Hold the Spam
                  Make Money, Naked Babes . . . Arggh
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also This just in from dreams@hotmail.com: "You were referred to me as someone who may be interested in the following information." Oh, sure. I wasn't really "referred"; my e-mail address was harvested from Internet discussion groups or searches of Web sites or service-provider customer lists, and then sold and resold. A lot of my e-mail these days begins exactly the same way and continues: "If you are not, please let us know, and we will promptly take your name off our mailing." This, too, is a lie.
   Want to make money fast? Want to look at pictures of naked babes? Want FREE 1 yr. USA Magazine Subscriptions? A cure for heart disease? A $785,000 Dream Home Giveaway!!!? If so, then you are the person who is supposed to be getting all this mail. To judge strictly by my mailbox, the Internet, formerly thought to be a hothouse of intellectual and artistic creativity, has now mutated into a sales bazaar as scummy and senseless as any on the face of the planet.
   The fellow at hotmail.com advised (with the odd grammar and capitalization that go with the genre) that "If You Didn't Make $5625.00 Last Week You Owe To Yourself And Your Family To Give our Program Serious Consideration!" Just minutes before, a self-described M.D. with a return address of A-Winternational@msn.com asked me to imagine my daughter or son on the phone with a 911 dispatcher. "Why? You are lying on the floor in the kitchen, clutching your chest, panic stricken. You are 45 years old. In addition to fear, lots of things are racing through your mind." You bet, doc.
   One is that this is a hidden charge for all those free Internet sites that demand e-mail addresses and other personal information as the price of admission. Another is that humanity has never before encountered a form of advertising that costs its senders so little. Its targets, in fact, pay more, particularly if they belong to an online service that bills by the hour. Anyone with an Internet connection and a list of e-mail addresses can send millions of letters for, roughly, nothing. If you doubt that, just read my e-mail:
"There's nothing that even comes close to this media of marketing. Everyday 10,080 new people log on-line that's 10,080 new prospects everyday! We'll put it to you like this lets say your selling a product for $39.95 and you E-mail 1,000,000 people with your marketing letter and you only get a 1% response rate that's 10,000 ORDERS, you can do the math on this one!!"

   Are you wondering whether these marketers have any respect for privacy? They certainly do. Just not yours. "There will be NO TRACE to your existing e-mail address," they promise the would-be junk mailer. "There will be NO WORRIES ANYMORE about sending out mass e-mail! With our service, you can mass e-mail till your heart's content!"
   Has a century of marketing science come to this? The promise, or threat, of the Internet is supposed to be that marketers will gather such detailed information about our personal habits that they will home in on us like laser-guided missiles. If they have something to sell to the 14 people in the greater Kansas City area who like Thai food and drive a Chevrolet Suburban and listen to Crash Test Dummies, their databases will be ready. That is scary—but if they know so much about me, why do I keep getting mail from the online equivalent of dirty old men opening their raincoats: correspondents like jenny@babeview.com, whose epistolary method is to remark, "WoW :{}" and "See ya," by way of inviting me to look at fuzzy pictures of naked women?
   Many Internet users object violently to mass mailings of this kind, calling them "spam" and pressuring service providers to cut off the offenders. America Online, whose mail programs must deal with millions of such letters daily, has acted to block mail from a list of senders that it updates continually: from 1stamend.com and bulkemail.com to sweeties.com and youvegotmail.com, and including cyber-promo.com, cyberpr0m0.com, cyberpr0m0ti0ns.com, cyberprom0.com, cyberpromo.com, and cyberpromotions.com.

That last ever-mutating set belongs to Cyber Promotions Inc., a company that has been battling America Online and other services in court, so far unsuccessfully. "I can guarantee you that in a couple of years this will be a part of American life, just like every other kind of advertising," says its founder, Sanford Wallace. "I don't mind getting commercial e-mail at all, because I want to see what's going on out there. I also don't have a problem with watching frogs in the middle of the Superbowl." He sees a bit of hypocrisy in America Online's response—back in the real world, America Online is famous for flooding nonvirtual mailboxes with promotional disks by the ton.
   Mailings of paper and plastic, intrusive as they are, do cost money, so marketers have to exercise some judgment. The Internet makes it all too easy to fling random illiterate drivel across the planet, with fake return addresses. "I make a ton of money," says Frank de Roos 3d, whose company, de Roos Global Dynamics, is another big mass mailer ("Business Opportunity. $10 000 Dollar Reward !!!"; "AT LAST!! Something That Will Positively Change Your Life Forever"). He adds, "The largest demographic profession on the net is salespeople--you're talking about a bunch of salesmen selling a bunch of salesmen." Wallace and de Roos's mailings typically come with boilerplate instructions for having your name removed from their lists—but this is an exercise in futility, if my own experience is any guide.
   Internet aficionados often note that the origin of the term spam is obvious. Perhaps not quite—unless you happen to remember the Monty Python skit about a couple in a restaurant, trying to order some actual food, while a chorus of Vikings sings "spam spam spam spam, lovely spam, wonderful spam, spam spam spam spam," louder and louder, until that is all anyone can hear.

Copyright 1996 James Gleick
First published in the New York Times Magazine 22 December 1996