Internal spam in academia is out of control
Internet historians generally agree that the first unsolicited mass email was sent in 1978 by an Arpanet user named Gary Thuerk.
At the time, Arpanet – a project of the US Advanced Research Projects Agency – was available to relatively few people and was intended for official government business only. Thuerk was a marketing manager for Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), which had headquarters in Massachusetts. He couldn’t resist the opportunity to extend DEC’s reach into West Coast markets, so he accumulated several hundred Arpanet email addresses, composed a brief message, and in one shot invited all West Coast users to a product presentation in California.
In other words, Thuerk spammed his colleagues. And many who received Thuerk’s sales pitch apparently didn’t appreciate his breach of etiquette.
I can relate to their frustration. Although my university excels in blocking external spam, internal spam is another problem altogether. Yes, spam comes in a variety of flavours, but each flavour shares common characteristics, such as being unsolicited and sent indiscriminately to numerous recipients.
Internal spam, sent by friends and colleagues working within the same organisation, may lack the predatory intent of unsolicited messages sent by the likes of bogus journals and conferences, but it belongs in roughly the same category as other unwanted mass emails. Despite its friendly appearance, internal spam is distracting and it wastes our time. When a department head sends email to all faculty and staff informing them of an upcoming meeting, that message is not spam because it provides information necessary for employees to engage in university governance. However, if the department head follows up with two reminder messages, then those reminder messages are indeed spam. Some employees may want reminders. I’m not one of them. Please take my name off your list!
Another reason to classify internal spam alongside other unwanted mass emails is that it is often sent indiscriminately. Consequently, its content is irrelevant to many employees who receive it. For example, a registrar’s office might email all faculty imploring them to submit their grades before the university’s deadline, even though many faculty may have submitted their grades already. Or an IT department might inform all users that printers on the south side of campus are offline, and then follow up an hour later to report the problem fixed, when only a small portion of the campus community would have been affected.
In this way, internal spam represents a relatively lazy form of communication. Instead of targeting specific personnel, which might require time-consuming, upfront preparation, the sender opts to carpet-bomb all users, passing the burden of wasted time to innocent bystanders. The spammers think they’re helping us, innocently believing that it is worth imposing the message on everyone if it benefits at least one person. But while some people might think that a reasonable point of view, the numbers behind that belief don’t make much sense.
Another reason for internal spam is more nefarious. With no firewall to scale, our colleagues have access to a powerful means to mass-market their pet projects. With no protective policies in place, we become easy prey.
Perhaps you think I’m making a big deal out of nothing. I've asked myself the same question. But the evidence suggests that I am right to complain.
During a recent 16-week semester, I collected every internal spam message I received. And I evaluated each message carefully using my three-part general definition of internal spam. For example, I received numerous messages outlining evolving Covid-19 policies. Those provided critical information necessary for me to do my job, so I never classified them as spam. However, I continued to receive prompts to get vaccinated even after formally submitting my vaccination status to the university. Those unwanted messages were sent indiscriminately from within the university, so I classified them as spam.
Most other spam messages were easier to identify. For example, I received a mass message advertising “tacos in the breakroom”. This was particularly unwanted because I was hours away from campus and had no opportunity to join the fun.
Like many professionals, I try to respond to email messages as quickly as possible. That forces me to keep a close eye on my inbox. As new messages arrive, my attention shifts from my current tasks to my inbox to see who needs my help. Sadly, due to internal spam, my attention was needlessly distracted 328 times during the 16-week semester. That’s a problem! It took me nearly four hours to read all 328 unwanted messages. Yeah, I timed it.
The uncomfortable truth is that my academic colleagues spam me almost every day, with Mondays being the worst. Nearly 27 per cent of the internal spam I received greeted me on a Monday, the most depressing day of the week. The spam tapered off as the week progressed, although 5 per cent of unwanted messages reached me on Saturdays and Sundays, as if to ensure I wouldn’t forget that academic work is never-ending.
Faculty and staff were the worst offenders. They sent about 31 per cent of the spam. I hate to admit that, but the data don’t lie. They were most likely to send me unwanted, unnecessary reminder messages, often to maximise attendance at extracurricular activities on campus. And after receiving mass messages, faculty and staff were likely to reply to the entire group accidentally. For example, after receiving campus updates, faculty and staff were likely to send “thank you” messages to everyone on the original distribution list. That should come as no surprise. There are many faculty and staff and it takes just one trigger-happy respondent to blast the rest with friendly fire.
