by Ellen Brandt, Ph.D.

Misuse and misinterpretation of the term “spam” is now so blatant, one has to wonder if Big Media might not be behind it. But we in “Little Media” are aware of the abuse, and it can’t last much longer.

If you publish a blog, own a website, or participate in various social media sites, chances are you’ve been accused of “spamming” at one time or another. You’re probably seriously angry about it. Well, so am I.

Besides the (ongoing) campaign of pure annoyance coming from my darling Twitter Stalker Agatha-Anne and her buddies (see “Slaughtering Your Pet Hamster” http://wp.me/pycK6-L ), I’ve been subjected to two accusations of “spamming” this past summer, one truly silly and inconsequential, one more serious in its implications.

First, the purely silly one. Several weeks ago, a young woman I’ll call Janette sent me an invitation to connect on Linked In, where I have a fabulous high-quality network of over 1400. Because she was a member of an organization I belong to and trust, I said Yes.

But the first time I sent one of my standard To-My-Network mailings with links to a couple of my stories, Janette wrote me what can only be called a hateful, malicious note, along the lines of “How dare you pollute my mailbox with your vile publications, You Evil Spammer You?”

Huh? You’re in my Network. You asked to be in my Network. I’m a publisher and writer. Do you expect me to send my Network pictures of bunnies or needlework instructions? Moreover, if one does not wish to click on a link in a letter, the obvious solution is not to click on a link in a letter.

And Linked In has a handy little feature called “Remove This Person from Your Network.” This handy little feature allows you to “Remove (Any) Person from Your Network,” for any reason whatsoever, quietly and efficiently, without having to write them letters and insult them.

I immediately took Janette out of my Network, after replying to her charming missive by telling her about the handy Remove-This-Person feature, thinking perhaps she honestly did not know about it.

As the teens say, As If . . . Over the next few days, I got five or six additional charming little notes from Janette, escalating in venom, going on about “You sent me Spam. Your stories are Spam. I hate your stories. My father hates your stories. My third cousin hates your stories. My goldfish hates your stories. My goldfish will not eat Spam. Spam, spam, spam, spam, and spam.”

OK, Janette. You’re just another Flamer, playing Kiddie games and trying to make people unhappy, because making people unhappy is “fun.” We’ll treat the general subject of Flaming in the next article in the series. But in the context of this story, you are silly and inconsequential, and I am now going to ignore you.

Except to say that as someone with a large Linked In network and a growing one on Twitter, every day I receive maybe a hundred mailings of various kinds from people with whom I’m connected. I like some of these mailings. I don’t like some others. Several fall into the category of articles and other publications. Some are newsletters. Others are new product or service announcements or out-and-out advertisements.

I click on the ones I want to read. I archive the ones I don’t want to read. I send a return message of Thanks, if it looks like I am expected to do so. I am never annoyed or upset receiving these mailings, because I allowed these connections to come into my Network, meaning they are cordial on-line acquaintances, and I want to hear about what they’re up to.

If at some point I find a connection annoying or upsetting, not to mention downright rude – remember Palance? – I remove him/her/it from my connections list, and that is that. This is what nice people do. This is what sane people do.

You’re Not Foie Gras, But You Sure Squawk Like Geese

Which brings us to the second incident this summer, a far more serious one, which goes to the very heart of the misuse of the term “spam” and demonstrates why we should all be concerned about it.

I honestly don’t know – nor particularly care – what Mz. Janette’s political leanings are. But I do know, from several people who are acquainted with him, that a young man I’ll call Chaz is a committed Leftist Democrat. He’s also the appointed manager of a large group for computer professionals at Linked In. I joined this Group because I’m an Internet publisher, but also because I’ve been seeking some interesting Boomer IT people as interviewees for my Baby Boomers-The Angriest Generation series. (See http://wp.me/pxD3J-3 )

As you undoubtedly know by now, Angriest Generation is already popular among Boomers, Centrists, and Republicans, but decidedly unpopular among a vocal cadre of mostly young people on the Far Left. Primarily, they dislike this series because I’m among the few to have called them out for spewing anti-Boomer propaganda.

Chaz refused to allow stories from Angriest Generation to make it into his Group’s News feed, even though this particular Group’s feed is generally a dozen pages long and includes many utterly hideous stories from the likes of shady SEO purveyors in Bangladesh and Taiwan.

