Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

Knowing spam

evil robotToday I threw in the towel in my fight against spam.

Here’s the thing. I own a dozen or so domains, which means a bunch of my email addresses have been public in the DNS record for years. I also have had sites online since 1995. Back then, it was commonplace to leave your email address in the footer of your web pages, so people could contact you. I also routinely left my email addresses in comments on other people’s web pages. All of this left my email box open to every spambot that came along.

The result, eight years later, is that my email is about ninety percent spam. No kidding. A hundred messages a day, and only ten that are actual correspondence.

I tried various remedies over the years. First I set up elaborate filters. I got to the point that checking my mail took five minutes, as my computer chugged through hundreds of filters. Lately I’d been running SpamAssassin on the server and Spamfire on my Mac – double-duty overkill that still let spam over the transom. Worse, I had two places I had to constantly check for spam intrusion.

Today, hopefully, all that ends.

I’m now running all my email through KnowSpam. It’s a web-based system that acts like a guardian at the gates. Basically, if I get an email from an unknown address, KnowSpam will hold the email and fire off a response. The unknown person is asked to go to a web page and put a few numbers into a form. If you do that, you prove that you’re human, and your email is let through. If you don’t, it’s probably because you’re a spammer and couldn’t be bothered, and your email dies in limbo. The result is, I get ten messages a day, and none of them are spam.

(As an aside: I tried to import all of the good email addresses I know in advance, so all of my friends/family/business associates should go unchallenged. If you’re a friend of mine and you get the challenge email, sorry! Please just do the verification step once and you’ll be set for life.)

Here’s what’s really cool about KnowSpam: They treat all their users as a kind of community. So if one KnowSpam user verifies an address as a human, that address is cleared for all KnowSpam users. This is an acknowledgment that the confirmation process is a hassle, so why make real people do it more than they have to? Very, very smart.

I’d heard about challenge-response systems like this before, and always thought it was kind of giving up on the promise of email. And, in some ways, it is. But KnowSpam has made it easy enough, and my spam intake has gotten egregious enough, that it was time.

I realize that, in the arms race against spam, you can only win one battle at a time, and never the whole war. There may come a time that the spammers find a way around even this. But, for now, I can finally rest my weary inbox and just enjoy my email again.

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Hi, I’m Derek. I make awesome community-centric web stuff. I sometimes post things to Instagram. I’m mostly harmless. More.

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