From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

January 25, 1997*The Joys of Spam

In the past I've already admitted to loving e-mail, but in these times that's not a particularly daring piece of self-exposure. Certainly not the sort of disclosure that makes people point at you and whisper about you behind your back when you're walking down the street (or sitting in the computer room of the university). The truth is that just about everybody probably loves e-mail, and secretly wishes that they'd get more. The problem is that there are different sorts of more - which brings us to the topic of this month's column, the scourge of the internet, electronic junk mail that everybody loves to hate, spam.

Numerous theories exist as to the origin of the term. The most popular relates to a skit from Monty Python's Flying Circus. Spam, of course, has a lengthy and illustrious history, and as is perhaps predictable, numerous sites on the web are devoted to telling its story. (Linkrot has taken it's toll, but here's an update.) But what concerns us here is the internet-related meaning of the term:

The two definitions, though different, actually have quite a bit in common. Though we tend to think of our e-mail as an unlimited resource, our service providers can, and sometimes do, limit us when our mail volume exceeds a certain level, and often a spam of the second definition type causes an explosion in postings which a service provider will identify as "excessively large input data" and shut us down. That's the problem raised by a member of one list I subscribe to which was the "victim" of a rather well-intentioned mass-mailing which members identified anyway as a spam: In the particular case in question the spamming was an unsolicited advertisement, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. As another list member notes: But both on highly active lists (those with a large volume of postings) and on relatively dormant ones, spamming tends to wake things up. People simply seem unable to withstand the urge to join the fun. And often it really is fun. Readers take the opportunity to joke around. From the same list: BTW, though it's clear that the poster of this message is being (or at least trying to be) humorous, s/he seems not to take into account the possibility that the person s/he is responding to was making a similar attempt. But just when things are really heating up and becoming interesting someone comes along and reminds us that our e-mail is an expensive commodity: That's probably true, but it destroys all the fun, and there's little chance that people are going to adhere to that suggestion. And the reason is rather obvious - because we love spam.

(An aside is called for here. One of the most laughable, yet ultimately also bandwidth consuming, spams is the "Make Money Fast" post which has gone through innumerable carnations [discussed briefly in The Joys of E-mail]. A couple of industrious students thought of an ingenious, albeit comic, method of combatting these exasperating posts. They created a newsgroup:, and suggested that everyone with a get rich quick scheme post their idea to that list. A web page about the newsgroup, as well as a web based FAQ on the list are a pleasure to read. Though it didn't shut down the traffic on other lists, surprisingly [or perhaps not so surprisingly considering who actually tries these schemes] people actually did post to that list, and they're probably still offering each other offers that can't be refused.)

People join online mailing lists out of a common interest. Just about every conceivable sort of group exists, and new ones spring up all the time. When you join, you know pretty well what you're getting into: a list devoted to the belief that the Beatles were the greatest rock group ever won't carry postings about how wonderful a singer Frank Sinatra was; a list devoted to programming in Visual Basic won't carry postings about reincarnation and past lives. But who wants to be part of a totally predictable group? A number of lists exist in Israel, each for a particular reason and purpose. Il-board is for the discussion of computer related issues and problems. Il-talk is for anything that anyone could conceivably want to talk about. Presumably, list members know and understand the distinction.

But every two or three weeks someone comes along and posts a volatile message to il-board. It may be political (ranging from defending Baruch Goldstein to questioning the sanity of the government for opening the tunnel under the Kotel) or social (an offer to trade photographs of naked wives held reign a few weeks back), but one way or another, these messages clearly are not in synch with the defined purpose of the list. There's always someone who'll write that the discussion should be moved to il-talk, but there are many others who jump on the bandwagon and express their opinion or have some fun before the issue dies down. Invariably someone points a shaking finger at these last posts, telling the posters that they should know better, but everyone gets to kick the topic until it's finally declared dead for lack of interest.

So if we all know better, why do we take part in this oft repeated ritual instead of valiantly resisting the urge to express ourselves? Simply put, it's boring talking to ourselves. We joined the list to express our opinions and hear others' opinions on a particular topic, but that's much too predictable and boring. We want and need the occasional incendiary post that wakes us up and gets the fun started. People join lists in order to communicate with others. Though before joining they probably assume that communication means a civil exchange of opinions, sooner or later they realize that communication means more than like-thinking minds congratulating each other on how perceptive they are. They discover that they need some outside input, something to spark some excitement. Spam fits the bill wonderfully. Spam consumes both time and resources. But e-mail would be so dull without it.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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