Is spam dead?

Five-plus years ago, spam in my email inbox was a huge problem, and I spent considerable time dealing with it. Initially, “dealing with it” meant deleting it, later that changed to fiddling with filters and procmail scripts. Now I barely think about spam, and I wonder if that’s true for most people.

It’s not that no one sends me spam anymore. Between my two mail email accounts, I still average between 3000 and 4000 spams per month, down from a peak of 6000-7000, but still a significant number. But virtually none of them get to my inbox. I go weeks, maybe months, without seeing any spam.

That I live a nearly spam-free life is due to the quality of the two filters I use. First, every email sent to me has to pass through GMail, which filters about 98% of the spam. Then the email is scanned by Apple Mail, which screens out almost all the rest. The second filter, which seems at first glance like a minimal improvement over the first, is actually pretty important; without it, I’d still be seeing 1-2 spams a day, which is enough to keep it on your mind. It’s liberating not to have to think about spam, a situation I’d have thought was impossible five years ago.

In retrospect, it seems to me that the beginning of the end of spam was the widespread use of Bayesian filtering, a technique popularized by Paul Graham in his “A Plan for Spam” article. I know that Bayesian analysis isn’t the only filtering technique used, but its addition to the spam-fighting arsenal tipped the scales in our favor, and the spammers have been losing ground ever since. As an example of how far we’ve come, look at this talk by Ze Frank at the 2004 TED Conference.

He starts the talk with an extended joke based on the Nigerian 419 scam. He wouldn’t do that joke today because those emails are no longer part of our daily experience.

In fact, I wonder why email spamming hasn’t died out altogether. Are there still people who actually see the spam that’s sent to them?