From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

March 29, 2006*: Spamming me softly with his song.

Four and a half years ago, when e-mail users were already in the midst of a junk mail onslaught that threatened to cause them to return to snail mail, I wrote (referring even then to a column written four and a half years earlier) that "Spam comes in many shapes and sizes, and often one person's junk mail is someone else's cup of tea". Since then, I have to admit that the situation has only gotten worse. The quantities of spam that inundate our inboxes have unquestionably taken a toll on our productivity. A bit more than a year ago I admitted that enjoying spam today is much more difficult than it once was. The pure bulk of it has seriously impinged on the pleasure that used to be an integral part of the expectation of opening the morning mail. But on that same page I noted that a recent study in Canada had shown that a significant percentage of people actually seemed to appreciate the spam they received. I don't think that this was a case of every cloud having a silver lining - in this particular case it seemed simply that the various offers that arrived via e-mail were actually of interest to those receiving them. My own silver lining for spam is somewhat different, an attitude change that says "if you can't beat 'em .. enjoy 'em". With the right attitude we can find worth even in the worst of spam.

Back in my undergraduate days I played around with found poetry. I fondly recall a friend and myself comparing notes from elevator rides - we'd enter an elevator on the middle floor of a building and get out before the end, and write down the snippets of conversation we overheard from others riding the same elevator, arranging it as "poetry". Similarly, a favorite book of mine from back then was Pop Poems by Ronald Gross. In this book, Gross presented text snippets from advertisements, news clippings and more within a "poetic" framework. Essentially, this re-presentation invited us to approach these text snippets from a different perspective, one that engendered a somewhat unexpected respect toward them. The same sort of thing can be done, and of course has been done, with spam.

Straight run-of-the-mill e-mail spam, however, doesn't hold any special attraction. It isn't significantly different from advertisements that we might find in our junk snail mail, or pasted, perhaps, on a billboard, or simply in a magazine advertisement. What's interesting, even poetic, about e-mail spam is the result of the attempts that spammers make to sneak their way into our inboxes. Many of today's best spam filters use what is known as Baysian filtering. Baysian filters basically attempt to determine the probability of a particular term being used in a legitimate e-mail message as opposed to in a spam message, filtering out messages that, through this system, have a high probability of being spam. There is, of course, a mathematical explanation, but it's really not necessary. One page (which also includes some excellent examples of spam poetry) gives a very down-to-earth explanation:

Bayesian filters rank each word in an email according to how likely it is to be spam. An email containing nothing but the words "Viagra, mortgage, and porn" will almost certainly be filtered out. But if the email also contains a high number of non-spam words, it can elude such filters.
And this explains how spam poetry comes about. If the undesirable words, those that are readily identified as spam, are couched within text that the Baysian filter identifies as perhaps logical, or admissible, the message gets through. So, spam poetry is basically the result of the attempt to use mathematical calculations to ferret out spam.

People have been taking note of spam poetry from at least as far back as 2000. SatireWire ran spam poetry contests in 2000 and in 2001. The results are pleasant, and some of the "creative" writing very well done. But most of this is cut and paste spam poetry, and I like mine straight, even if there's a rather inherent problem in using these texts "as is" - quite quickly they get boring and monotonous. The Register, in 2004, also posted a collection of spam poems - also submitted by readers. They avoided the problem of monotony by keeping things short, to only a couple of lines. The Register, by the way, has a wonderful definition of the phenomenon:
those bursts of random, spam-filter-busting language which somehow transcend their mundane purpose and burst into the golden light of literary glory
Kristin Thomas was attracted to spam poetry out of what might be described as desperation. She tells us that, as a result of so much e-mail spam, she was beginning to feel sick:
I started feeling a little angry every time I sat down to my computer. I had to do something.

This site is that something. I write poetry, using only the subject lines of the hundreds of pieces of spam that I receive every day. A little bit Found Art, a little bit Whimsy, and mostly, just to find a way for me to find a peaceful intersection between digital communication and my life.
There are probably many of us like Kristin who have decided that we might as well make the best of this.

As such, spam poetry belongs to a well-established artistic tradition. (A BBC News article traces some of the roots of this phenomenon.) Each new technological development forces upon us a change in our aesthetics. I've never researched the subject, but I'm sure that there's a great deal of literature that deals with the changing image of machines and industry in art. As industry became an integral part of peoples' lives, artists found beauty in what might previously have been considered ugly and not worthy of depiction in art. Dada not only poked fun at the everyday object as art object. It also demanded that we redefine our aesthetic tastes in accordance with the reality of those objects. Pop Art continued this trend, but did so in an era in which we were inundated with images. Remix culture isn't new. It is perhaps most clearly realized on the dance floor, via pop music. But William Burroughs was remixing well before hip-hop, and many in the literary world were relating to what he did as high literature.

Spam poetry is a game. It springs from the not always desirable changes in our everyday reality, from the unpredicted input of new technologies that have become central to our lives. Our appreciation of it stems from the need, even the desire, to explore the new spaces created as a result of these technologies. This changing reality compels us to develop a new aesthetic. There's no doubt that we suffer from spam and few of us would be disturbed if it somehow miraculously disappeared. But, along the lines of "if you've got a lemon, make lemonade", as long as it's here, we might as well learn to appreciate it.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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