Garst and her colleagues shared Canter and Siegel’s mindset. And as the Internet has grown, that mindset has only become more prominent. Near the end of the book, Brunton argues that “spam” now encompasses all sorts of efforts to “exploit existing aggregations of human attention,” from email solicitations to mindless social-media chatter to business strategies from billion-dollar corporations. Brunton analyzes the search-engine-optimized, mostly worthless content produced by places like Demand Media and aol, and likens it to Canter and Siegel’s output. “There is something in the disposable and opportunistic nature of the material produced, and the mingling of automated and human infrastructure used to produce it,” he writes, “that seems similar—a cynical project to monopolize the conversation and commandeer the space of relevant information.”


And that’s the point. Spam, in whatever form it might take, is something that doesn’t listen, that only wants to talk at you. The spam mentality rejects collaborative dialogue and hard-won wisdom in favor of ease and expedience. And little by little, as that sort of behavior is normalized, the Internet changes. There are fewer opportunities to listen, learn, and collaborate; more people shouting to be heard. Until all you’ve got left is an infinite space filled with infinite pitchmen, incessantly cutting one another off and changing the subject, like some McLaughlin Group episode that never ends.

Any community—online or off—will fail if it’s dominated by bad actors who reject dialogue and monopolize conversations for their own selfish ends. The true value of Spam lies not in its analysis of email advertising—though the analysis is expert—but in the way Brunton eloquently extrapolates the story of spam into a broader framework for understanding why the digital commons is so vulnerable. “ ’Spam’ is very nearly the perfect obverse of ‘community,’ ” he writes. “Whereas ‘community’ stands in for our capacity to join one another, share our efforts, sympathize, and so on, ‘spam’ acts as an ever-growing monument to the most mundane human failings: gullibility, technical incompetence, lust and the sad anxieties of male potency, vanity and greed for the pettiest stakes—the ruin of the commons for the benefit of the few.”

A coin has two sides, neither of which can exist without the other. There is no heads without tails; there is no open Internet without spam. If we are to preserve and improve the digital commons, then we need to understand this relationship much better than we do; understand that the existence of spam proves the health of the network, and our inability to stop it proves the fragility of the nodes. Brunton’s book explains this as well as anything I’ve seen. R3AD !T T0DAY!!!!

 

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