The Spam we love to read

You have 3 notifications.

I have the bad habit of reaching for my phone the very instant I wake up. I start straight with emails, where I get replies from coworkers or companies I work with. They respond to my emails from the evening before, ask for status reports, or schedule meetings. I read and respond from bed before starting my day. But last week, I realized something that has gone unnoticed for a while. I had no new emails from my coworkers, but my screen was full of unread messages. In fact, I had read all messages that mattered, yet there were more in my inbox. I pulled the left navigation and looked at my spam folder. It was empty.

It's not only with Gmail, my Yahoo Mail spam folder is also empty. My Hotmail only has a couple. Not only we have defeated spam emails, now they don't even reach our spam folder. They are annihilated into oblivion before they get any of our attention. Children are born today, never knowing what it was like to combat spam. I'm here to remind you that spam wasn't just an annoyance, it made your email unusable.

In the previous century, I had dozens of emails and lost many along the way. I learned things the hard way. If you shared your email with the wrong website, they'd flood you with messages until your email became unusable. There was no way to unsubscribe because, well no one was required to offer it. Marking unwanted stuff as spam didn't guarantee you wouldn't get more spam. At first, I abandoned those emails. But then I realized that I could use them to test if any service is legit. Call it my personal stash of temp emails.

But my surprise is not that we have defeated spam today. It's that after I read all of my emails, there are still some that are lurking in the inbox. They are the twitter updates, Facebook updates, Amazon messages, the credit card offer from my bank, the Soundcloud update from the account I haven't used in 3 years. Some are from Trello, others from Jira, and they are here to tell me I can upgrade my account. Another one is from Dropbox, where it tells me not to delete files to save space, I should upgrade instead. Some are from Spectrum asking me to sign up for their bundle services. And many more.

If you are one of those smart people who navigate to each of those services settings and uncheck the email notification box, you are still not spared. The apps on your phone are here to fill that gap.

Maybe it is just me, but seeing a red dot on the top corner of an app causes a psychological thrill. I have an urge to open and check it right away.

A few months ago, there was an ad on a billboard screen close to where I live, right behind a traffic light. Every time I stopped at the red light, the screen changed to an ad that said "Better left unread, then dead." The advertisement is supposed to remind us not to check our phones while driving. But, in the top right corner of the ad, there is a messaging icon and on top of it, a red dot. Just like the one we have on our phones. Every time I drive to that light, I have this sudden urge to check my phone.

Better left unread billboard

We have closed the flood gates of spam emails, only to open a torrent of notifications. And they are even more invasive. Where spam email used to entirely in your email, notification spam can reach you anywhere. Notification spam comes both to your email and your phone. Duolingo wants to remind you of your daily lesson. Uber has a 20% discount this week only (every week), and they let you know both through email and push notification. The same goes for Lyft. Messenger is permanently placed in your notification bar. Google randomly asks you to check in.

In the middle of a conversation with another person, you see them zoning out for an instant. It's not that they are ignoring you, but you see a little light blinking on their phone. They don't excuse themselves, they just stealthily lower their eyes to read the notification while you are still talking. It's not that they are bored of you and have another more interesting friend on the phone. It's that twitter decided that this was the right time to let them know that a celebrity they follow has tweeted.

Every website you visit today asks you to enable notifications. Every app sends you a notification if you don't use it for X amount of time. Every marketing blog tells you that an email list is gold. And all the while, we are getting addicted to that little red dot on the corner of your favorite app.

Spam isn't dead, it merely changed its appearance. Now, it wears a beautiful red dress, and we are addicted to it.


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For my eyes only