Season 3, Ep. 28 – TWiTH: The first spam message, with Abbey Charles, Content Lead at Gun.io
Spam can mean quite a few things, only one of which is super tasty (spam musubi, if you’re wondering), but when it comes to the dreaded emails and text messages, it all dates back to one guy flooding a message board with his marketing spiel. This Week in Tech History, Faith and Abbey discuss the sorted history of spam messaging.
(THE FRONTIER THEME PLAYS AND FADES OUT)
Whoa. What a cool podcast recording background.
I know, right? It’s actually like the, it’s just the…
Oh my gosh.
The rest of the basement’s pretty sweet.
Oh my gosh. This house is so cool.
It’s fancy. They have a self-flushing toilet upstairs, which I am just like, blown away by. Yeah.
What? (Abbey: <Laugh>.) It’s one of those things that I would like, never, I would never pay to have installed in my house, but if it was there, I’d be like, (Abbey: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) “This is sick.” I’d show everybody who came over <laugh>.
Yeah, like, the the couple who owned this house before just did like, every, there’s like full surround sound with like, speakers embedded into the walls and ceiling and all sorts of really cool stuff. There’s a little fountain in the backyard, and…it’s been a relaxing place to be this weekend.
I went to Central City, which is like a gambling town up here (Faith: Oh, yes. Yes.) for my friend’s bachelorette party. It was super fun. I was ill-prepared for the weather.
Oh, yikes. Is it cold?
Yeah <laugh>. (Faith: <Laugh>.) Like, living here for 20 years, I should have known, (Faith: Yeah.) but I looked at the weather at the beginning of the week, and that’s how I packed. It snowed sideways all day on Saturday. (Faith: No.) I was like, these three tank tops are doing me no good.
<Laugh>. Hopefully they had heat in Central City.
They did. It worked well. (Faith: Great.) They wanna keep the gamblers happy.
<Laugh>. As you do. Well, speaking of people who live on the edge, gamblers and this guy, Gary, how do you pronounce his name, do you think? Gary? Thew-werk? Thew-werk.
Yeah. Too-werk? (Faith: Thew-werk.) I dunno. I think Thew-werk sounds good.
Okay. We’re gonna call him Gary T. Okay.
Okay, Gary T.
Abbey, I have been so looking forward to this episode, because you sent me something that absolutely, I was in the middle of like 16 different things, I was like, “Oh my god, today is so busy,” and then you sent me this little, like, prep for this episode, and I spent the rest of the day reading this Wikipedia, going down a rabbit hole of this crazy story about our man, Gary.
Yeah. And not just Gary, like the whole, like, there is a spam rabbit hole that you can go down for like, days.
Yes, yes. Where are the documentaries? I need them.
(RETRO SYNTHESIZER MUSIC FADES IN) This week in tech history, it’s the earliest known case of spam. May 3rd, 1978, the first known case of spam messaging was sent out by a man named Gary Theurk <spoken ‘Thew-werk’>. (Abbey: T. <laugh>. ) We’re gonna go with that. He was a marketer. Oh, no, he was a marketer!
A stain on us all.
I blame Gary for every mean thing that’s ever been said about our job. Okay. He was a marketer for the Digital Equipment Corporation and was tasked with promoting the company’s new DECSYSTEM-20 computer, as well as two upcoming presentations where that computer would be assessing ARPANET, basically the first real version of the Internet. He shared this message with several hundred users and was met with immediate and furious negativity, with one person even claiming the message crashed their system. Come on. That’s crazy.
Feels egregious, but also like, pre-internet days. Who knows? Of course, at that time it wasn’t called spam. It was just an irritating mass message. The name was granted to the practice in 1993 when a man by the name of Richard Depew…oh, this is the homie. Richard Depew accidentally posted 200 messages to a Usenet news group message board. One person referred to the messages as spam, and the name stuck. If you are that person, and you happen to be listening to the Frontier podcast, I don’t know what you’re doing here, (Abbey: <Laugh>.) hopefully you’re famous, but that’s wild.
Hopefully you’ve figured out a better way to message people than…
I know <laugh>.
…200 messages at once.
Its first commercial appearance came the following year, when two Arizona lawyers paid a developer to post a message to as many of the Usenet news boards as possible. Like the sleezeballs they were, (Abbey: <Laugh>.) the two men promoted their spam practices as a great way to market online. In 2003, the CAN-SPAM act is signed into law, establishing the first drill guidelines against spam messaging. Just a year later, Bill Gates proclaimed spam will soon be a thing of the past, I mean, I wish, (Abbey: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) but since it accounts for up to 85% of the email we received today, that’s insane. It’s safe to say his definition of the past still is a few years to be realized. Bonus fun fact: Americans lost $703,000 to Nigerian princes in 2019. What?
