Many Internet users are doing without their indispensable e-mail as their inboxes become increasingly overrun with unwanted — and often offensive — messages. A comprehensive study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that a full 60 percent of survey respondents have reduced their e-mail usage because of spam, and 73 percent avoid giving out their e-mail addresses.

The June 2003 survey of nearly 1,400 Internet users reveals the growing frustration now associated with the communication app, particularly on personal e-mail accounts. The Pew report found that while e-mail users receive slightly more messages in their work accounts, the proportion of spam in personal accounts is higher and more time is spent dealing with the unwanted messages in personal accounts.

Work vs. Personal Daily Spam Stats
  Work Personal
10 or fewer spam messages 54% 44%
More than 50 spam messages 10% 11%
No spam at all 7% 40%
5 minutes or fewer dealing with spam 40% NA
No time dealing with spam NA 40%
Half-hour or more dealing with spam 12% 10%
Hard to get legitimate messages 55% 34%
Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project

The payoff for spammers lies in the 1 percent of recipients who give money as a response to an unsolicited commercial e-mail (UCE), the 7 percent who order a product or service, and the 4 percent who provide the personal information that is requested in the UCE — data that has become valuable currency on the Internet.

Reactions to Spam
Delete it immediately without opening 86%
Clicked "remove me" 67%
Clicked to get more information 33%
Reported UCE to e-mail provider 21%
Ordered a product or service 7%
Reported UCE to consumer or government agency 7%
Provided personal info requested in UCE 4%
Given money in response to UCE 1%
Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project

Deborah Fallows, senior research fellow at the Pew Internet & American Life Project and author of the report, believes that legislation against spam is inevitable, but a mix of methods will be needed to completely kill UCE. "That [legislation] alone won't stop the spam; it will be a combination of legislation, technology and litigation against the spammers — tipping the balance where it's harder, riskier, more awkward for spammers to operate."

Women are more affected by spam than men, particularly when the content is offensive or obscene. "The general findings are striking, but inside the data are even more disturbing details about the reactions women and parents have with pornographic spam," said Fallows. "Pornographers deserve a special place in hell as far as they are concerned."

Bothersome Aspects of Spam
  Women Men
Unsolicited nature 85% 83%
Offensive or obscene content 83% 68%
Deceptive or dishonest content 82% 77%
Potential damage to computer 81% 76%
Compromise of privacy 79% 73%
Volume of spam 78% 76%
Can't stop it 77% 74%
Time it takes to deal with spam 71% 67%
Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project

Younger Internet users are more tolerant of UCE, and veteran surfers are more sophisticated about spam, the Pew study also revealed. Nearly one-third of those aged 18-29 say spam is just part of life on the Internet and not a big deal, compared to 18 percent of those over age 30.

Fallows comments on the potential for users to become desensitized to UCE: "I think users' tolerance for spam does have a limit. I don't know where that limit is, but I don't think spam will get to the point of killing e-mail — where people will just give up. I think there will be enough pressure against spam to lower its buzz to a low enough level that people will tolerate it and calm down to where a degree of spam is just 'part of the deal.'"

On the state of tolerance, Fallows adds, "Right now, we're probably somewhere in between; it's gotten bad enough that forces (technology, legislation, litigation) are mustered to take action. But not so high that users are jumping ship. And it will likely be forced down to a lower level we can live with more easily."