Spam, Spam, Spam

I have to take a break from my normal musings on politics, the environment, etc. to talk about SPAM. I’m old enough to remember SPAM 1.0, immortalized by Monty Python in their Viking canteen song and consisting of canned animal parts not dissimilar in nature to the Cream song “Pressed Rat and Warthog”. When I was at high school in England we were served spam deep fried in batter for lunch which released enough oil when pressed with a fork to run a sub-compact car on bio-diesel for a month.

But I want to talk about SPAM 2.0, the electronic version that assails our computers like those pesky insect-like bots in the Matrix movies. I was raised in the religion of Mac, but for work reasons use a PC. (I know this is heretical but I am returning to the true faith as soon as I can). The consequence of using a PC is an exponential expansion in the number of spam received. I once received 1,000 identical emails in the space of ten seconds. I can’t remember what they were about, but it was something to do with motorcycles.

I’m too lazy to employ efficient filters, so spam arrives in my inbox marked with a resounding ***SPAM***. That means before I delete them I get to glance at the subject taglines. From these, it’s obvious I’ve been identified as a male over 50, and therefore must be feeling sexually inadequate, under-endowed, in deep debt and in need of serious medication, which is sad commentary on the state of the present day masculine species. It also makes me wonder what my computer is up to while I am asleep at night. Does it go cyber-clubbing without me?

The other day I received a spam mail with the alluring subject line, “Hilary Clinton Naked”. Now I don’t know the true purpose of sending spam, but I assume at least part of the intention is to get you to actually open the email. If so, who in their right mind (with apologies to Senator Clinton) would think I would want to see Hilary Clinton “naked” And it raises the scary question: Do women receive spam headed “Bill Clinton Naked” or even “John McCain Naked”?

My curiosity piqued, I decided to do some in depth research on spam (ie. 5 minutes on Wikipedia) to try and understand the mindset that lies behind it. Here are a few factoids: It turns out that over 100 billion spam emails are sent each day, but only 200 people are responsible for the bulk of them (80 %). Rolex watches and Viagra are the two most solicited products (there is a joke there somewhere, but I can’t think of it the moment). By country, the US creates the most spam, whereas by continent, the top producer is Asia. On November 4, 2004, Jeremy Jaynes, rated the 8th most prolific spammer in the world according to Spamhaus, was convicted of three felony charges of using servers in Virginia to send thousands of fraudulent e-mails. He claimed to have an income of $750,000 a month from his spamming activities. In 2007, it was estimated that US organizations spent $13 billion protecting themselves against spam emails.

Sending unsolicited junk email has been illegal since the beginning days of the Internet and is enforced by the terms of use contract of every internet service provider. Not only that, by all accounts, as well as being illegal it is ineffective and expensive as an advertising tool, with only incremental market gains for every billion messages sent out. And there’s the huge annoyance factor.

So why do they continue to send us so much junk mail? I have no idea. It seems like a waste of electronic energy when the Internet could be used for much more profitable and beneficial social communication. But the same could be said of much of our current media culture—so much potential, so little useful purpose. We must be creating a market for this stuff in some frail corner of our collective psyche otherwise it wouldn’t be around. And that’s where we might need the real spam filters.