There are currently 46 messages in my spam folder. They include announcements both real and fake: notifications about lottery winnings and an unclaimed $2.5 million payout from the World Bank; messages from the (compromised) inboxes of old acquaintances directing me to exceptionally long URLs with Ukrainian country codes; phony WhatsApp message alerts; solicitations for donations from nonprofit and political groups; and advertising blasts from real companies.
I let these messages accumulate for more than a month. (To ensure access to primary sources for this article, I declined to delete anything in the folder after February 10, 2017.) Does 46 seem high? Consider that in 2012, researchers estimated 100 billion emails were sent every day; of this bonanza, 88 percent were estimated to be spam. Viewed in that light, my rate of approximately 1.5 spam messages a day—not all of which were truly spam—is a testament to the remarkable sophistication of Gmail’s filtering software. It’s also a testament to the remarkable adaptability of spam-pushers, who are always one step ahead of our brightest tech minds—and “three to four steps” ahead of government regulations, as former California Supreme Court Justice Janice Brown put it in a 2003 lawsuit related to spam.
Even the “real” emails often emitted a distinct whiff of spam. The subject line of one message, sent by a PR firm that has been inexplicably (and fruitlessly) emailing me for years, is “[Redacted company name] Now Guarantees 25 Media Hits for Your First Month of PR,” a promise that seems almost as dubious as losing 20 pounds in a week. Another message, sent by what appears to be a real-life marketing company, describes the venue of an event it’s promoting in a jargon so cliché ridden it feels like only a bot could have come up with it: “Born out of a diverse neighborhood yearning for a point of collective connection, [redacted venue name] is a community fueled by its multifaceted membership.” These are legitimate, but they’re spammy-sounding enough to make Google’s algorithms roll their eyes.
We have two lawyers to thank for the present bounty of spam. The first (extant) unsolicited electronic advertising blast began with them, back in 1994. At that time, personal email wasn’t common, and many people communicated on Usenet, a network of discussion boards popular in the early web. Usenet members had taken to calling unwanted and recurring postings spam, inspired by a famous Monty Python skit during which a group of Vikings enters a restaurant and sings the praises of “Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam! Lovely Spam!”
In April of that year, two partners at an immigration law firm demonstrated the awesome, irritating power of this new technology: They sent an advertisement for their services to 6,000 Usenet discussion boards. According to an account in the Berkeley Technology Law Journal titled “Spam—Oy, What a Nuisance!” the lawyers incurred “a blistering avalanche of flames” and caused their Internet service provider so much grief they were quickly kicked off it. Despite the outrage, the stunt brought them new clients, they claimed, making it all worthwhile. More importantly, “businesses, along with charlatans and pornographers, caught on to the enormous commercial opportunities in the low-cost, mass-communication medium of the Internet.”
Fast-forward to today, and it seems like the charlatans and pornographers have inherited the earth. Despite spam’s sub-appalling reputation, however, it’s not completely worthless. If you look closely, our teeming digital garbage bins contain nuggets of insight about digital culture and our current anxieties and values.
Consider the spam emails themselves. Peering back into my own inbox, it becomes clear that there’s a spam continuum. It ranges from absurdly scammy (subject line: “YOUR [USD$2.500,000.00] IN ATM CARD” to merely very sketchy (subject line: “Making business funding great again”; this was sent by a “business funding company” whose address is a house in Massapequa, Long Island). At the opposite end is the faux-spam, emails sent from actual businesses that trigger false-positives due to spam-like tactics and wording.
Also, though it may seem counterintuitive, our overflowing spam folders are actually a sign that spam works. Spammers are many things, but they’re not irrational; they know that a potential mark is hiding in some nook or cranny of the web, and they’re willing to shoot out tens of millions of messages—a fairly typical day’s work from a functioning spam bot—to find them.
A lot of people are clearly interested in an unbelievable deal on the little blue pill, no matter if it’s spelled V1agra, Viag!ra, or in some other way that both thwarts an email service filter but still successfully identifies the product to recipients. In fact, pitches for cheap Viagra are such a spam staple—various studies claim it’s the most commonly advertised product in spam messages—that in 2007 American Scientist devoted an entire article to the topic, “Computing Science: How Many Ways Can You Spell V1@gra?” The author calculated that there are over a million possible permutations of “Viagra” that could conceivably evade a filter and trick a target.
It’s not just Viag!ra, either. The truth is, we click on lots of uninvited offers. In an exhaustive 2012 report titled “The Economics of Spam,” researchers Justin M. Rao and David H. Reiley estimated that spam generates approximately $200 million per year. And that’s only if you define spam narrowly as “unsolicited commercial email,” as Rao and Reiley did for their article. If you include phishing, a form of identify theft in which scammers fraudulently obtain personal or financial information from targets, the kitty enlarges substantially. According to the Huffington Post, nearly $500 billion a year is lost from the practice.
Spam’s real value, though, is that it exposes our worries and weaknesses. It’s not a coincidence that almost every single spam message sitting patiently undigested in your inbox is dangling the prospect of more money, more hair, less belly fat, better health, a larger and/or more consistently erect penis, or a better mood. Actually, our spam says a lot more about us than the spammer, who’s merely an opportunist. The grammatically challenged, possibly Russian Mafia–affiliated spam mastermind bombarding your inbox wasn’t born yesterday, you know.
If you want to know a culture’s insecurities, look at its spam folders (or shopping carts—there’s probably quite a bit of overlap). Messages may be bizarre, comical, inept, or all three—see “YOUR (USD$2.500,000.00) IN ATM CARD”—but taken in aggregate, they’re not so random. There are consistent themes buried among the horrible spelling and assaulting fonts: beauty, youth, vanity, fear.
There’s plenty of meaning to be wrung from something that seems so trivial. In a 2011 article in the art criticism journal October, “Digital Debris: Spam and Scam,” the artist and critic Hito Steyerl insists that the link between spam and the offline (read: real) world is a lot less tenuous than we’d like to think. “Despite its apparently immaterial nature, digital wreckage remains firmly anchored within material reality,” she writes. Spam the food product is an apt metaphor for spam the email nuisance—and not just because both are punch lines. The food product “has been through the meat grinder of industrial production,” says Steyerl, much like the bizarre, impersonal—and industrial, or at least technologically advanced—promotions targeting our inboxes.
Both the food product and the email product are inauthentic substitutes, offering synthetic remedies for the ills of modernity:
It is painfully obvious that most products marketed via e-spam are supposed to enhance bodily appearance, performance, and/or health. Email spam is a format that attempts to act on bodies: by cashing in on role models of uniformly drugged, enhanced, super-slim, super-active, and super-horny people wearing replica watches so as to be on time for their service jobs.
Viewed from this angle, spam isn’t all that different from the questionable financial, beauty, and health products hawked on midnight infomercials or those web ads touting the benefits of “one weird trick.” In a sense then, spam could be viewed as an exaggerated version of the advertising industry, which also takes aim at our desire to be more youthful, healthier, sexier, happier, and more unique.
Email spam is an artifact—or more accurately, a group of trillions of obnoxious, irritating artifacts—of the age. If there’s a lesson to be learned from it, it’s that someone, somewhere, will always try to make a buck off our insecurities and anxieties. Today’s Vi@gra kingpin is yesterday’s snake oil salesman. The fake supplements change, and the tactics change, but the desires remain. For all its talk about revolution, tech hasn’t been able to debug the problem of self-consciousness. Solving this puzzle really would be one weird trick.