You never got hit up by a Nigerian prince?
Oh, man. Yeah. It was like a big spam thing. It was like, who would believe that a Nigerian prince needs money from you?
Who knows? Maybe I did pay them, and I just forgot. (Abbey: <Laugh>.) I wrote it off as like, a donation on my taxes or something <laugh>. That’s crazy. Also crazy that 85% of email that we receive is classified as spam.
And I think it’s not even just like, not even just email now. (Faith: Right.) Like, how many text messages do you get that are…
Oh my god. One million thousand. I mean…
Those ones that are like, “Hi Jessica. Are we still down for dinner tonight?” Like, “You have a wrong number.” “Oh, well, who are you?” I’m not falling for it again, I don’t need internet friends like that.
I don’t get those, but I get so many that are like, “Hey, if this is the wrong number, just let me know, but do you still own blah, blah, blah address?” which is the name of the home I own, and it’s like, you know, some wholesaler trying to buy my house. I get a million of those, and then I’ve been doing like, I refied, and I’ve been like, maybe looking at a rental property, (Abbey: Oh <exasperated sigh>.) and every single time it is, I mean, I had to turn my phone off for a day, which I don’t think my phone has ever been off. It was insane. Like, nothing could come through. No real messages could come through, ‘cause I was just getting like, back-to-back-to-back calls.
And you know, that like, one of them is important, so you can’t, (Faith: Yeah <laugh>.) you have to have your spam filter off.
Yeah. Yeah. (Abbey: Yeah.) There’s like an actual lender that I was trying to talk to. When did the idea of spam messaging first enter your purview? Do you remember your first spam message?
I don’t, but I was like, a very early adopter of Hotmail. (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) I mean, probably when I was in like, fifth or sixth grade. (Faith: Whoa.) I couldn’t tell you what it was, but it’s…Hotmail seemed to be ripe for that. This was way before spam filters too.
Also, how are we defining spam? Is it like, messages you didn’t realize that you signed up for, but you did, because you had a box checked when you were checking out? Or is it like, someone buys a list and you end up on that list? Is it like scammers?
I think both of those, I counted as like, anything that the message has no intrinsic value (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) where it’s like, it’s not bringing you anything good. I feel like there’s something nefarious about it, no matter what it is. Like, if you’re marketing something, and you’re sending a bunch of messages about it, some people feel that that’s spammy, but…
But is it actually spam?
As a marketer, I would never say that. It’s just us trying to sell the product. Yeah.
Right. It’s a marketing email. Like, there’s whole departments dedicated to marketing emails.
I think it’s anything that’s like, trying to trick you, (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) is what I would consider spam. Pretending to be a Nigerian prince, for example.
Or like, we always get the “clipping path, good service” emails to our like, team email address here, (Abbey: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) and it’s like, what even are you? We clearly did not opt into this. There’s no way this is a BDR that’s been that committed for five years.
And I think a lot of it probably comes from lists that got sold.
Or scraping, right? Like, anyone who, we have our email address on our marketing site, so…Abbey, have you ever, I bet the answer is no. Have you ever fallen for a phishing scam?
Well, okay. No, not technically, but you know, when you, I don’t know if you’ve ever had this experience. I’ve worked for a couple of like, large corporations where they do the phishing scam tests to see if you’ve opened one, (Faith: Oh.) and if you did, then you have to go through the fishing tutorial again. So there have definitely been ones where like, I fell for it, and I opened it, and I looked at it, and I was like, this is not legit, (Faith: Yeah, clearly not.) but because I opened it, it technically could have infected my computer, but they were just tests. They were phish tests to see if I was savvy enough to not open them, and apparently I failed.
I haven’t thought about like, opening messages and receiving viruses through by way of opening the message in so long. That feels like something that was true in the ‘90s, but is that even still a thing? Like, if I open an email, and it’s spam, could I get a virus?
I feel like you’d have to open some sort of attachment.
Attachment, right? Or like, link.
Right, and so I’ve learned to like, look through the links to be able to figure out, you know, I’ve done enough of these spam trainings now that I feel like I can be pretty good at not opening one.
Yeah. I’m not gonna click on an attachment, and I’m not gonna click on a link. I might copy the link URL and like, inspect it <laugh>, but I’m not gonna like, go to the link.
I’m certainly not sending Teja any gift cards.
No, no. No, no. (Abbey: <Laugh>.) I do remember the fear of god being placed in me as a child and being like, you know, “Do not open messages, blah, blah, blah.” Meanwhile, I was, you know, obviously on Limewire, just infecting the shit out of my like, old Dell computer <laugh>.
