Annoying people at scale is profitable. It shouldn’t be.

I was astounded to read a Twitter thread from a go-getter named John Plumstead, who harassed 58,408 people to get one or two deals. He can do this because there is no cost to harassing people. Let’s change that.

Plumstead’s business is finding property owners in financial distress and buying their properties for less than they’re worth.

Here’s how he does it (the “VAs” he mentions here are virtual assistants, low-paid offshore workers):

There’s more detail in the thread, including the tech he uses to make the calls and hold them until somebody answers (a power dialer), how he identifies people in trouble through public records, and how he efficiently qualifies the leads.

What is the true cost of this activity?

I’m not interested in the cost of the staff to do this or the technology or the calls themselves.

I’m interested in the cost to us, the public.


  • Assume 55,000 calls that didn’t connect generated 15 seconds of annoyance each (who called me?). Total recipients’ time wasted: 229 hours.
  • Assume 3,377 connections that weren’t leads generate 2 minutes of annoyance each. Total connections’ time wasted: 113 hours.
  • Assume the recipients’ time is worth $20 an hour (these are property owners, not minimum wage workers).

Total cost to the targets of this activity: $6,840.

That’s $6,840 of our time that Plumstead has wasted. And that doesn’t account for the person who was called in the middle of their parent’s funeral, or helping their child with homework, or walking peacefully through a forest. There is a cost, hard to quantify but severe, to every contact he makes.

If Plumstead’s operation had to pay that $6,840, it would likely no longer be profitable.

What Plumstead is doing is not illegal. But even if you believe he is helping the one or two people he makes deals with, he is annoying 55,000 other people to do that.

Make communication inefficient

This activity is efficient. That is why Plumstead is bragging about it: to show you how damn efficient he is.

It’s also efficient to send mass emails.

This efficiency is why our communications channels are so noisy. Spam email. Junk texts. Robocalls. The cost of creating annoyance and sending it out into the world is tiny. It’s profitable to annoy if even a small proportion of recipients bite on your offer.

If every email cost a penny to send, instead of the 1/20th of a cent or less that it costs now, our inboxes would have a lot less crap in them. It wouldn’t cost us regular humans much (how many emails do you send a week?), but legitimate business email would be a lot less frequent and spam would be obsolete.

If every phone call from an operator like Plumstead cost a dime, he’d stop harassing you . . . and so would all the robocallers making it a hassle to use our phones.

If every text message . . . well, you get the idea.

We have made it far too efficient to reach people who have very little interest in being reached. It’s time to reverse that. Optimize communication for the recipients, not the senders, and we’d have a very different, far less spammy and noisy world to live in.

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  1. Four years ago, I penned a post for HuffPo called “6 Radical Ways to Reduce Email.” I’d link to it but it’s so strewn with ads now that it’s borderline unreadable. One of them was a small email tax. If employees saw a $10 deduction in their paycheck, I suspect that they’d think twice about sending so damn many of them.

  2. Firstly, most people don’t realize the problem is serious enough to warrant a legislative response. Like most parasitic behaviours, the true cost is difficult to calculate, and mostly hidden. People don’t feel it in proportion to its impact.

    Partly this is because we have technological mitigation strategies, like spam filters and caller ID. Those also impose a cost on users.

    But even if we didn’t have defences, and did have the will to demand legislation, the system for enforcement would probably cost more than the time and money it saved. Who is going to implement and maintain the systems which track all the emails you send? Who collects the money? How is it audited?

    The phone company can’t even prevent people from spoofing phone numbers. How do you wrangle the millions of email providers to ensure they are implementing spam charges? What about normal email? Does everyone have to pay for every email? Or is there a certain number of free emails per account? What if you have multiple accounts? What’s a fair limit?

    It sucks. But there are worse kinds of externalized cost, like real physical pollution, that also go ignored, leading to things like global warming and mass extinctions.

  3. From the title I thought this was going to be about trolling and gaslighting (mostly on social media, but now seems to include performative legislation, law suits, etc).

    I find that FAR more annoying and more of a problem.