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At what point does e-mail become spam? A 5th-grade class learns the ups and downs of the gift that keeps on giving.

Spam has been in the news again lately. Congress will try to pass the anti-spam bill it initiated last year, which applies to commercial, unsolicited e-mail. And AOL is pursuing a suit against Cyber Entertainment Network (CEN) over porn spam. But that’s not what got me thinking about it–instead, it was this headline from last Thursday’s New York Times: “Social Studies Class Finds How Far E-mail Travels.” This is the kind of story that makes you go, “Awww.” There on the page was a picture of the teacher and all her cute grade-school kids, and I was sure that I had contributed to their geography project. Then I saw the date of their campaign, which was supposed to run from December to April (halted after one month due to the overwhelming response they received). I received the e-mail at least a year ago, which means it was either a) another such class project, or b) an urban legend–i.e., spam, in some people’s eyes.

Which brings us to the question: What is spam? Like the canned meat, its specific ingredients are mysterious, but we all know it when we see it. And, also like the gelatinous pork product, it can morph right before your eyes. One day, it brings you pleasure; the next, it’s unappetizing. I didn’t mind passing along that elementary school’s e-mail. But if I got one every day, I’m positive I would just delete it. It didn’t change, but my definition of it did. Are urban legends spam? Sometimes the two appear together in one catchall page containing urban legends, hoaxes, chain letters and spam. The distinction is probably that if you get burned by one, it’s spam. If you don’t, it’s entertainment.

The Taylorsville Elementary class might well put the responses to its geography e-mail project into the spam category. Not even a month into the project, they had already received half a million messages (starting from 32 initial e-mail messages)–so many that they quickly overwhelmed the school’s e-mail box. After the school requested that no more e-mail be sent, people sent letters, postcards and packages. The class hopes to finish entering all the data this year. On the up side to their project, they did get responses from nearly everywhere in the world. On the down side, Taylorsville Elementary may well be dealing with the after-effects long after these kids have grown and gone.

For more on spam, see:
Progress on the Taylorsville Elementary School e-mail project Webopedia’s definition of spam and speculation as to origins of the term

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