After years of tweaking anti-spam filters on my personal email server, I have all but banished Nigerian dictators ads for “viagkra” from my mailbox.
But almost every week I find dozens of emails, allegedly from various friends and business colleagues, exhorting me to join every new social networking site under the sun.
As if the thicket of companies out there trying to build the next MySpace or Facebook weren’t annoying enough, each new venture seems to have gotten even more aggressive than the next in making its users crack open their email address book and launch invitations to everybody they got business cards from at a cocktail party in 1997.
The earliest social networking sites learned the hard way – by being blocked as spam and reviled by would-be customers as pests – that aggressive viral marketing can cause explosive growth, but can also blow up in your face.
Back during the dotcom days (daze?) I learned this the hard way at the legendary Internet advertising phenom, AllAdvantage.com. In 1999, after months of cursing the volume of AllAdvantage spam I was receiving, I was contacted by executives from the company to help them clean up the mess they’d gotten themselves into.
I was presented with the challenge of solving what turned out to be a disaster of their own making: to encourage people to invite their friends and family to join the service, each user was given an incentive.
This kind of incentive-based viral marketing takes the natural tendency of viral activities to spread through communities of common interests and supercharged it with a profit motive. It worked fabulously: 0 to more than 10 million users in 18 months.
Unfortunately, for most of the first 6 months or so, AllAdvantage couldn’t get any email delivered because spam filters all over the Internet were blocking anything that even smelled remotely like a pitch for the company.
As it turned out, the solution to the AllAdvantage spam problem could be found in the very same value proposition that drove sign-ups: if someone generated too many complaints about spam, their account would be terminated and they would lose the fruits of all their efforts.
This threat was enough to keep all but the greediest (and dumbest) people from casting their net too far beyond their circle of friends, family, and others less inclined to file complaints about zealous over-promotion.
Unfortunately, when it comes to today’s social networking spam, there are several elements that make it more difficult to deter.
First, the service itself is the benefit, so there’s usually not a more tangible profit motive involved. People usually aren’t receiving some additional benefit for each member they sign-up, therefore there’s nothing to take away from them that would cause enough pain to deter misbehavior.
Second, in the “good old days,” spamming took a lot more effort. Flash forward to today and it’s the social networking companies themselves who have built various widgets and applications that allow you to instantaneously extract the contents of your email address book and spam.
Third, and perhaps most infuriatingly, some of the business models of the biggest social networks, such as MySpace and Facebook, include financial incentives to those companies to allow third-parties to use their platform for spamming. For example, untold numbers of third-party Facebook applications make it nearly impossible to use the feature without spamming some number of your friends with invitations to try out their ad-supported service.
To their credit, Facebook seems to be cracking down on applications that force you to spam your friends in order to see the results of a movie trivia quiz or to find out which Bjork song your life most resembles. (In case you wondered, I am most like her new song “Declare Independence.”)
But too many upstart social networks are going to have to learn the hard way that sometimes the path towards the hyper-growth that they so fervently wish for is strewn with the wrecked business plans of dozens of previous ventures who failed to reach a balance between sustainable, well-behaved growth and the kind of explosive growth that leaves nothing but a crater and some oily residue.
In the meantime, for all of those who are sick and tired of a zillion social networking invitations, remember that in most cases you are the master of your own destiny. Not every new social network, or application therein, is worth spamming your friends about.
If we all exercise a little restraint, perhaps we can save our favorite fledgling communities from their own worst traits.