Technology advances force community activist to revamp business
Bronzecomm creator has to rebuild subscribers after a decade after being flagged as spam
By Lolly Bowean, Chicago Tribune reporter
When Raynard Villa Hall started his online newsletter, Bronzecomm, in 2002, he envisioned it as a way to connect community activists and as a tool to get the word out about progressive events occurring in Chicago’s African-American community.
So for years he woke up in the dark, early morning hours and sifted through online announcements, fliers, Web posts, Listservs and blogs to create a list of events, gatherings and information he wanted to share. Then he would simply email his newsletter to the 22,000-plus addresses he had compiled over the years, one by one.
But now, a decade later, changes in technology have threatened how Hall does his work, he said.
He was recently flagged as a spammer and kicked off his email server. And after several emotional conversations with technology representatives, he was barred from access to his list of email addresses.
“The term ‘spam’ had not even been coined when I started doing this,” Hall said. “There were no regulations.
“The technical (regulations) killed me. It shut me down.”
Now Hall, whose work has been profiled in the Tribune, is starting from scratch, trying to rebuild his following. And rather than just emailing to his readers, they have to use a website to sign up for his online newsletter, then verify their subscriptions.
What happened to Hall is common in this time of sophisticated spam filters, experts said.
Because Hall started his work long before the format for Listservs, blogs and e-newsletters became popular, it seems he was allowed to send his newsletter without problems for many years. In fact, officials with his email server said that because he was such a longtime customer, they grandfathered him in and let him send to thousands without much complaint.
Hall started his newsletter about 12 years ago and typically sends emails three times a week to draw attention to small events and community gatherings that normally wouldn’t get much media attention.
He earns a fee for emailing some listings, like museum exhibits and commercial events. But the majority of information he shares centers on community work.
But now, more and more email servers are growing intolerant of people they identify as spammers.
“That he made it this far is actually pretty remarkable,” said Steve Jones, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It’s a bit of a surprise that he’s worked as long as he has without running into trouble.”
Part of Hall’s problem could be that a growing number of people don’t check their email or rely on it as heavily for information anymore, Jones said. People drop their email addresses frequently, and Hall’s mass emails could accidentally fall into a junk folder. Others may have flagged his emails as spam to their servers instead of contacting him directly.
To email providers, it means he isn’t properly managing whom he is getting in contact with, Jones said.
“A fair number of people have abandoned email,” Jones said. “People who are under 30 are using email far less and using social networking sites as a way to communicate much more than email. They are also texting a lot.
“What he’s facing is what email marketers and corporations and universities face all the time,” Jones said. “One percent of his subscriber base may change email addresses in a week. Managing the list becomes a full-time job.”
According to officials with EarthLink, where Hall originally held his email account, his work was flagged because too many readers on his email list were reporting his notes as spam to their own servers.
Officials offered Hall two options — rework his email list or get kicked out, said Betsy Maness, senior customer relations manager with EarthLink.
“Ten years ago, when people sent out to their mailing lists, there weren’t a lot of things in place to identify spam or report it. Today the servers are clogged with spam and consumers don’t want it,” she said. “The Internet technology is more sophisticated and the consumers have spoken. They want ways to stop this.”
Hall didn’t have the updated permissions from his readers that allowed his subscribers to verify that they wanted the newsletter. He didn’t know each person he was emailing, nor if all the email addresses were active, Maness said.
So Hall is reluctantly starting over.
“It’s challenging to rebuild,” he said. “Now my readers have to jump through hoops if they want to subscribe. They basically have to insist on being placed on the email list.
“Some people may be skeptical. They don’t want to fill out a form or give a last name. Not only do I have to comply, I have to get my readers to conform,” he said.