Executive leaders, including the president, provost and deans, sent relatively little spam, accounting for only about 13 per cent of the total. The rest of it came in the form of university news stories (24 per cent), often unnecessary IT updates (18 per cent), and mass messages from miscellaneous offices (13 per cent), including human resources, student affairs, public health operations and others. Although these internal mass messages focused on legitimate university issues, those issues didn’t concern me, didn’t interest me, or they were issues I’d been informed of by email already.
I suspect that internal spam affects many universities, not just my own. The good news is that reasonable solutions exist, at both university and individual levels.
Universities should publish well-articulated “acceptable use” policies for mass email. These should include examples of what is and what is not appropriate use. My university, for instance, offers a “mass mailings service” that requires email messages to meet security, accessibility, and other requirements before they are approved for mass distribution.
But it is important to understand that “mass distribution” is a relative term and that a large portion of internal spam targets smaller groups, such as all faculty and staff within a college or department. At my university, all individuals with email accounts can create customised distribution lists using the university’s global address book, which features advanced search capabilities. These tools allow employees to target specific groups of individuals and to send mass mailings on their own with just a few clicks. Thus, in addition to university policies governing mass email, departments should create their own acceptable-use policies.
Regardless of the technology available, universities should limit the number of mass messages sent indiscriminately to faculty and staff. One relatively efficient option is to bundle individual messages into newsletters that employees receive via email on a specific day each week. Mass mailings of this type should include links for recipients to opt out of future distributions.
If specific messages must be sent individually, each should include a university-mandated identification label in the subject line (such as “Mass Msg”) so users can easily identify these messages for what they are (namely, internal spam) and filter them, if desired, using standard options within their email software.
Whenever possible, universities should avoid internal spam altogether. This goal can be achieved by posting information to a central repository. For example, my university’s IT department hosts a brilliant web page that continuously monitors the status of all major electronic systems and services. Unfortunately, they duplicate their efforts, and burden my inbox, by sending mass emails that contain the same information.
Another way universities can avoid internal spam is by posting updates on social media. That would allow employees to “follow” university information on their own terms. Although this might not make sense, I resent the time I waste on email spam, but I’m willing to waste about an hour each evening scrolling through social media. Universities should take advantage of that opportunity to connect with their employees.
Individuals should begin by asking themselves how they might be contributing to the problem. Do you send “friendly reminder” messages to highly credentialled adults holding full-time positions at institutions of higher learning? If so, you might want to stop that. Do you advertise obscure, extracurricular activities to the entire campus community, and then follow up several times via email hoping to maximise attendance? If so, ask yourself if another handful of bodies in attendance is worth pestering your friends and colleagues.
And when you receive a “particularly important” mass message, do you forward that message to the faculty and staff you supervise? Before you do, consider whether your subordinates received the same message already. It’s likely that they did. It is also likely that they will receive a follow-up message soon and will read about the same issue in an upcoming university newsletter. My monitoring exercise revealed that many sources regurgitate the same information, and it all ends up in my inbox.
If you haven’t been spamming others, remain vigilant, because it’s easy to turn to the dark side. Proofread mass messages before you send them. Simple mistakes will force you to send corrections to all recipients, and that will double the burden you place upon them. Be sure to understand your email software. When messages are sent to multiple users, the default response option is often “reply to all” instead of “reply” to the original sender only. That’s easy to overlook, particularly when using a smartphone with a small screen. One way to save others from making this mistake is to send mass messages to yourself while putting all the other recipients in the “Bcc” (blind carbon copy) field. Because Bcc conceals the addresses of the other recipients, an unintended “reply to all” message will make its way to the original sender only.
And please, people, don’t be lazy. When possible, target mass messages more directly. For example, if some colleagues have responded to your request for information but others have not, you should direct follow-up messages to the latter group only. Too often, spammers will thank those who have complied with a request and urge others to follow through, all within the same non-targeted mass message. That’s a disingenuous form of communication, and it punishes those who fulfilled their obligation.
Finally, victims of internal spam should consider confronting their spammers – politely, of course. When I found no easy way to opt out of future mailings, I simply contacted my colleagues and asked them to remove my email address from their distribution lists. I don’t think I hurt anyone’s feelings, and I’ve been rewarded with considerably less spam.
No matter who sends it, spam is rarely a welcome treat. Its greasy texture will stain your inbox, and its salty flavour will linger long after it’s been deleted. Although we’ve learned to coexist with external spam, we scholars need hold ourselves and our colleagues to higher standards when using email to communicate about our academic work.
Frank M. LoSchiavo is professor of psychology at Ohio University.