Spam, the Neverending Story

Unwanted communication is as inevitable as it is persistent. 


We've only been calling it spam, officially, since about 1998, but unwanted communication has long found ways to infiltrate otherwise legitimate channels. Like dandelions in the sprawling field of mass media, spam messages will sprout wherever they can; And they tend to cluster around technological advances.

"This is something that has existed probably since the invention of the printing press," said Robert Anguizola, assistant director in the Federal Trade Commission's division of marketing practices. "If you can mass-produce a message and send it, you've got mail solicitations. That's been around forever."

Spam, as we now know it, refers to irrelevant messages sent to mass recipients online. Legally, its definition is narrower; culturally, more expansive. But it's always been the case that as communication gets more efficient and cheaper, we receive more unwanted messages.

More than a century ago, subway systems and automobiles revolutionized the United States Post Office Department's ability to carry bulk mail.

1915 New York Times screenshot

This was great news until people (including postal carriers) realized they didn't necessarily want all the stuff that was being sent. By 1906, Congress debated what to do about bulk mailings—including newspapers—that "swamped the mails" and bogged down efficiency, according to The New York Times that year.

1954 New York Times screenshot

In the 1950s, Congress tackled the question of "junk mail," material that could be delivered to people's houses without names or even specific addresses. Letter carriers received such mail in bulk, often from advertisers, with instructions to deliver one to each mailbox on a given postal route. (The practice was finally banned in 1955. The junk mail of today is required to give consumers the ability to opt out.)

In the 1980s, automatic telephone dialing technology and lower long-distance rates brought an onslaught of junk telephone calls and junk faxes. It wasn't long before spam email became the new scourge.

By the late 1990s, America Online—then the biggest Internet service in the United States—estimated that one-third of the email it delivered was spam. (Spammers complained in their defense that AOL's own pop-up ads ought to be considered spam, too.) Early anti-spam solutions seem kind of hilarious by today's standards. Microsoft made an inbox that would automatically block messages with subject lines including both an exclamation point and a question mark. AOL urged its users to forward the spam emails they received to "For now," The New York Times cautioned in 1998, "most people should put only a moderate amount of trust in the E-mail system."

These days, we may have better spam filters for our inboxes, but scam messages still reach us—like this baloney that recently sneaked through my Gmail spam filter: "I have inheritance for you Kindly contact me."

Its sender kept the body of the email empty—and instead used the pre-set signature line for the message above. Meanwhile, people are getting text-message spam, comment-section spam, and spam across all stripes of social networks.

If the data we leave behind is the reason these networks are so valuable in the first place, then it makes sense that our online activity is like breadcrumbs for marketers and scam artists. Whereas some European countries restrict marketers from creating advertising profiles using data collected about individuals from their behavior online, no such regulations exist in the United States. So there's huge—and in plenty of cases, perfectly legal—incentive to find pathways to the platforms where your data lives. Naturally, more nefarious attempts to get to your data crop up in the same places where you're already opting to put yourself out there. And so: Spam Facebook accounts make friend requests. And, on Twitter, spambots flock to high-profile hashtags—promising weight-loss tricks and free prizes. Here's a message I recently received over the same text system that sends me government alerts for the District of Columbia:

There's even spam for the people who, yes, still have pagers. (Many of the pagers that doctors now carry have text-message capability, which leaves them vulnerable to unwanted SMS messages.) Then there's next-generation spam that floods popular apps. Snapchat users have reported receiving snaps telling them they are "today's winner," and directing them to a website to "pick your prize." (The site, which is registered with a New York phone number, then asks users to input personal information.) Tinder users have for months complained that the site is overrun by robots that send flirtatious messages before requesting a person's credit card number.

Earlier this year, promoters for the sitcom The Mindy Project advertised the show on Tinder by making people believe they had "matched" with star Mindy Kaling. Though some people may have felt deceived slash heartbroken that the real Mindy Kaling wasn't interested in them, this kind of advertisement isn't spam per se. The battle against spam requires us to define a rather slippery practice. When does a message cross over from advertising to fraud? Which messages are protected by the right to free speech?

What is spam anyway? 

In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission is the agency that ends up fighting off spammy communications—though the agency's definition of "spam" is pretty narrowly defined to "email."

"We enforce the CAN-SPAM Act, which has a very specific definition of spam that covers electronic mail messages," said Anguizola. "But we've also brought cases involving text spam using [the FTC's] unfairness authority,"

Earlier this year the FTC used that authority to stop a common spam text scheme that promises recipients free gift cards at retailers like Walmart, Target, and Best Buy. The agency filed complaints against defendants who allegedly sent more than 180 million spam texts. Yet robocalls remain the "biggest complaint" the FTC receives, Anguizola told me. "We don't subscribe to the notion that we just have to live with this. What we hear from consumers every day is that they really care about this issue. They don't want their time wasted, they don't want their inboxes clogged, they don't want to be bombarded with messages that are unwanted and in many cases deceptive. We take that seriously."

The tricky thing about unwanted communication is that the line between free speech and deceptive or fraudulent activity can be blurry. For the FTC to successfully fend off spam, the agency almost always has to prove the sender is being deceptive—like a spammer who promises a free prize or inheritance is coming your way, but ends up asking you to pay money to get to it. The FTC argues that recipients of text message spam—just like junk faxes before—suffer because they incur charges to receive communications they never asked for in the first place. "And people can't avoid it," Anguizola said. "There's nothing short of throwing away your phone or pager that you can do to stop it."

The unwanted communications we encounter on publishing platforms like Facebook and Twitter may feel like all the other spam, but there's a key difference: These platforms are built for engagement. Another way to think about this is that unwanted messages on social networks are inevitable because these networks are designed to be engaging, open-publishing platforms—the same way that email spam thrived because it piggybacked on the basic functionality of email itself.

Publishing fundamentally invites response, and the structure of an online publishing platform is built around the idea that the data you share—status updates, tweets, photos, geolocation tags, etc., etc.—is for an audience that can talk back.

So are mass Facebook invitations to an event you'd never reasonably attend spam? Are those invites to play Candy Crush Saga spam? Are political rants posted to your Facebook wall spam? Not really. But they are reminders that on an open publishing platform, the gate between publisher (you) and audience (your friends or followers) swings both ways. And it's supposed to. We may hate those pre-roll ads that play before YouTube videos, but they're built into the business model of the platform. With so many publishing platforms now available to us, we're collectively figuring out the social etiquette for communicating in new ways. A journalist friend griped on Facebook recently: "Things that aren't okay: PR pitches to me in comments on my old Instagram photos. What is that even?" Annoying and weird? Yes. Spam? Not in a way that can be regulated.

In the digital publishing age, we can control some access—privacy settings that allow us to handpick our audience, unfriending, or unfollowing. But we still can't control all of the messages delivered to us. That's not the Internet's fault; it's part of engaging with people in any online or offline environment. And as the line between offline and online disappears, the number of messages we receive will grow. It turns out that in any age, whatever the technology, navigating unwanted communications is a fairly significant part of communicating at all.