Author’s Intent, Spam

The advent of electronic communication in the early nineties gave rise to a particularly annoying means of advertising which earned the title of “spam” after the Monty Python skit in which the word is repeated over and over. Just like in the sketch, junk messages arrive, often repeating the same pitch, frequently from the same advertisers thinly disguised under different names, filling one’s inbox with useless drivel. The term originated on Usenet newsgroups which were the original target of spammers hoping to reach a potential audience of millions. Initially there were protocols and “netiquette” that governed such engagement, but these standards were relaxed in the mid-nineties, leading to an increase in advertising posts in inappropriate newsgroups.

The most notorious example was a post by husband and wife immigration attorneys Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel who were trying to drum up business for their “Green Card” services, and employed individual posts to thousands of Usenet newsgroups reaching millions of users who probably didn’t require their services, many not even in the United States. One wonders why they felt illegal immigrants would be surfing the Internet in droves, though I suppose there were quite a few folks from India, Asia, and the Middle East in US colleges who had overstayed their student visas. Their efforts got the couple banned by their ISP and triggered the first massive campaign to combat spam on the Internet, but the genie was out of the bottle and within a year, Canter & Siegel had rebranded themselves as online marketing experts.

Repetition was not solely the province of Internet spammers. As he was conducting his decade long campaign to become House Speaker, Newt Gingrich taught the Republicans to “stay on message” repeating the same talking points over and over, giving the appearance of solidarity regardless of whether they reflected the individual politician’s true ideals. The idea originated with Gingrich’s publications in the eighties and while I was a correspondent with The Signal, Georgia State’s student newspaper, I interviewed a few Republican candidates for office who sounded like they were reading from the same script. Along with giving the Republicans control of the House during the Clinton administration, Gingrich’s ideals have contributed to the increasing polarization of the two parties in US politics over the past three decades.

Whenever I would complain about spam emails during the nineties the first thing I would hear is, “Just delete it.” I wonder how many folks from that era would, so flippantly, dismiss the idea today. Unwanted solicitations are an increasing annoyance for everyone who has an email account and numerous apps and add-ons exist to stop it. Every ISP and online service includes tips for stemming the tide and avoiding the related problem of phishing schemes that trick users into giving up their login information. Today’s spammers include, in my opinion, many recruiters, who call, hang up, then immediately call again, and often include emails and text messages as well. I have frequently found such posts so useless, that I delete them outright.

Meaningful content exists in contrast to unsolicited spam. Meaningful content clarifies; it makes sense of what’s written. It doesn’t obscure the facts, rather, it supports them. Meaningful content is “news one can use” and provides helpful information to aid in making informed choices. Most importantly, meaningful content is often solicited and not simply foisted upon us by overzealous marketers. Opt in rather than opt out is a much more welcome strategy for fostering better communication.

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