Few people feel much affection for spam. Most tire of the endless appeals to enlarge various body parts, order a life-time supply of Viagra, or to partake in yet another fortune lying for the taking somewhere in Nigeria.

Legislative bodies teem with proposed rules for placing spam under the same strictures as direct mail and telemarketing calls. Businesses wail against the lost productivity. But the real problem is, what is spam? It’s unwanted until somebody sends you something you really want. Then it’s no longer spam.

Here is where regulation will probably break down and here is where many businesses report problems with attempts to screen unwanted e-mail. They find they also screen out messages they or their clients need. Like most people, I resent many of these intrusions, as much as I resented the person from McGladrey this week who sat behind me on a New York City commuter bus giving rather specific instructions about the firm’s check-handling procedures as they involved a particular client. But it seems to me that getting too zealous in the I-only-want-to-be-contacted-when-I-want-in the-way-I-want approach stands to screen out opportunities, both business and personal.

It reminds me of a story told by Chris Frederiksen, the Mill Valley, Calif.-based CPA consultant who lectures about firm operations. Chris related the story of a young man who came to his office with the kind of tax return that most firms would turn down. Chris accepted it and the young man’s father turned out to have a very nice business and gave Chris a lot of the resulting tax and accounting engagements

Shut out all unwanted calls from people you don’t know and you risk turning down these gems. Maybe you shut out the Sam Waltons who drive pick-up trucks, or the antique shopper in overalls who drives a luxury car. Perhaps you miss an interesting story, or a chance to enrich your own life with an amusing joke.

Ultimately, many of the legal efforts will probably fall to First Amendment issues. And surely, much of the daily deluge is unwanted, unwelcome, and much of it, untrue. But do we want to shut it all out? Life really is a noisy, messy operation and we must resign ourselves to its lack of tidiness. And just maybe out there in Nigeria, there’s gold in them thar hills for us.


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