The first time he deleted one of my stories from his feed, I complained to the Group’s owner and Customer Service. It was reinstated. The second time he did it, I complained again. Reinstated again.

But the third time he did it, Chaz decided to escalate the quarrel and reported me for “spamming” his News feed. I cannot tell you how shocked I was that he would stoop so low. I could have escalated this little tiff in turn and transformed it into a first-class vendetta. But I decided I was tired of Chaz’s shenanigans and simply left the Group.

I want you to ponder this incident for a couple of reasons. First of all, as in the case of a Network of connections above, a bona fide member of a social networking Group should always – that is always – have the right to post blogs or other publications of which he/she is the author or publisher without any restrictions whatsoever – except, perhaps, if they’re pornographic or in some other way universally offensive.

If you don’t want someone in your Group in the first place, by all means, you have the right to refuse them membership. But once they’re in the Group, a manager can’t arbitrarily refuse their right to post articles they’ve written, just because he doesn’t happen to like their subject matter or agree with their political bent.

Chaz’s behavior is offensive to other Group members, too. Is his Membership a gaggle of geese, who have to be protected from being force-fed material they might not like to read, turning their livers into a certain French delicacy? Most adults are capable of deciding for themselves what they want to read and clicking on it. Or deciding they don’t want to read it and not clicking on it. Personally, I have no interest in reading anything from the shady Bengali and Taiwanese SEO purveyors. Or for that matter the New York Times.

Hookers and Con Artists – Good! Bloggers – Evil!

But far worse than Chaz’s battle to shelter his Membership from exposure to us dread Republicans and others he considers politically incorrect is his daring to label our articles as “spam.”

This takes us to the heart of the matter: Publications are not “spam.” Never ever, ever, and ever.

In fact, nobody really thought of labeling any publication as “spam” up to a few months ago, as it became more and more apparent that Big Media was being forced to relinquish its absolute domination of the Internet to hordes of upstart bloggers and websites keen on garnering their own “eyeballs” and audiences, taking them away from the Official – in their own minds – Gatekeepers of the US Media.

The term “spam” was originally – and quite clearly – meant to apply to annoying, repetitive, and unsolicited Internet-based advertising – solicitations that want to persuade you to part with your money. “Here’s a Hot Stock Tip” is usually spam, as are “Buy Foreclosed Houses,” “Get 10,000 Twitter Followers,” and even “Eat at Joe’s Diner,” although I have nothing in particular against Joe.

But someone posting a link to their article, blog, free newsletter, or website, without desiring that you pay them any money to do so, is in no way “spamming.” They are offering information and attempting to build an audience, the same way the Wall Street Journal or CNN or Oprah.com is, when they post and disseminate their latest articles.

Oh, but those are “professionals,” you argue, while bloggers are in a different category. If you think that, I suggest you are reading the wrong blogs. There are many thousands of former or current high-volume print journalists who have their own blogs now. If you’re unfamiliar with my background, I have over 3,000 print articles to my credit over the past 30-odd years. Now I’m in the so-called Blogosphere, working to develop and increase an audience of my own. I like it, and so do many others.

But I also strongly defend the right of newer and less experienced writers and website owners to try to build a readership of their own through the exact same means more established media outlets, including a handful of now-institutionalized Big Blogs, do.

If the New York Times can aggressively post its stories on numerous Linked In Group News feeds, so can Carolyn’s style blog or Arthur’s blog on economics. If the Huffington Post can get staffers and friends to retweet pieces repeatedly on Twitter, so can Charlie’s senior care publication or Nancy’s small business-oriented website.

And if Mashable can strive for blogroll and pingback links from other blogs, John the orthopedist, Patty the homeschooling expert, and Lou who writes about horses can use these tactics, too.

Without fear of being called “spammers.”

Proof positive that the abuse and misuse of the term “spam” applied to Little Media has been calculated is the fact that the mostly young, mostly Far Left-leaning Twitterers and others who’ve been doing the complaining have completely neglected to make complaints about all the real no-doubt-about-it spammers in our midst.

There’s nary a mention of the various get-rich-quick marketing schemes touted constantly by the Trump Network and others. No complaints about barkers for tooth whiteners, gourmet coffee, organic pet food, or Cars Seized from Drug Dealers. Nor even the offensive-to-many pleas to buy male enhancement products or patronize Ladies of the Night.

But Jim or Jane may be harried and harassed by a battalion of “concerned youth,” if they dare to try to publicize their Right-of-Center political articles. “Spam, spam, spam,” some Kiddies now wail – but I don’t think they can get away with it much longer.

