Sunday, August 19, 2007

Brief History of the Spam-UVerse

While the idea of using the latest communications medium to bolster one's business is probably as old as civilization itself, modern spam's likely ancestor is the iconic Western Union.

In the late 19th century, Western Union allowed its telegraph lines to be used to send multi-user telegraphs advertising dubious investment opportunities to its wealthy clients. The impetus for allowing this was simply: cash or the promise of it.

It is the temptation of receiving large sums of cash which drives spam, after all, and the idea of allowing one's database to be co-opted in return for increased cash flow is just too much to resist.

In 1978, Gary Thuerk sent the first documented modern piece of "spam", setting off heated discussed across the nascent internet. At that time, the net was mostly a collection of eggheads, students, geeks in basements, and government workers who reacted with appropriate amounts of shock, dismay, and righteous indignation. (It always amazes me that they could be so naive as to think the internet would remain off limits to commercial exploitation.)

Internet veterans quickly labeled these multiple postings "spam", widely though to be a reference to a popular sketch by the British comedy group Monty Python's Flying Circus. (If you haven't seen it, rent the DVD and watch it- it is a hoot.)

In March of 1994, a couple of internet newbie immigration lawyers named Canter and Siegel used a Perl script written by a Phoenix programmer to generate advertisements for their service of doing paperwork for people wanting to participate in the US "Green Card Lottery."

Because there was no world wide web yet, Usenet Net Newsgroups (in which I participated myself ) were the recipient of Canter and Siegel's infamous multi-post.

Entitled "Green Card Lottery- The Final One?, it was sent to at least 6,000 Usenet discussion groups, which was a very large number at the time. I remember seeing that particular post on more than one newsgroup to which I belonged.

While I thought nothing of the post, and simply ignored it, net vets immediately struck back through the first large-scale use of software programs known as "cancelbots", which trawl Usenet and kill specific messages. Punishment was swift for the violation of unwritten Usenet etiquette, and Canter and Siegel wound up with a world of woe. They managed to bounce back somewhat by turning into spammers for hire and writing a book:

How to Make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway : Everyone's Guerrilla Guide to Marketing on the Internet and Other On-line Services.

Using today's standards, Canter and Siegel barely elicit a yawn . What is 6,000 compared to the hundreds of thousands which can now be sent out at once, after all?

Moreover, the green card scheme is tame when you compare it to the e-mails most of us get every day offering everything from pornography to internet gambling to samples of Viagra.

However, Canter and Siegel's gross breach of netiquette drew attention to the internet's possibilities as an advertising vehicle with enormous potential. With the emergence of AOL, which brought the internet to hundreds of thousands in a short period of time, spam was destined to become a new form of urban blight and in some cases, an extremely profitable way of getting one's message across.

Next: Spam defined- What it is and isn't

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