critical eye

Original sin

The creation of email spam and its threat to the promise of the Internet
September 3, 2013

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.

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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.

Usenet’s “community” status also derived from the fact that many of its users shared similar real-life experiences: They were computer enthusiasts and/or university affiliates who had invested a lot of time learning to access the service. In short, they were nerds; many were fans of Monty Python, the absurdist British sketch-comedy group, and took every opportunity to profess their fandom. “A lot of people who didn’t have a clue what to do to create conversation would just . . . recite entire Monty Python routines verbatim,” remembers one informal historian whom Brunton quotes. “A particular favorite was the ‘spam, spam, spam, spammity spam‘ one because people could just type it once and just use the up-arrow key to repeat it. Hence, ‘spamming’ was flooding a chat room with that sort of clutter.”

“Clutter” is an apt term. Like the discarded clothes that accumulate on the floor of a teenager’s bedroom, making it hard to find the car keys, spam accumulates online, hindering access to salient information: the personal email that gets lost among hundreds of junk messages, the well-researched article that Google buries in favor of content-farm drivel. Brunton describes spam not just in terms of unwanted ads, but as a mindset: “The word ‘spam’ served to identify a way of thinking and doing online that was lazy, indiscriminate, and a waste of the time and attention of others.”

In the early days of digital networks, those distractions were fairly benign. Endless Monty Python routines might be annoying, but they’re not actively malicious. But as the general public discovered the Internet in the mid-1990s, “spam” came to refer to unwanted email solicitations: oddly punctuated missives promising easy money or longer-lasting erections. Entrepreneurs would send millions of messages in hopes of eliciting a few responses from naïve or distracted users who might actually believe that some deposed Nigerian prince would reward them if they helped him transfer some funds. The opportunity cost was low, and the potential rewards were high. Spam was everywhere.

Brunton traces the growth of email spam and introduces us to some of the most prolific spammers: “a few high school students, a failing Neo-Nazi, an ex-mit artificial intelligence (AI) graduate student currently in hiding.” He uses a Tennessee-based spammer named Rodona Garst as an archetype of people who approached the Internet not from a standpoint of what they could give to it, but what they could get from it. I think Garst, who sent billions of spam messages before leaving the industry amid lawsuits, also represents those millions of ordinary people who were discovering the Internet in the mid-to-late 1990s through services like aol, which made getting online as easy as running a floppy disc that came in the mail.

But things that are easily acquired are generally not held dear. Early Usenet participants had to deal with rudimentary machines, slow connections, and nongraphical interfaces in order to participate. This fostered a sense of mutual ownership, and this sense of ownership helped foster a sense of community, a sense that they were all in it together. The millions of point-and-click aol users would never have described themselves in those terms. They were customers of a subscription service, not collaborators in a mutual enterprise.

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!!!!

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