My dad still has Norton Antivirus.
I’m like, dad, Norton is…(Faith: <Laugh>.)
I’m not gonna trash talk anyone in this podcast.
<Laugh>. Yeah. Yeah, yeah yeah.
But it’s like, there are a lot better ways to deal with your cybersecurity needs than Norton <laugh>.
Abbey, obviously, we’re both marketers, right? So like, we are tasked with talking to a large amount of people. How do we make sure that what we’re doing doesn’t come across as spam?
I mean, I kinda just feel like, like I said, like, there has to be some value in what you’re sending out, you know? (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) And it has to be, I don’t know how you contextualize what like, an appropriate cadence is, but you know, like, not sending 15 emails a day. This was really, it was a fine line. So like, the last place I worked was a retail brand, so we did B2B and B2C and like, direct-to-customer from the website. And so when you’re like, selling products, I just always felt like it was spam, even though it’s not. (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) That was the job of the company is to like, we’re trying to sell shoes, so you have to tell people about the shoes. (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) But yeah, I think it’s just like, are you sending something that’s providing value? So, you know, like, we have those, the email sequences that we send out to your clients. Is there something of value in each of those emails? And if you can tell yourself “yes”, and you know it is true, then I don’t think it’s spam, and I think it’s worth sending, (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) because we can’t do our jobs without constant outreach for stuff like that. You can’t let people forget about you, but you also can’t let people hate you.
Yeah. I feel like we get a lot of feedback, and it’s important if you don’t want your shit to be spam, to listen to the feedback. And so that feedback can be in like, your open interaction and reply rates on your messages, and if you’re not getting any sort of action on them, then people do not like them or want them. (Abbey: Yep.) And it might not be like, this is a job of an email marketer, right? Like, your job is to figure out like, what do people actually want and or need, and how can you make that obvious right away, like, from the subject line, so that people who want or need that thing actually open and read your email? (Abbey: Yep.) That’s one method of feedback, and another is like, your deliverability, right? Right? Like if your deliverability rate sucks, it’s because people are marking it as spam. So it’s not just that they don’t wanna interact with it, it’s that like, to them, it’s coming across as spam.
Or even if, you know, like if it’s not deliverable, because a list has been purchased, and it’s like, how defunct are X, Y, and Z, or whatever number of email addresses that are in your list. (Faith: Right.) Not that I agree with buying lists like that, but it has a place, I guess.
Yeah, jury’s out on that one. I don’t know how I feel about it, but yeah, I think like…
I’m not saying it has an ethical place. I’m just saying it has a place <laugh>.
Right. Right. Like, currently, like, legally there’s still a way to do it. Yeah, I think like, anything that requires communication is different. Like, if you sign up for something and you’re like, “Alright, cool. Next steps will be in your inbox.” Like, that’s clearly not spam, (Abbey: Yes.) and it’s the job of a marketer to make sure that it’s clearly not spam from the subject line. And then the other is like, yeah, sometimes I like, treat my inbox as a newspaper, kind of, and if you subscribe to newsletters, and that’s what you want to be getting, (Abbey: Yeah.) but of course it’s still a fine line. You gotta let people unsubscribe. I have been cleaning out all of my like, branded promotional email stuff that gets delivered to my Gun inbox, and it’s been really interesting to see which publications and/or companies have no “unsubscribe” button. And as the generous marketer that I am, I have not been marking those as spam. I’ve been emailing them to give them a heads up, but like, that’s nuts that that’s still happening.
That is really nice of you <laugh>.
I know, right? Thank you. Thank you for giving me some credit.
I unsubscribed from all but like, one particular email from this company, and yesterday I got nine emails in a row from them. (Faith: No.) I was like, “That’s spam.” (Faith: Yeah.) “That’s too many.” And it’s not that like, I guess that’s a caveat to like, does it have intrinsic value? Like, every one of those emails has intrinsic value, because it’s talking about a different segment of something, but not to me. (Faith: Yeah.) I didn’t ask for those. I don’t want them.
Yeah. I asked to not receive them.
I hit the unsubscribe button.
<Laugh>. Abbey, your note here says that 80% of spam messaging comes from 100 companies. (Abbey: Yeah.) How is that true? What are those companies? Like, would I know any of them?
I didn’t research that <laugh>.
Okay, great. Well I’m going to research it after this.
Like, they would just write scripts to start sending out emails, (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) and it’s, I mean, I’m not sure where all of them are based. (Faith: Okay.) I think like, the top three are in the U.S.
