On the Net you can never be sure, but probably no one thinks that if Canter and
Siegel had never lived the Net would never have been spammed. The technology
was there, and computers were made to be programmed to do boring, repetitive
tasks such as post the same message 10,000 times. Canter and Siegel were
simply the messengers who arrived to tell us that the Net had reached a critical
mass and was attracting people who neither knew nor cared about all those sacred
values of net.culture and net.religion. Evidence that there are probably more such
people on the Net than there are dedicated Netizens mounts daily. The best efforts
of the Cancelmoose and others notwithstanding, very few Usenet newsgroups
escape without at least some garbage. At least people have caught on to the notion
that replying and complaining is worse than the original disease, so these
messages are less disruptive than they were at first. People, sadly, have to some
extent gotten used to the junk, just as Canter and Siegel insisted they should. But
there is still a loss, in that those who really want to get away move to electronic
mailing lists. This is a shame, because although mailing lists are also public, they're
less convenient to use and not as easily found by newcomers.
One commonly proposed solution is moderation, that is, putting the newsgroup into
the hands of someone whose job it is to make sure that irrelevant material doesn't
get posted. Although this works, it means someone has to devote a great deal of
time to managing the newsgroup (or mailing list), and it also undercuts the public,
accessible nature of Usenet and makes it more difficult to get quick answers to
questions when you need them. While moderated electronic conferences have a
place--systems like CompuServe have built their entire business model on them--
there is a value in the existence of open, public cyberspaces. In the real-world
analogy, you don't have wardens patrolling the public conversations in bars and
coffeehouses, even though a host will control the flow of questions and discussion
after a lecture.
That was 1994 and 1995. But 1996 brought a new scourge: junk email.
Somewhere along the line the spammers figured out that a whole lot of people
didn't read Usenet and began sending spam directly as email. In the last week of
November 1996, I got ten or fifteen of these things, advertising "adult" Web sites,
investment schemes, online newsletters, a cookbook (three copies in less than an
hour), "Free Stuff!" and three different varieties of bulk emailing software.
I get much less junk email than many long-time Net users do, because I post to
relatively few newsgroups (apparently posting to the Novell NetWare newsgroups
will get you a ton of advertisements), read only a few mailing lists (and generally
don't post to those), and until early 1997 didn't have a personal Web page (even
though I wrote an article on how to do it as early as 1995). One of the most sinister
and upsetting episodes of junk email I ever heard about occurred on one of the
commercial online services, where a group in one of the support areas received a
mailing clearly derived from their participation there.
What's especially galling is that the emailer always pretends to care about your
time. "Reply to this message and type REMOVE in the Subject field," they all say,
promising if you do this you will never hear from them again. The problem is that on
a lot of text-based systems (Delphi, to name one) there's no way to edit the subject
field of emailed replies; you have to start a whole new message. In addition, most
people suspect that sending a remove message in fact validates your address as a
working address, and that while this particular advertiser may never write to you
again, all the others will. (It's more likely that the remove messages are just
discarded.) Quite often, by the time you send the remove message the emailer's
account has already been terminated and the mail bounces.
Once, in the many junk email messages I've received, I got an apologetic,
obviously personal reply when I wrote requesting that the advertiser cease and
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