Thursday, January 26, 2006

Early starts

I had another very early morning yesterday with a car picking me up at 6.15 in order to get out to Elstree to appear on Channel 4's Morning Glory, the breakfast show hosted by the unstoppable Dermot O'Leary who is currently hosting two different live TV shows back to back each morning with his usual slick and cheery aplomb. They start Morning Glory with a guest going through the day's papers - a feature that they really ought to call Morning Glory's What's The Story? It was fun anyway.

It'll be early mornings and "so what have you seen in the paper, Dave?" all next week too as I return to a week of The Wright Stuff. Then there are two weeks in February in which I'll be standing in as the host of Tom Robinson's Evening Sequence all of which led me to send an e-mail to my mailing list late last night.

I try not to overuse the mailing list because I don't want people to think that I'm hassling them or that I expect everyone to be interested in the minute details of what I'm up to. Occasionally I get e-mails from people complaining that I did something but didn't tell them about it asking me what's the point of a mailing list if you don't send us an e-mail. I think there's a balance to be struck. If I sent out an e-mail for every single broadcast event in my schedule as and when they were added to my diary I'd have sent out five or six so far this month and several thousand people would be thinking I was inordinately proud of sitting next to Dermot O'Leary in the mornings. I mean, I like him, but I can't see that alerting 9500 people to a 4 minute appearance at breakfast is really worthwhile.

However if you've signed up to a mailing list for someone who does what I do for a living then 5 days of The Wright Stuff and 8 days of evening radio seems to justify one e-mail... and so I wrote it and hit the send button and then held my breath. There's a bad side to a mailing list of this size. I don't have 9500 e-mail addresses stored in my computer's address book - that would be crazy - I use a paid-for service from a company called People add their own addresses and have to confirm their subscription by replying to an e-mail. That way I can guarantee that I'm not sending e-mails to anyone who didn't choose to receive them and that means that I can't be accused of sending spam.

When there are 9500 subscribers there are inevitably some addresses that cause problems. Obviously someone who signed up to my mailing list in 2002, say, wasn't thinking it was a particularly momentous thing to do. When they moved to a new job, or left their university, or changed their cable TV supplier or just went travelling and decided that they couldn't be bothered with that hotmail account any longer there was no way they were going to think, oo, I'd better unsubscribe that e-mail address from Mr. Gorman's mailing list... after all, there's no point him receiving an error message the next time he vainly tries to inform me that he's on breakfast telly was there?

About 2% of the addresses that receive the e-mails bounce back error messages - so that's nearly 200 e-mails informing me that individual addresses no longer exist. Every time I send an e-mail this happens and every time I then have to spend several hours going through the list deleting the addresses that are no longer relevant. It's like having an office job. Ugh. If I don't delete the addresses then next time I'll receive 400 error messages and so on. Then there are the 100 or so auto-replies that thank me for my e-mail, inform me that so-and-so is out of the office but will be back in on Thursday and will reply to my e-mail as soon as they get back. I hope they don't all reply when they get back. And why are so many people away until Thursday?

More problematic still are the error messages from accounts that have decided my e-mails are actually spam. A computer somewhere has decided that I am sending out spam and has blocked it from arriving at the inbox of the recipient. They might never know about it. Maybe they're wondering why I never send them any e-mails? If there's no way of alerting those people or their mail provider I delete those addresses from the list too... after all there's no point me sending out e-mails that won't be received. It seems a shame seeing as they asked to receive them.

Today I discovered a new layer of difficulty has been added to the mailing list. Several people have added anti-spam measures to their accounts that ask the sender of an e-mail to confirm their existence. They send an e-mail back to the sender asking them to confirm their details and then, once the service in convinced you are a real person and not a computer sending out adverts for porn or mortgages or luxury watches or whatever then your e-mail gets through. I can see why people do this - I get around 800 spam e-mails a day and would dearly love to remove them. At the same time, I've just spent an hour clicking buttons that direct me to websites where I am asked to pass a test just so that an e-mail can be sent to someone who asked me to send it to them in the first place.

The most frustrating of these are those that arrive asking me questions that I don't know the answers to. One has come from It directs me to a website that then asks me for the full name of the intended recipient. I have no idea what the full name of the recipient is. I've never met them. I've looked for the address on my mailing list and it doesn't exist. There's a similar address connected to a account but there's no name attached to it. This means that my e-mail isn't sent directly to that address... which means that one of the 9500 e-mail addresses on my list is set up to automatically forward all e-mails to this address and I have no way of knowing with any certainty which one it is.

So I can't delete the address from the mailing list and nor can I do anything to convince their anti-spam service that I'm not sending spam. This could go on for ever. There's no way of breaking the loop. Every e-mail I send to my mailing list will be intercepted by the bluebottle anti-spam service who will e-mail me asking me questions I don't know the answer to. There's no way of me removing them from the list because I don't know who they are and I can't satisfy the anti-spam criteria ... because I don't know who they are. E-mails will bounce around in the ether for the rest of time without any of them getting to the person who asked for them in the first place.

I know it's not the biggest problem in the world. I know there are people who have far more unpleasant jobs to do today. Mind you, I suppose they get paid to do their unpleasant jobs and no one is paying me to spend hours administrating a mailing list. In fact, I pay for the mailing list to exist myself ... out of the goodness of my own heart. And the money I earn from doing my job. Some of which comes from selling tickets or books. Some of which have been bought by people on my mailing list. Mustn't grumble.

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