Here’s what I’ve found. Just on (Abbey: Okay.) old Google. First of all, here’s my query, “companies who send the most spam emails”. The first ad that shows up on Google Ad Words is “Send unsolicited emails. Hit inboxes, not spam folders.” <Laugh>. What? Ok.
Like, “Do something shady,” <laugh>.
<Laugh>. Here are the companies who, according to Fortune magazine, send the most spam emails. Groupon. I agree. My Yahoo inbox, that’s like, my throwaway inbox, is just full of Groupon. Living Social, Facebook, Meetup, J. Crew, Twitter, Victoria’s Secret, and LinkedIn.
I mean, I guess like, my entire Social folder in Google is all LinkedIn and Twitter.
Yeah. I mean the question that we have here is like, how is that possible? How are they skirting around laws regarding spam messaging? And I think it’s the same as like, you know, kind of SEO, like, how are people, how are we good at SEO? While there’s like, companies or people that just like, really understand the loopholes, and rules, and when to include this word, and not include it, and Togglebox. Like, I would assume that’s what it is, right?
And probably having to like, constantly update your processes (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) to skirt those rules, and I think that’s like, when you’re talking about SEO, like, there are a lot of things that Google changed to make it so you can’t game their system, (Faith: Right.) and as soon as someone figures it out, they change it again. (Faith: Yeah.) I dunno. I wonder if it’s like, the context in which they’re being sent. It’s like, you technically signed up for these emails, so you’re getting something that you asked for. I dunno what all was included in the CAN-SPAM Act. I do love the name though.
Me too. Easier to remember. Love a good rhyme. Okay, but this is the craziest part about the whole thing. To me, according to your research, spam messaging is largely ineffective. That’s not surprising, but this metric is surprising, so average response is one person for every 12.5 million messages. You get one response. (Abbey: Right.) So what’s the point?
Back to the Nigerian prince, like how many emails did you have to send out to get $700,000 from Americans? (Faith: Right.) ‘Cause It seems like the return rate on that, I mean, did you just happen to hit up the people who were like, super gullible and also had a lot of money? Like, how much are you paying the people who are doing all of this spam to make that worth it?
You have to have a pretty solid, I don’t know, like, criminal enterprise set up, because according to LexisNexis, so if the FTC rules in your favor on a CAN-SPAM violation, you can seek civil penalties up to $16,000 per violation. So that’s per message sent with no maximum penalty. So if somebody sends 12 million messages and all 12 million of those people submit a CAN-SPAM violation complaint, and the FTC rules in their favor, like, that is an insane amount of money. So like…
That’s my new side hustle.
Oh my god. Yeah. I should, that’s…I wouldn’t have to work for the rest of my life after that mortgage application. (Abbey: <Laugh>.) So surely they just have to have like a really excellent criminal enterprise set up, and there has to be like, essentially untraceable, right?
I mean I love that like, the first people who were like, “Yeah, this is exactly what we’re doing. We’re lawyers.”
They were like, “Oh, we know the rules.”
Yeah, but were there even rules then? I don’t know.
2003? (Faith: Yeah.) God, that was only 20 years ago?
And now you can get spam a million different ways. So nice. Great.
So nice <laugh>. Yeah. 2003, which is why you and I both have such formative memories regarding spam.
Yeah. That’s always just kind of been there.
Yeah. There is a piece in the Sunday Times like, maybe a year or two ago, that was about scam callers and like, the whole enterprise. This like, reporter went to India and interviewed some of the callers. If this episode has made you wanna fall down a rabbit hole, like Abbey and I, as it relates to spam, and scam, and all the nefarious dealings in modern day technology, then you should read it. It’s pretty great.
So did the people who were making the calls feel bad about it? Or to them, was it just like, “This is a job.”?
(THE FRONTIER THEME FADES IN) There were like, traces of empathy, but otherwise it was like, “Yeah, this is a job. This is how I provide for my family.” And you can also listen to it. I think they had it on the Sunday read. Yeah, they had it on The Sunday Read, too. So pick your poison, baby. Read it. Listen to it. It’s great fun. And never give somebody money who you don’t know personally.
Yeah. Don’t download anything.
Don’t download anything. Do not give somebody your routing information. That’s all.
Don’t send gift cards.
Thanks for coming to our TED Talk.
Thanks for listening to The Frontier podcast, powered by Gun.io. We drop two episodes per week, so if you like this episode, be sure to subscribe on your platform of choice, and come hang out with us again next week, and bring all your internet friends. If you have questions or recommendations, just shoot us a Twitter DM @theFrontierPod, and we’ll see you next week. (FRONTIER THEME ENDS)
Yeah, I just got a cat friend right behind the computer.
Nice. Hey, Kitty! <Laugh>.
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