18 Apr 96
e-j-mail: The Dirge of the Internet
Extra: The Museum of Clueless Internet Marketing (Warning: large file with graphics)
[The following column is an unselfconscious ax-grind. Beware of flying sparks.]
You stuck the floppy in ... you signed on ... and it was good. You explored the "information superhighway" (more like you were sucked in) ... and it was good. You found out about Finder ... and it was good. And you stayed online, on the Internet, reveling in newsgroups, Web sites, software treasure-troves and a whole virtual community where the word, the idea, the belief reigned supreme. All for one rather affordable price (sort of). And it was all good. In fact, it was fun.
You enjoyed relative freedom to send instant electronic mail ("e-mail," formerly a jargon term) and get responses back -- fast. Managing it was easy. You learned to express yourself in a new form, ASCII text, using "emoticons" and "smiley's." You met people you wouldn't normally encounter, made new friends, found new cliques to hang with. Your concept of "local tribe" was blown away. You even found that you could explore different varieties of your personality, easily, safely; MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) and other virtual communities provided "toy situations" in which to play out intimate renderings of your hidden self.
Then ... a dark day came. Some asshole blew a whistle, and all his asshole marketing buddies jumped on the bandwagon. It was no longer fun. In fact, the whole, previously shiny online world began to look more like a garbage dump every day.
Cheap and Sleazy: Three Steps to Internet Spamming
The Internet is now being overrun with hordes of advertising know-nothings, each making a dirty buck representing naïve entrepreneurs who think that some kind of pot of gold lies at the end of the 'Net rainbow. The ads landed on the beachhead of the newsgroups, inflaming irate readers who were outraged that someone would use open, public, special-interest discussion forums for something as odious advertising. Having established a kind of loose foothold there, the Internet marketers are now targeting private e-mail boxes, sending long, vulgar junk mail right into each user's computer whenever they log on -- e-j-mail. These hacks found the newsgroups a happy hunting ground for e-mail addresses for direct targeting. They're out there right now, as you read this, sifting through the Usenet, online member directories, and discussion threads, compiling addresses to dump into their mailing lists.
This doesn't even necessarily cost them anything. I can get a colossal list for free. Here's how: I'll join America Online, GEnie, Prodigy or CompuServe using one of their introductory offers; you've seen them, Get 10 hours free for the first month, then we make you pay and pay and pay. During the first 10 hours, I'll search the member directory, capturing addresses that are found on various keyword searches. Okay, that only took a couple of hours. Now, I'll scavenge through forums and interest areas, classified ads, and live chat rooms, collecting e-mail addresses for users who might fit into general marketing groups. Teens would go into a young adult mailing list ... computer novices go into a PC marketing list ... and so on. Then, with the remainder of that free account (or another that I've created), I'll spam the service (send out identical, mass-mail notices) with my advertisements. At the conclusion of my bombing run, I'll close the account. Case closed, virtually no trail.
Next month, I'll do it all over again with a different name, a different credit card. If I'm quick enough, you'll never find me in one place long enough to send a reply to me.
If I'm clever, and robustly funded, I'll utilize an Internet service provider (ISP) who'll give me my own dummy domain name, or fake an e-mail address that isn't possible on a legitimate service, and close the name down after the spamming run, so that when YOU (the irate recipient) try to reply to get off the mailing list, your mail is returned as undeliverable. Next month (week, day), I'll do it all over again.
There's nothing you can do to stop me.
These pied pipers, as often as not, seem to convince their clients that recipients WANT to receive this advertising. Uh-huh, yeah, sure. After writing to Sanford Wallace's clients (see Appendix A), I heard from half a dozen of them, each telling me that they had been convinced that the lists were populated by voluntary participants. Several expressed frustration that they'd had nothing but trouble since using his services. Imagine that.
This Internet marketing is great, eh? I think it's about as defensible as car-jacking.
The New Internet Informercial Channel: All Day, All night, All 'Net
The whole thing reminds me of that axiom from the early STAR TREK movies: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one...." (It bears noting that then-Captain Spock died shortly after uttering this.) Very logical, but no less comforting if you're the one hitting the DELETE key as you sort through your mailbox every time you want to read your personal mail.
There's something vulgar about having one's mailbox intruded upon: it's no longer "private." Advertising money may help support the Internet when more commerce is flowing, but does my private e-mail box have to be a part of it?
Perhaps so, if our clueless government has any say about it. The Exons and Gingrichs and Feinsteins and Schroeders want to mutate this vast TELECOMMUNICATIONS medium into a BROADCAST medium -- this is why adult speech and free thought online are under fire. In a free, public broadcast arena, all content has to be regulated and approved, so as not to poison impressionable little minds. Or, heaven forbid, encourage individualistic thought.
