both in terms of missing real emails and accidentally opening potentially disgusting or harmful spam. At the height of this method of de-spamming my email, I was receiving and visually scanning through 1,500 or more emails per day, 95% of which was spam. It was exhausting!
The Middle Ages: Smart filters, baby!
Somewhere around 2000 or 2001, I started using a Bayesian filter to train my email program to filter out the spam. This seemed to work fairly well, but there was still a lot of manual work involved because I had to train the filter to recognize spammy words. After a few months, the filter was catching probably 80% to 90% of the spam, but still, it was time consuming because I had to check the stuff marked as spam to make sure it wasn't accidentally deleting good stuff. Also, I still had to download all the email onto my PC which I didn't like.
Modern Era: Let someone else do it!
In April of 2005 I started using Google Gmail, but not by choice. Gmail was forced upon me when I agreed to provide customer support for another web developer who used Gmail in lieu of a typical support desk ticketing system.
I found Gmail downright unintuitive and I really bridled when confronted by its atypical interface. Slowly, however, with continued use, I began to appreciate the genius of Gmail: the uber-fast search capabilities and the grouping of related emails together into conversations were just two of many features I really started to love. But I'll leave the explanation of those myriad productivity-enhancing features of Gmail for another blog post on another day. What I want to focus on today is Gmail's ability to take spam out of my life, and yours.
Die Spam Die
Luckily, for all of us, the big brains at Google took their amazing web content search filtering algorithm-y and applied it to the never-ending torrent of emails that flood into our inboxes.
How it works, I have no idea, but it works ... and, frankly, I don't care how it works, it just does. Today, with Gmail, I rarely see spam in my inbox.So why isn't everybody using it? I mean, we all hate spam, right? and Gmail really does eliminate it from your day with virtually no work on our part, and it's free to use, so what's the deal?
Resistance is Futile?
It's Different: The prime reason, I believe, people resist Gmail is that it's not what they are used to. As I admitted above, I would've quit using it if I hadn't been forced to stick with it.
Most people use a desktop email client like Microsoft Outlook or Mozilla's Thunderbird. Both Outlook and Thunderbird are traditional email clients that allow you to download your emails to your PC and sort messages into folders. Gmail, at least at first, didn't have folders and this put a lot of people off. Instead, Gmail uses labels which eliminates the need for folders, but most people (and that includes me) can't wrap their heads around labels. Perhaps it's our PC-file-directory-tree-preconditioning, but we need to be able to see our comfy little folders in the sidebar, which Gmail didn't have.
Thankfully, the folks at Google created a way for users who like folders (like me) to drag-and-drop emails into the various labels which now stay visible in the left sidebar giving it the same functional feel as email clients that have traditional folders.
Company Rules: Any company with an IT department usually mandates what email client the staff can and cannot use. In most cases, this is, for better or worse, Microsoft Outlook connected to a Microsoft Exchange server. This has the benefit of allowing staffers to not only get their email, but also share documents and schedules. Once again, Gmail did not, at first, have this capacity, but it does now with its Google Apps.
Google Apps is the premium pay-version of Gmail that comes with all sorts of other office productivity software and advanced features. You don't, however, have to buy the premium Google Apps to get spam filtering goodness. Good ol' regular free Gmail has all the same spam filtering abilities as Google Apps.
Fear of the Cloud: Many people fear the idea of all their emails being "out there" on the so-called cloud and not safely downloaded and tucked away on their PC's hard drive. In all reality, email stored on a personal computer's hard drive is probably less safe than it is on the cloud, but try telling that to the Luddites. Fact is, your computer's hard drive is a single point of failure whereas the cloud has multiple reduncies built in to protect your data. If your PC hard drive fails, or your PC gets stolen, then what? Right, you're screwed. I'm not saying that there's zero chance that the cloud won't make me a liar, but it's less likely it'll fail than is the liklihood of your PC failing or getting stolen.
And what about access, hmmm? I went to another country on holiday a couple years back and I didn't bother taking my PC because the house I stayed at had a computer with Internet access. I took a thumbdrive with a portable version of Firefox and did all my emailing from that and had access to all my email history to boot. Try that with your home or business computer. Not gonna happen.
But what if you really want that safe and secure feeling of having local copies of all your email. Fear not, Gmail has an offline mode that will, if you set it up, mirror all your emails on your PC's hard drive and will keep syncing it up as new emails arrive. In other words, if the entire Internet goes down, you'll have local copies of all your emails and can still refer to them. Cool!
Gmail addresses look unprofessional: This is the number one reason my clients give for not wanting to use Gmail, be it the free version or the premium Google Apps version. Fact is, I use the regular free Gmail for 8 email accounts and no one is the wiser that I'm using Gmail.
Bottom line: I get all of Gmail's high-powered spam filtering, plus I get all of Gmail's fantastic email searching and labeling features, and I get to maintain my professional-looking email address. And I don't fear losing my emails, or not having access to them because the Intertubes are clogged because I use the offline mirroring feature which maintains local copies of all my emails on my hard drive. Oh, and I get access to my emails and get to send emails from any computer or phone connected to the Internet.
What's not to love?
Can't say it much clearer than this: if you find yourself drowning in spam, forget filters, blacklists, whitelists, and assassins, make the move to Gmail and you won't have to bother with it anymore. If you really feel the need to "do" something about reducing the world's spam, you can always click the "report spam" button in Gmail when that lone spam per week gets through to your inbox.