The Birth of "Spam"

An Eyewitness Account

In the digital communications world, the last thing you want to be seen as is a spammer.  Spammers are pretty much universally despised, and provoke severe sales resistance in almost all sentient lifeforms.

To understand what “spammer” truly means, this historical vignette of the birth of the breed may be illuminating.  The origin of the term “spam,” as applied to email and similar communications, is much debated by those who do not know its true origin, and can only conjecture.

As an alternative to guesses, I offer this eye-witness account.

In the mid 80’s, before the debut of the World Wide Web (1994), internet access for most non-academics was a dial-up connection to a service like PeopleLink (colloquially known as Plink) or later America OnLine (AOL).  There was a popular chat room, a group of about a dozen online friends that hung out just about nightly, and perhaps a dozen more almost-regulars.  It originated on Plink and later migrated to AOL.  I was one of the almost-regulars, and even attended one of the parties where they all met face-to-face.

The room was often visited by guys looking for cybersex.  The regular crowd rated these loud interlopers as totally classless.  If they couldn’t take a hint to leave and they disrupted the flow of conversation, two of the regulars would perform an act to encourage them to depart.

They would rapid-fire post the text of the Monty Python “Spam” routine, trading line by line.

Man:Well, what've you got?
Waitress:Well, there's egg and bacon; egg sausage and bacon; egg and spam; egg bacon and spam; egg bacon sausage and spam; spam bacon sausage and spam; spam egg spam spam bacon and spam; spam sausage spam spam bacon spam tomato and spam;
Vikings:Spam spam spam spam...
Waitress:...spam spam spam egg and spam; spam spam spam spam spam spam baked beans spam spam spam...
Vikings:Spam! Lovely spam! Lovely spam!
Waitress:...or Lobster Thermidor a Crevette with a mornay sauce served in a Provencale manner with shallots and aubergines garnished with truffle pate, brandy and with a fried egg on top and spam.

Etc etc etc ad nauseum.  They would fill up the bandwidth with it, making all other conversation impossible to follow.

The “Spam” would flow, the regulars would wait patiently, the intruders would get bored and leave.  Then the Spammers desisted and the conversation resumed.  I saw this done on at least half a dozen occasions, and it is, to the best of my knowledge, the true birth of the modern usage of “spam.”

So, “spam” is unwanted, useless communication that chokes out real conversation.

The “spammer,” however, has changed from a defender of the sanctity of the communications channel, to the polluter of the channel.  (Alas, the noble and victorious spammers of legend are no more!)

Now, whether it’s e-mails, texts, tweets, blog posts… if you pump out communication that’s useless to anyone but you, and viewers have to wade through it, you’re a spammer.  You will attract the contempt that spammers now rate.

That doesn’t mean don’t communicate.  Marketing requires communication. But if you "only want one thing," everyone will be able to tell, and they won't be very interested in your pickup line.

The real lesson is, make your communications useful.  Give the reader valuable information to recompense his time for reading.  Be someone worth having a conversation with, not a spammer.