Few things get Net users more upset than spam.

For some reason, the appearance of junk e-mail in our computers' in boxes inspires anger much greater than our annoyance at junk mail, telephone salesmen or any other real-world equivalent.

Maybe we're insulted that someone out there thinks we'd fall for their faux familiarity, exclamation-pointed pitches and other obvious come-ons. Perhaps we're upset by the resources wasted when millions of useless messages are sent to millions of people who just delete them moments after they arrive.

But we reserve most of our anger for spammers themselves, those squinty-eyed troglodytes who hole up in dark rooms littered with spent Thirstbuster cups and cackle at their clever plans to get rich quick a click at a time.

At least, that's how we imagine them. But if we really want to know what spammers look like, most of us need only look in one place:

A mirror.

Oh sure, we'd never send e-mail to thousands of people we've never met. Instead, we focus our aggravating, bandwidth-wasting efforts on our friends, relatives and co-workers.

Have you ever called someone to check if a fax has arrived? Left someone the same message on their work voice mail, cell phone and home answering machine? Sent e-mail to confirm arrangements made by phone?

Congratulations you're a cross-platform spammer.

Wasting time

As our communications mediums have multiplied, we've gained new ways to make contact with the people in our lives. But even as we embrace each new technology, we don't have enough faith in any one of them to use it exclusively.

As a result, our efforts to communicate are multiplied by as many mediums as we can get our hands on. We end up spamming, wasting twice as much time as the people who sold us these technologies promised we'd save.

It used to be that if you called someone and he didn't answer the phone, he wasn't there. Period. You'd climb back on your wooly mammoth, ride back to your cave and try again later.

These days, though, you'd feel obliged to try his cell phone. If that didn't work, you might boot up your computer and check if he's logged on to his instant messaging software. If not, maybe you'd send e-mail asking him to call when he gets a moment that is, if your line isn't tied up because you're still online. But not to worry: He can always page you.

If you think this sort of spamming saves you time, the clock on your PDA must have fallen more than a few milliseconds out of sync with the national atomic clock. Even if you end up reaching your friend earlier than you would have, you've devoted twice as much time to the task of communication itself.

At my office, people are always faxing me story ideas. Which would be fine, if they didn't also send the same press release by e-mail and follow them both up with a telephone call.

New medium needed

I want to tell these cross-platform spammers to pick a medium and stick with it. But I understand their uncertainty. They might have the wrong e-mail address. A receptionist might transfer them to the wrong number. Or maybe the fax machine was out of paper.

The sad fact is that none of the communications mediums at our disposal are entirely reliable. So we spread ourselves thin across multiple platforms cell phone, pager, e-mail, home phone, work phone in hopes of making sure we're never out of touch.

Such inefficiency will vanish only if someone invents the perfect communications medium: a way to reach anyone anytime wherever they are in the fashion they prefer text, voice or video through a single, easy-to-remember number or address.

But don't hold your breath waiting for such a medium to emerge. The only ones who can stop us from repeating ourselves across the airwaves are the telecommunications companies.

And wouldn't you know it, they're also the only ones profiting from it.

To contact syndicated columnist Joe Salkowski, you can e-mail him at joes@azstarnet.com or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services Inc., 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, Ill., 60611.

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