Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet
By Finn Brunton
The MIT Press
270 pages
Hardcover $27.95

In April 1994, two immigration lawyers from Phoenix ruined the Internet. The US government had announced a Green Card lottery, and Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel realized there was money to be made in persuading applicants to let their firm handle the paperwork. Rather than erect a billboard or paint their faces on a bus-stop bench, the two chose a novel method of advertising their services: They posted an unsolicited message to every single newsgroup on Usenet, a collection of online discussion boards that predated the Web. “Green Card Lottery—Final One?” read the subject line of their message, which went on to encourage readers to contact Canter and Siegel for all their Green Card procurement needs. It was perhaps the first commercial mass mailing in the history of the Internet.

The Internet was not amused. Its sputtering users took revenge against Canter and Siegel, sending the lawyers thousands of irrelevant emails and crank-calling their office. Today, a similar advertisement wouldn’t seem like such a big deal, but for Usenet participants in 1994 it felt like a home invasion. Usenet was a community, they maintained, and Canter and Siegel had disregarded community norms by posting an unwanted, off-topic solicitation to every group in the network.

Despite the furor, Canter and Siegel refused to apologize for their actions. (Quite the contrary: They wrote a book titled How to Make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway.) The idea that Usenet was a community was ludicrous, they said. It was just a network, and the two of them were merely exercising their right to free speech, and they certainly weren’t going to be censured by a bunch of “wild-eyed zealots who view the Internet as their home.”

You could call it a stalemate, but it wasn’t, really. As Finn Brunton puts it in his fascinating new book, Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet: “[T]he effect on Usenet was devastating. Canter and Siegel forced the hand of the network, and it did not have much to put up [in its defense] aside from telecommunications attacks, social intimidation, and plaintive appeals for good behavior.” It would be inaccurate to say that Canter and Siegel brought about Usenet’s decline. But they certainly were among the first to demonstrate the fragility of the unspoken social compact that its users took for granted.

Other commercial messages soon followed. Canter and Siegel had invented spam.

Brunton tells this story in the first chapter of his highly readable history of electronic flotsam and the efforts to stop it, and he puts it up top because it’s a story that remains relevant to the modern Internet. Canter and Siegel’s message was a harbinger of all the irrelevant crap that would eventually overwhelm the Internet—the Viagra emails, the get-rich-quick scams, the crazy or abusive run-on comments, the disposable “news” produced by content farms such as Demand Media. Usenet’s outraged but impotent response to Canter and Siegel presaged every attack waged against banks and corporations by hackers. And the flood of spammers who followed Canter and Siegel’s example reminds us how hard it is to control user behavior on a decentralized network.

Since the days of Usenet, network users have worked to build online communities that are interesting, productive, and collaborative. Concurrently, bad actors have been working to destroy these communities—not necessarily with malicious intent—by persistently presenting their members with information that they do not want. This tension is familiar to anyone who has ever scanned an online news outlet’s comments section. And it’s a key to understanding how the Internet really works.

Books about the Internet tend to focus on its good parts: how it has and will continue to transform news, commerce, education, and personal relationships. But the Internet story is just as much one of annoyances and distractions, of the grating, stupid ephemera that attempt to capture your attention by tricks and misdirection. To intelligently discuss how the Internet might lift us all up, we first have to understand how and why it weighs us down.

When people today talk about turning a website into a “community,” they generally mean something like Usenet in 1994: a group of people with similar interests gathering for informal, potentially productive conversations. Usenet was a lively, intelligent, and clannish collection of discussion groups devoted to thousands of single topics, from baseball to cyberpunk.

Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.