Spamlove, by Jon Casimir - 1st May 2004
The Sydney Morning Herald)
For the past couple of years, one of my late-night
hobbies has been writing poetry. Not the heroic, manly
verse of adventurers and dreamers. Not the dry-as-dust
rhymes of the bush bards. And not the sensitive, soul-bearing
lines of would-be chick magnets. I've been writing
- though perhaps constructing would be a better word
- spam poetry, piecing together odd little narratives
from the subject lines of the junk email that pumps
into my Inbox like digital effluent.
That's a very good question and one I don't think
I could answer without therapy. Perhaps it's better
not to ask. All I know is that this hobby has made
me probably the only person in the world who actually
looks forward to checking out my new spam every morning.
It has somehow made me able to look past the fact
that spam is the common cold of the digital era -
something we all get, something we're all irritated
by, something we all feel that science should have
eradicated by now.
time I counted, I was getting more than 200 unsolicited
emails every day. That's about 20 for every legit
one I get. It's quite a lot in the eyes of most people,
though it's nothing to brag about. I've run into gnarled
old netheads who claim, with more than a hint of Monty
Python in their voices, to receive much more. "200
a day! Luxury! I get 500!" "500! 500!! I
get 1000, and that's before elevenses!!!"
I'm thinking a thousand would be a bit of a slog,
but 500 mightn't be so bad. After all, the more junk
I get, the more chance I have of finding inspiration.
You never know when the perfect line will appear.
And though many lines re-appear ad nauseum, there's
always hope that today will be the day that something
new and irresistible falls onto the screen. But I'm
getting ahead of myself.
did I get to this point of reconciliation with one
of today's most unpopular intruders? In the late 1990s,
when it became obvious that junk email was on an exponential
trajectory, I ranted and railed against it with the
best of them. Spam is, after all, the only form of
junk mail that costs us money. We pay to download
it. We take care of the bills for the bastards who
send it. That injustice raked across my spine, narrowed
my eyes in anger.
after staring at all the spam for long enough, I began
to see curious things. As with those 3D pictures that
were all the rage a decade ago, concentrating on the
screen allowed me to see patterns and shapes. After
a while, I began to develop a vaguely academic fascination
with junk email. I began to wonder what it said about
the world we live in.
occurred to me that, in a way, spam can be seen as
an index of contemporary anxieties. It arrives not
in our quasi-public letterboxes, but in our very private
Inboxes, and so its content tends to be intimate.
Because it has this access to our personal space,
successful spam is able to play on personal fears,
on our vulnerabilities. It hunts for psychological
buttons and presses them. Spam attacks our inner selves
in ways that other, more public advertising can't.
is also a Darwinian aspect to its nature. The more
you get about a certain subject, the more it suggests
that subject embodies a particularly robust anxiety.
If there weren't people out there responding to the
weight loss offers, those deals would surely slow
down or stop.
time, I began to develop an appreciation of the spammer's
true art: the subject line. Because, let's face it,
the hardest part of spamming is getting your message
read. It's pretty easy for the emailee to delete at
will. The subject line has to grab our attention and
convince us to click.
became an almost admiring onlooker, watching the sleight
of hand, the textual gymnastics, the coercive techniques.
Most spam attention-seeking gambits are simple, straightforward
calls to action ("Save on Ink cartridges",
"Get a bigger rod"), but there are also
other, more curious approaches, my favourites of which
Friend The email that pretends to be from someone
you know. Its subject line is chatty and informal,
along the lines of "Hi Dave" or "Dave,
you left your umbrella at my house". Usually,
the name is whatever is in front of the @ symbol in
your email address, though in the past year I've noticed
the spammers are trying random names, probably in
the hope they'll hit the jackpot eventually. Recently
I actually got a "Hi Jon" email, and it
felt sort of dirty.
Official Notice The trick here is to use a phrase
that connotes urgency or a problem we would normally
have to deal with. These can come in the form of familiar
lines such as "Your account is overdue"
or computer jargon such as "Undeliverable mail"
or "Failure notice". I've been caught this
way a billion times.
Trojan Horse A subject line at complete odds with
the content of the email, designed to tantalise you.
