Birthday spammers

It's your birthday -- and online marketers know just how to celebrate your special day.

Published July 27, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

There is no respite from the machinery of spam. Four years ago, I entered my name and birth date into Thomas Boutell's World Birthday Web. It seemed like a sweet thing to do at the time, a simple way to enjoy the new interconnectivity made possible by the Net. Plug your name into the Birthday Web, and you would be assured of a passel of electronic greeting cards from complete strangers, come that happy day.

Well, my birthday came around last Sunday, and as has happened every year for the past four years, my mailbox was suddenly stuffed with salutations. It might seem silly, but I usually enjoy reading these missives from parts and people unknown. Except this year it wasn't quite so much fun.

This year, one well-wisher used my entry on the Birthday Web to invite me to subscribe to his SuccessList -- "full of tips, hints, and stories about success!" I also got two birthday greetings that were actually advertisements for electronic greeting card services, one that encouraged me to try out a particular brand of font software and a solicitation to sign up for a joke-a-day mailing list.

There were, in addition, a couple of messages from people who just seemed to want to say, "Happy birthday." Thank you. But the clamor of clever spammers nearly drowned out those voices.

Boutell, a virtuouso programmer who has contributed much to the Net and is the maintainer of the Frequently Asked Question file for the World Wide Web, warns Birthday Web users that "Advertising mailings of any kind are inappropriate ... Anything other than a personal message to an individual is an inappropriate use of this list and a violation of our copyright." But the warning doesn't appear to have much force behind it. It just encourages the spammers to be a little bit more sensitive than they usually are -- to disguise their pitches as generic signature files appended at the bottom of the message, or as casual throwaway lines. One person even went so far as to specifically declare that the message was not "unsolicited commercial e-mail" -- as sure proof as you can get that the truth is in fact the complete opposite.

Maybe I'm just becoming a grouchy old Net coot -- but this last birthday took just a little bit more shine off of the joy of Net interconnectivity. Next year, I might just have to keep my birthday to myself.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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