On May 3, 1978 Gary Thuerk—cursed be his name and all of his decedents to the seventh generation—sent the first unsolicited mass business electronic message shilling a new computer model from Digital Equipment Corporation to 393 West Coast ARPANET users, most of whom were ticked off. But he sold a handful of pricy computers. A business model was born.
Commercial messages had been sent before, but each message was sent individually. Thurek, evidently a lazy jerk, casually asked a subordinate—probably a harried secretary—to use an ARPANET directory and just send ‘em all out at once.
Around the same time nerds with access to valuable computer time were playing multi-user Dungeons and Dragons games in chat rooms. At least one of them came up with the idea of flooding the rooms with nuisance messages shutting them down and preventing them from playing the game—a malicious use of mass messaging.
Both developments were copied, slowly at first, but picking up steam as more users hooked up to what became known as the Internet.
The term Spam for such activity came a bit later, in the early ‘80’s. It was first applied to the then popular Bulletin Board discussion groups. Participants wishing to silence another began to type the word Spam scrolling in long chains, forcing opponents’ entries far down, and hopefully out of notice. Spam was used in reference to the classic Monty Python sketch where a waitress recites the menu—consisting entirely of the ersatz canned meat product accompanied by a chorus of Vikings.
It did not take long for the term to be applied to flooding Usenet newsgroups with unwanted messages. At first it was sort of pranking—Star Trek fans vs. Star Wars sort of thing. But it turned malicious 1993 in response to the Automated Retroactive Minimal Moderation (ARMM), software intended to allow Usenet newsgroup administrators to somewhat regulate abusive postings and ban offenders. Many regarded this as censorship and in response Usenet was flooded with mass multiple messages which were characterized as Spam.
By the mid 90’s increasingly Usenet was also being flooded by Make Money Fast chain letters.
Spam on a really massive commercial scale was credited to attorneys Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel who flooded newsgroups with advertising for their immigration law practice. The so-called Green Card spam was wide spread and harshly reviled. Defiant the husband and wife lawyer teams attacked their critics as censors and anti-capitalism. They also set themselves up as self-appointed experts in e-marketing authoring How to Make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway, which they marketed, naturally by Spam messages.
As the Usenet and newsgroups faded with the rise in popularity of e-mail spurred by America on Line (AOL) and then outfits like Yahoo!, spam migrated there.
Soon elaborate programs were developed to harvest e-mail address and mass e-mail lists were being peddled to big commercial users for huge amounts of money. There became a technological race between e-mail service providers and spammers to filter or ban the messages.
Today a majority of most e-mail can broadly be categorized as Spam. More if messages sent to people who inadvertently agreed to a “business relationship” are added to those totally unsolicited. It has literally driven users, particularly younger folks, away from e-mail entirely in favor of instant messaging, phone texting, and social media platforms.
And the spammers? Well, they keep finding new ways to get in your face whether you like it or not.
Happy birthday, indeed!