Spam is hateful stuff. It clogs up my email inbox. I have to scan that inbox and deal with it. I have to scan my spambox in case something meaningful accidentally ended up there. Despite the best efforts of my mail service, spam is both a time waster and deeply annoying, not least because it forces me occasionally to dwell on human greed and gullibility.
Email newsletters are wonderful. The best of them alert me to things I want to know about and make it easy to decide whether to follow up. Some go too far, but I can always unsubscribe. And if you have things to communicate, email newsletters delivered to subscribers offer powerful insights about how people make use of what you send them. I often suggest to clients that a good email newsletter can be the cornerstone of their communications.
You can see where this is going.
For the past few days, I have been a human email bot, but one with a brain. It all started when a client gave me a spreadsheet of about 1700 contacts collected over the years and in different ways. "About" 1700 because there were duplicates and some of the spreadsheet cells contained more than one email address. No problem. I'll just upload the list to my preferred mailing list manager1 and let them sort it out. Their list handling is, for the record, brilliant. But of course the mailing list manager doesn't want to be branded as a spammer. So part of its brilliant list handling is to check the addresses against what is presumably a very, very large database of email addresses that for one reason or another are not functional, and at that, it politely told me to sod off. My list was going nowhere. It did, however, offer a very helpful set of suggestions, which boiled down to: use another sender to email everyone on the list offering them the opportunity to opt in and subscribe to the newsletter in question.2
OK. Makes sense. Of course, rather than spend days trying to figure out how to automate the process of creating about 1700 individually addressed but nevertheless identical emails I just created 17 chunks and pasted them into the Bcc field and clicked send. Bad idea.3 Now my mail service thought I was a spammer. They restrict ordinary accounts to no more than 100 emails an hour, and one email to 100 people hits that limit.
It wasn't too bad, making 19 chunks (to allow myself some freedom to email as needed) and doing the old cut and paste shuffle, writing myself little notes as to when I could send out the next batch, waiting for the inevitable undelivered messages and hoovering up the offending email addresses into a new file. My brain decided to leave addresses with full mailboxes or out of office messages to survive. Of the 1700 I sent out, around 40% came back dead. That's high, I reckon. And about 10% of the live emails have signed up. That's also high, I reckon. And rather than human greed and gullibility, I thought about how hard it is actually to maintain a mailing list by hand, and about how glad I am not to have to be a human email bot more than is absolutely necessary.
The client is happy too. We now have a good solid foundation on which to build subscriptions.
Webmentions allow conversations across the web, based on a web standard. They are a powerful building block for the decentralized social web.