Science has solved spam. Once the scourge of in-boxes everywhere, junk e-mail now sets off automatic traps that identify, quarantine, and eliminate spam with near perfect accuracy. So why do in-boxes still feel so cluttered?
"We got to this point in our e-mail where the spam filter is doing its job, yet our in-boxes are still filled," says Jamie Siminoff, a serial Web entrepreneur in Santa Monica, Calif.
For Mr. Siminoff, the spam has been replaced with "bacon."
Bacon describes the gray area between the personal e-mail you want and the spam you don't. It's newsletters, coupons, and notifications – commercial e-mail that you probably signed up for but now receive far too often.
"Bacon is all of your Facebook notifications or bank e-mails saying that a bill is due," says Tommy Vallier, a social media consultant and one of the people that coined the term at a Pittsburgh technology conference in 2007. "We came up with the word just as bacon really started to become a problem."
That year, retailers sent an average of 85 e-mails to each of their subscribers. Since then, the number has nearly doubled to 152 messages, according to the marketing firms Responsys and Sendito.
Web watchers expect that this outsized helping of bacon will continue to pile up. Shipping an e-mail costs 1/100th of a cent, 1/2000th the cost of bulk postage rates. And according to Brightwave Marketing, on average, every dollar spent on bacon brings in $43.52 in sales. No wonder Forrester Research expects e-mail marketing budgets to climb by a third to $2 billion in 2014.
Bacon may be good business, but Mr. Vallier says it also drags on his productivity. So he devised a few tricks to keep his bacon consumption under control.
"The biggest thing that I recommend to people is filters, filters, filters," he says. Most modern e-mail clients, such as Gmail or Outlook, can automatically flag bacon – marking a message with a colored tag, placing the letter immediately into organized folders, or deleting it on sight.
For example, Vallier used the "mail settings" in the top-right corner of his Gmail screen to categorize incoming messages as soon as they arrive. The website can automatically label e-mail based on who sent it, the subject line, and whether certain words are or are not included in the letter. E-mails from his wife get a bold tag, so he'll notice them right away. Bacon receives a light blue sticker, visual shorthand for "not urgent."
In other situations, families hunting for a good deal on a new television could set their in-boxes to highlight any bacon that mentions "TV" or "plasma." Expecting parents can flag everything containing the word "baby."
If you're wary about handing out your e-mail address to retailers, Hotmail, Gmail, and Yahoo's paid Plus service each allow users to set up disposable e-mail accounts called plus addresses.
This lets you add the + symbol before the @ and then attach any term you want in between. For example, you might give one store email@example.com, then give another retailer firstname.lastname@example.org. You can then filter your in-box based on these plus addresses. (This also lets you see who is sharing or selling your e-mail address to other vendors.)
If this all sounds like too much work, Gmail introduced an experimental Priority Inbox feature late last year. The service automatically sorts your in-box, placing friends or desired bacon at the top and nuisance mail near the bottom. How does it figure out which is which? Priority Inbox tries to learn by watching which letters you reply to, which you simply read, and which you ignore. It then ranks incoming messages in that order, so important letters always rise to the top.
Unlike spam, bacon often comes with the option to unsubscribe. So rather than his bacon and let it pile up, Siminoff initially tried removing his name from each mailing list. "But that takes time to do," he says, "about two minutes each."
Frustrated by this slow process, Siminoff and some business partners started Unsubscribe.com, a company that will keep your e-mail address off unwanted mailing lists.
Unsubscribe's software creates a new button in your e-mail box. Highlight any unwanted letter, give it a click, and Unsubscribe will jump through the hoops of ensuring you never get another message from that company. The service costs $3 a month or $20 a year.
"Spam may come from Russia and Nigeria, but bacon comes from legitimate companies," Siminoff says. "Even if they're not doing it properly, they know to stop bothering you if you ask."