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Spam gift keeps on giving

Houghton Mifflin Interactive sent word out recently that it wanted spam, all in the name of charity. Now it's getting a lot more than it bargained for.

"No, this is not a hoax."

That's the message on Erica Kohnke's voicemail at Houghton Mifflin Interactive. It saves her a lot of time talking to bewildered Netizens who wonder if the company really went out on the Internet and requested spam.

The answer is yes--sort of. Houghton Mifflin Interactive did ask people to send in mass emailings in the service of charity and book publicity. On November 15, it spread word on the Internet that for every 25 holiday memories people sent in, it would donate a new children's book to a hospital and would post memories at a special Web site.

But the company really had no idea how many responses the request would generate. The idea turned into a self-detonating email bomb that clogged the company's server and created problems with its Education Place subscribers, as indicated in this letter to subscribers.

Basically, Houghton Mifflin Interactive was victimized by the Net's exponential multiplier effect.

The Internet being what it is, the company's message didn't quite get out the way it planned. People copied and pasted and sent new messages to friends, email lists, and newsgroups. Within days, the word was all over the Net. But many of those people didn't get the whole message.

Instead of getting messages asking them to share their holiday memories, they received abbreviated missives like this one: "Here's an easy, no-cost way to help a child at the holidays. Houghton Mifflin Publishing will donate 1 book to a Children's Hospital for every 25 emails which they receive."

Like a lot of messages, this one failed to mention that the email should include something specific.

Netizens immediately smelled a cyber-rat. After all, the messages arrived at the same time that a fake virus message was making its way around the very same newsgroups. Many called the company to confirm that it wasn't all a hoax.

It wasn't, stressed Kohnke, who got "hundreds and hundreds of calls every day." She also got an "extraordinary amount of email," something like tens of thousands a day.

Last year, when the company did the same campaign, it got 23,000 emailings between November 15 and December 31. This year, it doubled the goal to 50,000.

HMI officially reached that goal on December 11. "We stopped counting at 50,000 because they were rolling in at 20,000 a day," Kohnke said. "It was ridiculous. It turned out to be the world's biggest chain letter."

The company decided to send out another 500 books for good measure, bringing the total to 2,500.

The company was getting so much email -- hundreds of thousands of messages -- that it had to cancel the email address. But the company still isn't complaining.

"It's turned out to be fabulous publicity for our book, the Polar Express CD-ROM," Kohnke said.