For one thing, the social media sites are becoming very wary of Kiddies with chips on their shoulders, since they’ve now been implicated in the Twitter and Facebook Denial-of-Service attacks and the Word Press worm scare in Europe and Asia.

For another, if social sites were persuaded to adopt the “Spam-means-non-Left-Little-Media” theories of MoveOn.Org and their ilk, it’s only a (short) matter of time before they’d start getting hit with some serious and costly lawsuits.

More intriguing, though, is whether any part of Big Media – maybe rogue PR outfits who believe they’re working on media clients’ behalf – are encouraging these youthful legions of “You’re Spamming” accusers or otherwise conspiring to get Little Media’s audience-building efforts unjustly labeled as “spam.”

Surely, we hope not. But one wonders.

What Do You Think?

Have you ever been accused of “spamming” while trying to publicize your blog or website?

If so, what was the outcome? How did you rebuff this accusation?

Do you believe there are sometimes political motivations and biases behind accusations of spam?

Is Big Media using the S-word in its efforts to hold onto Web dominance against the onslaught of Little Media sites?

How should the social networking sites, like Linked In and Twitter, change their spam policies to protect and promote their Little Media members?

For the Introduction to the Media Revolution series, see: http://wp.me/pycK6-19

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An Interview with Dr. Ellen Brandt

Interviewer: Hi, Ellen. So what’s this I hear about your being a doctor, a lawyer, and an Indian chief?

Ellen Brandt: Vicious rumors! But I am a Ph.D. – from Penn, with a specialty in early American cultural history. Elder lawyers are among my colleagues in my current role as a senior services provider. And it was an interview with a 100-year-old Indian chief – and several other Centenarians – that first got me thinking about elder-oriented businesses and how important they’d be to the future of this economy.

Interviewer: Tell us more.

EB: I’ve been a heavy-volume magazine writer for several decades now. About 20 years ago, I did what was then probably the first major US magazine cover story on Centenarians, folks who’ve reached their 100th birthdays or more. Parade Magazine sent me all over the country to meet these amazing people.

Among them was the 102-year-old Chief of the Crow Tribe, Robert Yellowtail, whom I interviewed in a tribal nursing home in Wyoming. He remembered going to Washington in the early 1900s to cement a treaty with the US government and camping out in a tent and a sleeping bag right on the National Mall.

Chief Yellowtail died before the story was published, so Parade cut out the section about him. But I interviewed many other fascinating folks, like a tiny, very refined 107-year-old African-American lady from Cincinnati, Ella Miller, who strolled her neighborhood on a 3-mile “constitutional” rain or shine, and 101-year-old Philadelphian Julius Adler, a prominent civil engineer, who didn’t retire until age 95 and still dressed formally in suit, vest, and tie to regale guests over sherry in his impressive library.

After this story was published, in the crowd-frenzy of media then and now, I became an instant expert on the very aged and was asked to do dozens of follow-up stories for publications large and small. Centenarians who bowl. Centenarian RV enthusiasts. Centenarians of Boston and Albuquerque and Greater Los Angeles. Methodist Centenarians. Baptist Centenarians. Centenarians Who Skydive – OK, I made that last one up!

Interviewer: And it got you thinking about senior services?

EB: It did. Because I also talked to a lot of gerontologists – academics who study the aged – and geriatricians – doctors who specialize in their care. And every single one of them was concerned back then, 20 years ago, about a coming crisis in coping with our changing demographics, especially as the vast Baby Boom generation – to which we belong – starts to get seriously elderly.

That’s not for awhile yet. Despite misconceptions among some young people and even some members of the media, we Baby Boomers will only turn age 46 to age 63 in 2009.

But the absolute number of extreme elderly is already increasing rapidly among those in our parents’ generation, due to higher fitness levels, better treatment of various medical conditions, and unexpected factors, like increased immigration.

Interviewer: When did you move into the senior services sector yourself, and what are you doing now?

EB: About two years ago, I started a service called Lifestories Limited, videotaping the autobiographies of mostly people over 75, both very healthy seniors and those who are more frail. I’m sometimes hired by my subjects themselves, sometimes by their sons and daughters, and I’ll happily tape in nursing homes or assisted-living facilities.