Not long ago, I was receiving bunches of Get Rich
Quick spam with pornographic subject lines. Oddly
enough, at the same time, I was regularly receiving
porn spam with financial subject lines. I guess each
business was after the other's target market.
Filter Beater These have become much more common in
the past couple of years, as people have tried to
keep spam at bay. Basically, they're the ones where
the keywords are altered so the kill software won't
pick them up. They look like misspellings, but they're
intentional: "Medi.call.y proven to en.lar.ge
your p.e.n.is nat.ural.ly" or "X@n3x, V|c0d1n
, C1al1s Low Pr1ces".
Salvador Dali A subject line so weird that you feel
you have to check it out. They can be as simple as
"pupate" or as complex as one I got last
week, which was curiously reminiscent of 1960s poetry:
"inconspicuous thunderclap marvin upholster ester
denture nadine brighton tallow cancelled abash worthwhile
coffee wuhan dusenbury windstorm alligator or paleozoic
minneapolis gentility nairobi bump".
one morning in late 2002, I had an epiphany. I noticed
- and I don't know why I hadn't seen this before -
that there were juxtapositions in some of the subject
lines on the screen. If I remember correctly, it was
the following sequence that struck me:
have what you need
my white cotton panties
Size does matter
I realised that if I could collect enough subject
lines, I could bolt together some Frankenverse. Or
Spoetry, as I prefer to call it. Since then, I've
copied and stored away more than 10,000 promising
subject lines. I've finished about 70 spoems, and
have about half as many in various stages of completion,
most waiting for the perfect line to come along. This
was one of the first and remains a favourite:
a Russian mail order bride.
Yours to Have Today!
Not too old to put out!
Buy 1, get 1 free!
you can order in complete privacy
14 day free trial!
IT'S CALLED FREEDOM
appeals to me about spoems, apart from the dumb fun
of putting them together, is the strange resonances,
discordances, between the lines. Sometimes it's obvious
where a line has come from. Sometimes it's not.
Carey has some exciting news for you!
School Holiday Program
Play Free Head to Head Games of Skill
Play for Fun or Play for Real!
Cutting edge toys for children
Naughty 'n' wild
She'll make sure you have fun in 30 mins or less
cobbled together a few spaiku:
I do it because its fun
White Teeth Guaranteed
to My Pets
I know what you are doing
No, oh, that's just wrong
even managed a limerick, though getting the syllable
count right was a killer. For the past year or so
I've been showing them to friends, who say nice things
but give me that "You've got too much time on
your hands" look.
Can You Do in 3 Minutes?
Look out your window
Make a child happy
Groom those bushy eyebrows
Get residency in Panama
Lose 10 lbs.
What's in the junk email
went through the past 4000 spam emails I received
and sorted them into categories. What emerges is a
list of the popular anxieties, a jigsaw picture of
human worry. If you asked most people to guess, I
suspect they would say that the vast majority of spam
was made up of The Three Ps: pornography, penile enhancement
and pharmaceuticals. And it's true that these dominate,
but it's equally clear that we're as worried about
money, our looks, our futures, and about our many
and varied weaknesses.
assistance - 16 percent
Get Money Fast options - 13 percent
Pharmaceuticals - 12 percent
Pornography - 12 percent
Discounts and "free" offers - 10 percent
Weight loss/health products - 7 percent
Stock tips - 4 percent
Degree offers - 3 percent
Car products and services - 3 percent
Insurance deals - 2 percent
Dating services - 2 percent
eBay tuition - 2 percent
Unreadable foreign spam - 1 percent
Discount cigarettes - 1 percent
Cable TV deals - 1 percent
Work from home plans - 1 percent
than 1 percent
DIY spam software
Nigerian-style fraud scams
the prime subjects of spam culture remain fairly constant,
it is always open to fad.
a month last year, I averaged 40 Paris Hilton emails
a day, almost none of which had the same subject line
(they got weirdly, progressively more twisted). In
March this year, not a day went by without many people
offering me one or another spin-off product from Mel
Gibson's The Passion. For all the inherent degeneracy
of spam, our Christian friends have not been backward
in using it.
next week, Icon will feature spoetry on page 3. If
you love it, hate it, or feel inspired to write your
own, send your thoughts or verse to email@example.com
Sydney Morning Herald
will spam be banned?