Silverpop - Spam: A Tragedy of the Commons
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Spam: A Tragedy of the Commons

Bill Nussey, Silverpop
by: Bill Nussey (@bnussey)
16 January 2006

In 1833, William Forster Lloyd wrote a parable on population growth, introducing an idea called the tragedy of the commons. The term describes the fundamental conflict between individuals' self interest and the common good. To quote from my favorite source of Internet wisdom, Wikipedia, "The parable demonstrates how unrestricted access to a resource such as a pasture ultimately dooms the resource because of over-exploitation. This occurs because the benefits of exploitation accrue to individuals, while the costs of exploitation are distributed between all those exploiting the resource."

Unsolicited commercial email and spam are a classic tragedy of the commons. If even a fraction of U.S. marketers (both well-intentioned and nefarious) chose to apply unsolicited email marketing on a regular basis, we'd all be getting thousands of messages a day. Not only would email marketing become useless, email as an interpersonal tool would be killed along with it.

In his recent article (requires free sign-in), David Baker of provides a perfect metaphor with the "Do Not Walk on the Grass" sign in the park. For any single person, cutting across the grass saves a little time and doesn't really damage the grass. But if everyone were to cut across the grass, there soon would be no grass left at all.

David and others have been debating the issue of unsolicited, prospecting emails on the forum I described a few posts ago. Many have argued that: a) unsolicited email works so it can't be bad; b) some recipients actually like getting unsolicited email; c) it's perfectly legal here in the U.S.; and d) it's so easy to delete that it doesn't really hurt anyone.

Here's my problem (and it's a big problem) with this line of thinking: The only reason unsolicited email works at all is that very few marketers use it. The vast majority of marketers respect their prospects and show appropriate restraint by not employing a tactic that risks ruining the entire medium. The marketers who do support UCE either don't understand the slippery slope of the tragedy of the commons or don't care. I guess they'll continue to make their arguments and rake in a few dollars profit, while the rest of us take the harder road of permission and relevance.

So, next time you see someone cut in a line, walk on the restricted grass or throw trash out the car window, just let that person know that such an approach would be far more lucrative if he or she used email to prospect products and services to huge groups of uninterested people.




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