Twenty years ago today a potent force for evil was unleashed across the world. It was not the truly serious and horrifying evil of genocide, nor the manic theatrical evil of a moustache-twirling madman, but the humble, everyday evil that we all contend with on a daily basis. Today was the day that the nightmare of spam was set free to torment the inboxes, comment sections and newsgroups of the world.
It began on Usenet, the sprawling web of newsgroups that defined the communities of the internet before the World Wide Web. The newsgroups were essentially single-topic message boards like those on Reddit, arranged according to hierarchies. So the groups in Rec.* were all about recreation, Rec.Arts.* newsgroups were for arts, Rec.Arts.Movies.* were all for films, and Rec.Arts.Movies.Reviews was where you could find people pontificating on the latest cinema releases. Well, mostly a guy called James Berardinelli, but there were a few others. (There must have been. Surely?)
Twenty years ago, readers of 6,000 such groups witnessed a wildly off-topic posting: an advert, LARGELY IN ALL CAPS, that informed immigrants to the US that they could avail themselves of the attorneys Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel in their search for a green card. Heads were scratched and eyebrows raised, but it was not to be the last posting from the husband and wife team.
Strictly speaking, this was not the first piece of spam in the world: that title was won on the 18th of January by a post entitled ‘Global Alert for All: Jesus is Coming Soon’. It was soon joined by an automated screed on the Armenian genocide. But spam found its true calling with Canter and Siegel: marketing. While the two were wildly vilified for their actions (and Canter was even disbarred), the technology behind it was simple enough that we now need more technology to prevent it from overwhelming us. Even on such a little-seen blog as this, there are 4,472 spam comments caught in the filter as of the moment I write these words, and the vast majority of all email consists of unwanted messages.
Why should this be so? Because the cost of spam is so incredibly low. All it takes is a few suckers to click on the wrong link, and the spammers can make back their investment with ease. No matter how advanced our technology grows, there will always be humans gullible enough to fall for the spam.
Meanwhile, the nice people who make the tinned meat known as SPAM are not amused. But they do have a nice little museum you can visit! There’s even a Monty Python section…