Spam: In Your E-Mail and on Your Blog

Spam: In Your E-Mail and on Your Blog (Jerz’s Literacy Weblog)

Wikipedia has an excellent overview of spam — electronic junk mail. A strict definition of spam identifies it as unsolicited commercial bunk messages, but viruses that send multiple copies of infected messages, and chain letters bearing bogus virus warnings or charitable messages are responsible for another kind of spamming.

SPAM® is a canned meat product from Hormel; the name derives from “spiced ham,” which is how it was initially marketed (starting in 1926). Because the cans did not require refrigeration, it was an economical and convenient way to get meat in your diet. You have probably heard of the 1970 Monty Python SPAM sketch, which features a chorus of operatic Vikings singing the praises of the ubiquitous product (which was plentiful in Allied nations during wartime, when many other products were carefully rationed). I’ve seen several online references to a website that credits Hormel with creating the first commercial jingle in a 1940 ad that featured the word “SPAM” repeated in a jingle sung to the tune of “My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean” (see “The SPAM Story“) but that doesn’t ring true — I imagine that there were radio jingles long before that.

Unsolicited bulk messages have existed ever since there have been messages, but it is so easy today for a small number of spammers to make the internet virtually unusable.

The internet and other forms of electronic communication are not free. Someone has to build it, design software for it, and maintain it. But the cost of sending any individual message is insignificant. A marketer who sends out a million e-mail messages may get responses from a fraction of a percent of recipients, but that may be all the marketer needs in order to make money.

The tragedy of the commons describes the human tendency to take more than one’s fair share of resources that appear to be abundant and are unmonitored. Originally “the commons” was a public, grassy area where people could graze their flocks. A small number of people who unethically overused this shared resource could destroy the grass completely.

Seton Hill University’s internal spam filters regularly trash any e-mail sent to me from a hotmail address; this has caused some distress for students, and some tension at home (since my mother-in-law uses hotmail).

For a while, I completely gave up on my Yahoo account because of unsolicited bulk e-mail (mostly due to viruses, which flood my in box with numerous copies of unwanted messages) that rapidly filled up my in-boxes, thus preventing me from getting the messages I did want.

Competition from other advertising-supported e-mail services caused Yahoo to improve its interface; now it does a good job of filtering out the bulk messages. Occasionally, when I see a junk message in my regular in box, I feel virtuous when I identify it as junk, since by doing so I might help hide it from potentially millions of others who get the same message. I recently installed the free open-source Office add-on SPAMBayes, which learns from what I have classified as spam in the past, and predicts the spamminess of every incoming message. If it contains certain keywords that rarely if ever appear in messages that I consider to be legitimate, the spam score rises. If it contains keywords that often appear in messages that I consider legitimate, the spam score drops. If it can’t predict, the message goes into an “unsure” folder, which is where messages go when they have mostly de!iberately mispe!!s w0rds designed to exploit the human ability to recognize alternate ways of spelling.

Spam in blogs is another matter. Every couple days, I receive one or two junk messages. But I’ve recently created the 170th blog on These blogs all exist in the same database; they are accessible according to a program that can be rather easily hacked. One day I found over 300 spam messages across the blogs, which rendered the “50 most recent comments” page unusable. I installed MT-Blacklist, a free extension to Movable Type, which cannot actually prevent the creation of spam, but does simplify the removal. MT-Blacklist has a master blacklist, which contains URLs and keywords that other MT users have banned from their blogs. All a spammer has to do is create a new URL that isn’t on the list, of course, but without MT-Blacklist I think I would have given up on academic blogging.

At any rate, if you have a MovableType blog, and your MT installation includes MT-Blacklist (as all the Seton Hill blogs do), you can help keep your blog (and everyone else’s) less clogged with spam if you go to “Weblog Config” and check the box “E-mail new comments.” You will get an e-mail message shortly after anyone posts to your blog; the e-mail will include a link that you can use to delete the comment from your blog and add the sender’s URLs to the MT-Blacklist. If the spammer is actively spamming hundreds of Seton Hill blogs at that moment, you might be able to help me block intrusions into other student blogs.