According to a new report by Deborah Fallows at the Pew Internet & American Life Project, the percentage of people who think that spam is increasing has risen steadily. Nonetheless, the Pew report also found that spam is less bothersome to e-mail users than it once was.

Between February 15 and March 7, over 2,000 Americans were surveyed by phone about their e-mail use and spam. Out of that group, 37 percent said that they were getting more spam in their personal inbox, and 29 percent said that they were receiving more spam at work.

In a similar survey conducted three years ago, just 24 percent reported an increase of spam at home; only 18 percent said the same thing about their office e-mail.

Spam No Longer 'Big Problem'

Somewhat surprisingly, however, the percentage of people who say that spam is a big problem has dropped by a third. In Pew's initial study in June 2003, one-fourth of all respondents agreed that spam was a "big problem." In the most recent survey, only 18 percent reacted that strongly.

Less surprising is the fact that a majority of respondents agree that spam is annoying: 51 percent of all Internet users and 56 percent of those who go online daily.

"There appear to be several reasons fewer people say that spam is a big problem for them," Fallows wrote in her report. "First, the volume of most offensive kind of spam has decreased. And second, people are becoming more knowledgeable about spam, and they know better how to handle it."

Less Pornographic Spam

One of the more interesting findings in the Pew report is that the level of pornographic e-mail appears to have dropped significantly. Just over half the people surveyed (52 percent) said that they received pornographic spam; three years ago, nearly three-quarters (71 percent) said that they got sexually explicit solicitations.

The drop in pornographic spam, Fallows said, is particularly significant because it "elicit[s] intense and visceral reactions from Internet users, particularly women."

In an e-mail interview, Fallows said there were two reasons for the decrease in porn spam: more active law enforcement (including the federal government's recent passage of the CAN-SPAM Act) and market saturation.

"In the beginning," she said, "spamming about porn sites and content was cheap and effective marketing Relevant Products/Services. By now, those who seek pornographic sites or content either already know where to go to find it, or hear about better ways of finding it than waiting for a porn spam to arrive."

Better Tech or Smarter Users?

Overall, Fallows suggested, the Pew survey shows that both e-mail users and filter technology are growing more sophisticated.

"More people are applying filters (71 percent), so they know something about combating spam," Fallows said in her e-mail. "And more people are recognizing spam, so they can dismiss it more easily and comfortably, and without having to give it their precious time and attention."

The amount of spam is still detrimental to e-mail in general: Over half of all e-mail users say that spam makes them less trusting of e-mail in general, but only 19 percent said that spam has affected their e-mail use.