The joy of junk mail

Or, how I stopped worrying and learned to love spam.

Published November 14, 2001 8:30PM (EST)

Back in the pre-Internet days when spamming was called junk mailing, a friend of mine hatched a scheme to power his heating boiler off uninvited mail. He believed those glossy "you have been shortlisted for the mega sweepstakes finals" packages, complete with their colored envelopes, peel-off price-cut stickers and documents that used four different fonts on one page would burn with a beautiful bright flame on cold winter nights.

After the Net came along, at first I was annoyed that I couldn't burn uninvited e-mail, or at least make it into papier-mâché animals. But then I discovered the unexpected: I like spam.

First of all, there is so much of it. Yes, I know, the volume of the stuff drives most people close to hysteria. But when the hash-smoking CEO of the dot-com I once worked for confided to me in mid-2000 that he was overwhelmed when he returned from his yoga retreat weekend and found his in box had 17 e-mails in it, I thought he was losing his grip. I was getting 50 to 60 e-mails every day and managing fine.

And now that I get more like 100 to 120 e-mails a day divided across three accounts, I'm no longer just managing fine. I'm exhilarated.

The sheer number of people out there trying to sell me ink cartridges, chain letters and bogus university degrees -- on an hourly basis -- is starting to give me a kind of strange high. Remember those books about prosperity thinking? How the world is overflowing with digitally encoded cash, brilliant ideas, truckloads of freshly baked bread, sports bags filled with emeralds, whatever? Well, what could give a better sense of abundance and vastness and plenitude than masses of desperate, corny sales pitches delivered right to the desktop? He has only to log on and his in box shall be filled until it brimmeth over.

The exciting muchness of spam is only part of the story, but what a wonderful part it is! All over the world, not thousands or tens of thousands, but hundreds of thousands of people are trying to do stuff, and do it with me! The approaches may be crude (well, downright moronic in most cases) and repetitive, but such energy! Only the most small-minded and self-satisfied of people could fail to be thrilled by these waves of fresh contacts from eager people, all trying to make something happen.

And then there are more practical benefits to spam.

Spam offers great lessons in what works and what doesn't. When you spend time reviewing the pitches strangers are sending you every morning and afternoon, it becomes painfully evident why your own job applications and sales letters yield so few results. You never open an e-mail from someone you don't know? Better make more contacts. You never open an e-mail with a vague subject line? Better start making your own subject lines clearer and simpler. You never read an e-mail longer than five lines? Better learn to say clearly what you want to offer in four lines, obviously.

This might strike some foes of spam as treasonous, but have you ever stopped to consider that you might actually want some of what the spammers are pushing? In the few seconds it takes to click through and delete your daily mound of spam, there's a chance you might come across an agreeable offer.

What surprises me is the sheer unbelievability of all this spam hysteria. "It takes me hours to find my real e-mail," squeak the pompous victims who demand that spammers should be sealed into concrete bridge supports. Hours? Well how is it that I am able to check and delete my daily spam in roughly two minutes each day? And if I am really in a hurry, less than 30 seconds? Do I have godlike spam-processing powers denied to other mortals?

And is it just me, or are the spammers beginning to learn? I think spam is getting better. The sheer ease of sending gazillions of pitches that recipients complain about so bitterly is matched by the wondrous simplicity of the "delete" button. Spammers are becoming more sophisticated and less rude by the month, I believe. Ten years hence, when spammers have learned from the ruthless Darwinian process of being clicked or filtered into oblivion, those who are left in business are going to be some of the most focused and sharp-minded salespeople the world has ever known. They'll know so much about selling things, we prospects will actually be glad to hear from them. Millions of us, not just unhinged types like me.

In the meantime, you, the recipient, can enjoy, every day, the gorgeous rush of power that derives from the action of deleting dozens of imploring letters with one finger movement. This is not a small psychological benefit. For millions of years up until now, only a minority of humanity, namely very beautiful young females, have had daily access to this thrilling moment of casual refusal. But spam has democratized this! Now all of us can thwart hordes of pathetic courtiers with no more effort than the twitch of an exquisite eyebrow or a bored glance in a different direction. Glory in your newfound freedom to dismiss and erase other people's futile hopes ... thousands of times a month!

And what about beachcombing. If the Internet can be surfed, then should the surf not wash up daily detritus on the cyber coast? Spam is the flotsam and jetsam we find strewn on the beaches of our in boxes after the storms of the night. Grow to enjoy combing your beach in a few seconds a day to see the random signs of humanity left behind. Take the unforgettable day one spammer offered to enlarge my penis and another offered to enlarge my breasts. I never met anyone interested in ideas, knowledge or progress who was not necessarily interested in variety and new things, even at the price of clutter, junk and other odds and ends lying around.

Spam-haters grow bitter and lyrical about the absurd entreaties from spam business offers that want to give us all something for nothing -- but they want something for nothing too: a free e-mail account no uncouth salesman is allowed to sully. "I would be more than happy to pay to have this nuisance removed," respond the pursed-lipped prigs of spam regulation. But this translates as "I already have most of the things I need for my life to proceed as I wish and I am not interested in hearing from losers who want to waste my time, thank you very much." Ask yourself one question, ladies and gentlemen. Would you really like to have a drink with this person? Frankly, I suspect that if I absolutely had to choose, an hour in the company of someone who thinks they can sell me herbal Viagra or put ancient curses on my enemies would be far more fun than an hour with an anti-spam bore.

Above all, think this through: Why is spam so annoying? Because you like the ease and convenience of e-mail, that's why. So your in box matters to you. Over the last decade it has become hugely easier and quicker for you to contact others on a much bigger scale than photocopied letters or even fax machines ever let us dream of. And you resent the fact that hundreds of thousands of nobodies now find it correspondingly easier to contact you? This is worse than snobbery; this is "access greed": wanting to have access to others for yourself but for them not to have access to you.

This is the dirty secret of the anti-spammers. You want free speech for yourselves, and perhaps for others sometimes -- as long as you don't have to listen too often. Even listening for the 30 seconds it takes to delete a bunch of uninvited petitions is apparently too much for these people. Free speech -- as long as it has a nice, secure one-way valve attached?

By Mark Griffith

MORE FROM Mark Griffith

Related Topics ------------------------------------------