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Spam is a term so ubiquitous that everyone in the internet world takes it for granted, yet it is one of the first ever examples of an internet meme. The Oxford Pocket English Dictionary defines Spam as:
• (noun, trademark) a canned meat product made mainly from ham;
• (noun, internet) an irrelevant or inappropriate messages sent on the Internet to a large number of users.
• (verb: to spam, spammed, spamming) to send the same email message indiscriminately to (large numbers of users).
-- DERIVATIVES: spammer (noun).
-- ORIGIN: apparently from the first two and last two letters of spiced ham; the Internet sense apparently derives from a sketch by the British ‘Monty Python’ comedy group, set in a cafe in which every item on the menu includes spam.
This is the Monty Python sketch to which the definition refers, where an old lady attempts to order food at a cafe, but does not like spam. Although spam is not actually included in every item on the menu, the frequent use of the word drowns out any options that do not include the word spam.
Its online usage began in the early 90s with Usenet netizens who flooded IRC chatrooms and forums with the word “spam” in reference to the repetitive and unwanted presence of Spam in the sketch. This phenomenon has been reported in early Usenet discussion threads as well as court decisions handed down in lawsuits against spammers (ex: CompuServe Inc. v. Cyber Promotion in 1997).
Eventually, It was adopted by the general internet population to classify unsolicited emails taking up space in their personal inbox, which made it difficult for users to find the messages they actually wanted to read.
One of the earliest examples of “spamming” can be traced back to a mass e-mail sent out by a Digital Equipment Corporation employee in 1978, which announced the release of a new DEC-20 machine and invited people to the company’s receptions in California. They were chastised for breaking the ARPANET appropriate use policy, and a notice was sent out reminding others of the rule.
Spam as Solicitation
Spam was used originally as an advertising technique designed to reach the largest number of people possible using the minimum amount of effort, but it has gained notoriety through its over use. Typical adverts include classics such as “Enlarge your penis today” or even the Zimbabwean millionaire. All such spam is sent automatically by bots known as spambots, and typically encourage the user to give away private information such as bank details for use in fraud, or contain viruses which steal information from their mail list to spread even more spam.
Spam as a Digital Weapon
Over the years, the annoying qualities of spam have been used deliberately to overwhelm and incite confusion in online communities. On image boards such as 4Chan, for example, the infamous “sagebomb” technique has been used to flood threads with sage posts, ageing the thread until it dies whilst ensuring it does not get bumped. On forums around the world, spamming is used by spambots to advertise a product, and by humans to demean or offend their target. When raids are done on websites or forums, spam is used as a primary weapon thanks to its ease of use and devastating effect.
Entire organizations have even been formed to hunt down the elusive groups that propagate spam, and a war is being fought in the bowels of the internets by various groups who have taken it upon themselves to try and kerb the spam epidemic.
The Future of Spam
Like an implacable mountain, spam has been here since the dawn of time, and will remain imposing itself on the conciousness of those who have seen it long after we are all dead and gone.
Like a spoilt brat, it will irritate anyone who has to deal with it every day.
Spam is, in essence, the Great Granddaddy of all internet memes; an original concept which, when attached to an item of pop culture, spreads like wildfire through the public consciousness. It has gained definition through the years through a combination of notoriety, parody, as a message in and of itself and even through use as a weapon.
Spam is here to stay.