I’ve tried to position myself as ultra mass-market in this niche. There are PR-people who market do-it-yourself “kits” – essentially scrapbooks plus lists of questions – at the very low end. But if you can tape your parents yourself, you don’t need a “kit.”

Then there are the wedding photographers, almost all without skills as either historians or journalists, who charge many thousands of dollars for videotaped chats with their subjects – extremely pretty but sorely lacking in substance.

I believe I charge an exceptionally reasonable price, which nearly anyone can afford, for a full videotaped autobiography, the end product being a one-hour DVD with 20 copies included in the package. I also tape married couples and groups of brothers and sisters.

Interviewer: Has the more traditional senior services community embraced your concept?

EB: They have. I’ve made many “friendly colleagues,” as it were, among social workers, nurses, assisted-living managers, nursing homes owners, physicians, and elder law attorneys. One of the most prominent elder lawyers in the country has just hired me to videotape his mid-80s Mom and Dad in Florida.

I’ve also established a periodic “history seminar” geared to folks over 80, which I’ll be presenting as a program for all kinds of senior residences, churches, and synagogues.

And I’m working on a program for mortuaries, sort of a “Lifestories After Death,” in which relatives and friends of deceased loved ones, with a clinical psychologist present, reminisce on videotape as part of the bereavement and healing process.

Interviewer: I hear you have dreams of a Senior Services Empire.

EB: Well, I was Imperatrix (Empress) of my high school Latin Club! If I can get some venture capital or big chain backing, I do have ambitions to move considerably beyond what I’m working on now.

I recently wrote a story called “Summer Camp for Seniors,” with perfectly true anecdotes about how dismal the average “enrichment” – i.e. activity – program roster is at even the most chichi nursing home or assisted-living site. Retired teachers and doctors and lawyers and small business owners – people certainly worthy of everyone’s respect – are essentially treated like kindergarteners, herded into endless games of Bingo or balloon volleyball or taken on exciting field trips to Red Lobster or Dollar Tree Stores.

The story, which I expect will get widely reprinted, has garnered uniformly favorable comments from professionals and residents’ children alike.

As for residents themselves – they’re not encouraged to use computers! In many cases, sites actually ban their residents from having even personal computers, as if any exposure to the Big Bad Outside World would somehow decrease the ridiculous amount of control some site managers wish to maintain over their aged clientele.

Interviewer: That’s absolutely incredible.

EB: It is. But to an entrepreneur, an unmet need means an unmet opportunity. I intend to try to get backing for a turnkey management company which will come in and handle all of a site’s activities, including computer and fitness activities – virtually everything except food service, nursing, and social work.

I think a competent, well-capitalized management firm could handle things better, more efficiently, and even cheaper than what is in place now.

Interviewer: How so?

EB: Just on the staffing front, there is now an extraordinary labor pool of very well-educated, sophisticated, and experienced academics and other top-flight professionals who are either recently retired, unemployed, or under-employed.

At the same time, assisted-living, independent-living, and other elder sites more or less always have extra – sometimes a lot of extra – space on hand.

Through my company, you could have – instead of the junior-college-trained “recreation” majors who typically handle activities now – former college professors or high-school principals or senior teachers taking over these slots.

To entice them, you would offer an on-site apartment and full board for them and their trailing spouses, plus maybe a company car, which would allow you to pay far lower salaries than you probably pay the unqualified recreation directors you have on-site now.

These sophisticated, superbly-educated women and men would be trained by us to take advantage of the latest research on the elderly intellect and how to stimulate it, on lifelong learning, and on physical fitness. We would work to establish close links for each site with nearby colleges and universities, medical centers, cultural institutions, fitness trainers – you name it! – the resources available in the greater community, whether you’re a rural site or located in a big city.

We’d do a Lifestory videotaped autobiography for every resident, offer frequent guest lecturers and seminar-like discussion classes, and provide computer banks and computer training.

In short, we would strive to turn every senior site we managed into nothing less than a University for Elders.

Interviewer: What an exciting and ambitious concept. But will you face resistance from current sites?

EB: Of course. There always is to new and innovative ideas. But I think there’s a direct parallel to – of all things – the handful of firms which now manage America’s prisons on a turnkey basis.

I clearly remember when the idea of a prison management firm was first being floated twenty or so years ago, when market penetration was essentially zero. Everyone knew that both the Federal government and the states were having problems running their prisons cheaply and efficiently. But there was extreme reluctance to turn them over to outside management.

