Thursday, 27 September 2012

Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam...

A couple of weeks ago a disconcertingly irate email popped into the inbox I run on behalf of a writers' group that I chair. The email had been sent by the organiser of a poetry competition based in another part of the UK. And I have to admit I was rather taken aback by it.

What had prompted this outpouring of vitriol, you may ask? Well, my feelings on poetry competitions are well known, and I have been heard to say quite scathing things about some of them. But this wasn't the reason for my correspondent's ire. After all, I occasionally judge poetry competitions myself. I know the trials and tribulations of the competition circuit, and I take my hat off to those dedicated folk who give up their time and energy in promoting their art.

Was he, by chance, a disgruntled poet whose work I'd slighted in a previous competition? No, that wasn’t it either. Besides, it's rare for work that comes in to any competition to get 'slighted'. Poetry competition judging is at least partly subjective. A piece that doesn't make the shortlist for me could still be a prize winner to a different judge, in a different competition.

No, the crime for which I was denounced was this: I had politely declined to forward an unsolicited email advertising this gentleman's competition. Apparently, to refuse to do so was (and I quote) "daft".

A part of me can understand this gentleman's frustration. Competition organisers put a lot of time and energy into promoting their competitions – and many do it for nothing. It's always heartening when someone offers to do that little bit extra to help you promote what you're doing. But what really irked me about this guy's response was that he seemed to think he had a right to DEMAND that I (and no doubt the many other organisers of writing groups to whom he'd sent the same email) drop everything and do as he asked. That I make no enquiries as to the bona fides of his email or of the competition. And that I blithely spam it out to everybody on my mailing list – many of whom would have no interest in it.

My writers' group, as I tried to explain, has a policy of not forwarding unsolicited email. This is purely a matter of 'netiquette'. I want to make sure that any emails which go out under the auspices of our group are actually useful to everyone in the group. The minute I start forwarding everything that comes to the group inbox, our own mail-outs get devalued, and people will stop reading them. I'd rather our members got one or two good emails a month, than five or six a day of dubious quality and questionable relevance.

Finally, and probably most importantly of all, I just don't have the time. Maintaining an internet presence on behalf of the group is a labour intensive operation. If I were to quality-control every unsolicited email that came in, earmark every one that looked genuine, and forward these to only those members of the group to whom they might be relevant, I'd be emailing all day. I'd have precious little time left for real-world tasks like earning a living – or even doing any writing of my own! Does this guy think I'm surgically attached to my computer keyboard, and have nothing better to do?

As a competition organiser, I've sent a few unsolicited emails, too. I've no idea how many of them were ever forwarded. Of course I'm grateful to those who took the trouble to look at what I'd sent, think about it, and considerately pass it on. But I equally respect the decisions of those who chose not to do so. I have never asked anyone to spam on my behalf. And I have never got personally abusive towards those who may not have replied to my emails, or not forwarded them. If you really want someone to be on your side and promote what you are doing, could I tentatively suggest that haranguing them by email and calling them daft is not the way to go?

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