Why do spammers spam?

I once wrote about handling confusing or open-ended requests with the “quick-question trick”: respond swiftly to ask for some clarification and watch the requester melt away.

It’s great to have a technique for making these people vanish, but I do wonder why a request for specifics works on this kind of person like garlic or sunlight on a vampire.

  • They ignore your response despite having contacted you in the first place.
  • They ignore your response despite the fact that you’d assume a response was their hoped-for outcome.

That was how I saw it for a while, and it seemed bafflingly contradictory. Then I realised it’s more consistent than it seems.

Someone who contacts multiple people asking for something is likely to be the kind of person who contacts multiple people asking for something. People who hate asking favours and sending mass messages still do those things when it’s necessary, sure, but they make up a tiny minority of the people who do those things. The kind of person who does this is mostly pretty comfortable with it. Why? Are they really comfortable with expecting each person to spend time trying to work out what they’re being asked? Are they really comfortable with expecting each person to do the work of saying no?

The answer is partly to do with the Askers versus Guessers divide. The kind of person who emails 70 people with a badly-written block of text doesn’t actually expect each person to labour over reading it, work out what’s required and respond. That’s why they emailed 70 people when they only need two or three to help. They’re playing a numbers game, assuming most people won’t take the message seriously. But the few who do? Great. When you think that way, it’s totally consistent for you to be flaky about your own inbox. Do as you would be done by. Send out emails you expect most people to ignore, then ignore most of the messages you get yourself. Don’t get me wrong, it seems like a sub-optimal way to handle your shit, but at least it’s internally consistent.

So “They ignore your response despite having contacted you in the first place” becomes “They feel comfortable about contacting you in the first place because they’re happy to ignore emails and they figure everybody else is too.”

Likewise “They ignore your response despite the fact that you’d assume a response was their hoped-for outcome.” Yes, you’d assume they had some kind of outcome in mind. You’d assume they had some kind of plan or system, starting with monitoring responses to the request for help, then following up on those responses, providing more information, allocating tasks… Nope. They ignore your response because they did not think about outcomes at all.

Some of it is probably a pseudo-pragmatic calculation of resources; mass-contacting people or organisations takes way less time per person/organisation than responding to questions. Some of it is about being a flake, some of this is about being the kind of person who wants lots of other people’ s attention and energy without having a plan for doing anything useful with it. And some of it is about having a cheerful “throw mud at the wall and see what sticks” attitude, or a “numbers game” attitude or a “well, they can only say no!” attitude. (We’re back to Askers versus Guessers again.)

Ultimately I think it’s just about having a fundamentally different atttitude to people’s time, attention and communication. If you only ask for help very occasionally, when it’s something that’s really important to you, you’re going to take other people’s requests for help more seriously because you “know” that asking for this kind of help is something that people only do when it’s important. And you’re going to be gutted when your own requests for help are met with indifference.

Likewise, if you ask for help all the time, and you don’t put too much emotional energy into it, to the point where you can’t really be bothered to explain what you’re actually asking for, you will not  be too upset when people ignore you. And when you get requests for help, you will feel free to ignore them because you “know” that people just throw this kind of thing out there. I think you get this type of thinking in jobs like sales and recruitment, because if you agonised over each time you didn’t get what you were pushing for in those kinds of jobs, it would be very bad for your mental health.

This reading of the situation makes it seem as if the person who reads emails properly and respects other people’s time and doesn’t make unreasonable requests…well, that person basically loses. And that the winning strategy is to be the arsehole who just makes badly formulated demands in a scattergun fashion and hopes to utilise other people’s niceness to get what you want without even asking properly for it.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably in the “respect people’s time and communicate clearly” camp and this post has made you think again about how the “throw it out there” camp is trying to waste your time and energy every day. My imperfect solution is to try to identify which camp people are in and then respond accordingly. The  quick-question trick is amazingly effective for filtering out the human spammers. But mostly, you can just carry on being respectful and thoughtful and articulate.

The thing is, you don’t actually win the “numbers game” by spamming a huge number of people and then being incapable of following up on the responses. You win by actually getting what you were looking for. The scattergun approach isn’t ultimately that effective if you’re not capable of building on what you get back. Because people are not, in fact, walls to throw mud at. Making things “stick” is about relationships and respect.

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Explore posts in the same categories: anti-time-stealer hacks, conversational tactics

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