Well, I now understand that something like 80 percent of all prisons are managed by outside firms on a turnkey basis. I think once the initial resistance is overcome, the concept of allowing outside professionals to manage one’s senior sites will meet with similar success.

Interviewer: You clearly like to plan a few steps ahead.

EB: In a time of rapid change in virtually every sector, I think the true keys to entrepreneurial success are creativity and flexibility.

Interviewer: I think you told us that your career as a journalist represents that.

EB: It certainly represents the strange twists Fate can hand you! My previous writing output had been essentially academic articles for academic journals. But when I moved to California in the 70s, it was the heady Feminist years when every day, another woman seemed to be the first-this-that-or-the-other.

So I conceived a women’s page column – those were the days when every newspaper had a women’s page – called California Woman, where I profiled people like the first woman to manage a National Forest, the first female prison warden in the state – I remember she wore a pink, fluffy sweater – and the first woman to pilot a traffic helicopter for the morning commute.

That was in Los Angeles, and her name was Pamela, a lovely blonde Englishwoman. She took me up with her one morning, and whenever she saw something interesting on the highway, she’d swoop down, happily commenting, “Look at that great accident!” Before this market crash, the scariest experience of my life.

So back to my serendipitous career progression: One of my columns profiled a hotel owner in the Sierra Nevada whose hotel had a resident ghost named George. I got a call from one of the leading supermarket tabloids, possibly the National Enquirer, possibly the Globe, asking if I would write a little story for them – just about the ghost!

I did. They loved it. And to make a long story short, for a couple of years, I became a very high-volume writer for all the tabloids. My specialty, which basically no one else had back then, was finding serious business-oriented articles and turning them into catchy material the tabloids could exploit.

For example, I reported on the very first talking supermarket scanner, at a Ralph’s Supermarket in suburban California. My favorite was “Teacher’s Life Sucked Away By Killer Weed,” which was about an unfortunate victim of an epidemic of water hyacinths crowding an Alabama river.

Serendipity struck when the Executive Editor – second in command – at one of my tabloid clients was named Editor-in-Chief – first in command – at a major women’s magazine. He needed someone to do a weekly consumer finance column, a weekly careers column, and anything else they cared to throw at you.

The magazine in question is the most tabloid-y of the women’s mags, in that it sells primarily at the supermarket counter and is geared to a broad, general audience. But you needed a solid finance and business background to produce the material.

So there I was: a volume tabloid writer, a women’s page newspaper columnist, an Ivy League Ph.D., and someone with corporate financial experience. To be frank, I didn’t have much competition!

Interviewer: Do you have any advice for your fellow Baby Boomers discouraged by the current economic outlook?

EB: Gosh, No! Other than banding together and taking over the Planet again.

Seriously, I think our generation will just lick its wounds, think things over, and start getting very creative again about rebuilding this economy – and our own savings accounts – in ways, shapes, and forms that are better than those that have gotten us into this mess.

I think everyone now acknowledges that an economy that depends too heavily on financial services at the expense of every other sector is not building on a truly solid foundation.

Now we’ll turn to all those other sectors that have been neglected for far too long. I’m concentrating on senior services. Others will help rebuild manufacturing and agriculture and energy and healthcare and education.

And I have no doubt whatsoever that we Baby Boomers are going to completely redefine and reshape what Aging in America is all about.

Interviewer: What about the “Millennials,” recent graduates and new employees, who are starting their careers in a time of economic malaise?

EB: It may actually be a fortunate turn of events. Instead of starting out on safe, pre-ordained career paths based on their college coursework and finding out ten years later they hate where they are, they’re more or less being forced to take longer, more circuitous career paths. That should enable them to explore, to try new things out, to fail and succeed in ways they may not have dreamed of yet.

As they say, You Learn From the Journey. Today’s beleaguered Millennials may be far luckier than they think they are.

About This Publication: This story, In an Economy – And a World – Gone Haywire, was printed at Baby Boomer Knowledge Center on May 9, 2009.

Since I retain all legal rights to the story, I’ve decided to “bring it home” to EllenInteractive.

Readers who enjoyed this story might want to read “Recession? What Recession? Not in the Senior Services Sector.” Please go to: http://wp.me/pycK6-p

Also see “Summer Camp for Seniors” at: http://wp.me/pycK6-t

And for Ellen’s new – and already controversial – series, Baby Boomers-The Angriest Generation, please go to: http://wp.me/pxD3J-3