The Communications Decency Act was the dinner bell for Internet commercialization,... and the death knell for unlimited access to free information. True, it invalidates the First Amendment online, but it's a small price, right? And there's a tasty side benefit if the regulation also clears away a lot of the little, smut-peddling guys who made the Internet what it is today ... so that Big Business (and e-j-mailers) can run free and far with their own idea of content. ... If you agree, you're in great company.
The e-j-mailers of the 'Net, you see, don't recognize the division of the public communications net and the private e-mail box ... they don't have to. They seem to believe that once a user logs on ... just like turning on ABC, CBS or NBC ... the user is a willing recipient of whatever the 'Net wants to broadcast. That includes advertising.
You Are What You Watch
What infuriates me is that this relegates the private user to the status of viewer, an "observer," an infuriating insult in one's own e-mail box, as in one's own home, or car. Further, increasing numbers of promotional Web sites are soliciting visitor information before providing access to content ... without disclosing the intended use of the visitor information. It's a cheap trick, and entirely contrary to the original intent of the Internet.
I don't mind this kind of mail at my Post Office box, because that's partially subsidized by third class, business mail. (I'm also not paying for the throughput, or postage, just the box that I get mail in; I can also identify the mail by sight, and chuck it in the trash before taking it home.) My Internet mail box, on the other hand, isn't paid for by the e- j-mailer, nor is there any offer to do so. Nor can I preview the mail for free. Once I'm logged in, looking at my e-mail, I'm paying for the service. (There's also the cost to me of my time, which is valuable, even if only to me.)
In this paradigm, everyone's a loser. The victim gets junk mail ... the client gets negative publicity, and probably doesn't sell a thing ... and the e-j-mailer has to make a living by taking advantage of people, and creates nothing of value on the 'Net.
Is there a way out? Sure. Advertisers need to realize that the 'Net is a new medium, just as television once was. It requires a new approach to marketing. To date, the best minds have found that you don't sell your product online, you give away interest; you don't invite purchase, you elicit a response -- and measure your revenue in leads and brand recognition.
ISPs need to follow ethical examples like that of The Well, which actively prohibits misuse of the Internet resource. Spamming, and unsolicited mail, are not tolerated. Several ISPs have responded to my complaints, and promised to take action against the account holder. This demonstrates a commitment to ensuring that the 'Net isn't misused (it also ensures that the ISP has a obliging reputation in the market). Further, owners of Web sites and mailing listservers need to enforce sufficient controls on their systems. (As I edited this column, the Dark Carnival bookstore's (www.darkcarnival.com) newsletter started bombing untold numbers of alarmed users; so I'm told, an unknown hacker dropped hundreds of names into the Web site's subscription page. Anyone replying directly to the listserver, effectively posted the message to everyone on the list; the server had no access controls in place. Regardless of the how of such an incident, each site's webmaster has a responsibility to protect against such mischief.)
Whether 'tis nobler....
As a user, you have a few recourses. Forward the offending mail back (in its entirety) to the sender, with a request not to send any more. CC: the mail to the postmaster of the originating domain (say, if you get mail from email@example.com, send a copy to firstname.lastname@example.org), and maybe send a copy to your own ISP's postmaster. (Some progressive ISPs monitor incoming mail for unauthorized spamming, and may establish a filter that locks out that address.)
Certainly, feel free to bad mouth anyone who dumps e-j-mail in your mailbox. Make a public assertion that you don't patronize businesses that intrude into your e-mail. If they can dish it out, they can take it.
Perhaps, just maybe, if the 'Net can withstand this new affliction, and the dogs of e-j-mail war move on to a new fire hydrant, a day will return when good, decent users can once again walk the streets of the Internet without being targeted and accosted on every domain as a potential consumer.
21st century update: Since writing this, e-j-mail has cost society billions upon billions of dollars. But there's hope. For the first time since I wrote this, the quantity of spam may be declining, due to long overdue law enforcement actions. Oh, brother, it's been a long, painful trip. -- DBS, 13 August 2012
Sanford Wallace (Cyber Promotions, Inc.) is one of the best- known of the e-j-mail slimers. Hey, he's been written up in WIRED. He'll remain at the balustrades so long as he sends out fairy tales like the following:
Subj: Very Important Date: 96-03-12 05:18:23 EST From: email@example.com [A false address; AOL doesn't support more than ten characters in screen names. -- DBS] To: Recipient.List@iceland.it.earthlink.net
VERY IMPORTANT MESSAGE... From Sanford Wallace, President of Cyber Promotions, Inc. (formerly Promo Enterprises)
I would like to personally thank everyone who has given us feedback recently. We have listened to much of your advice. We are officially the first bulk e-mail company to offer reimbursement for online time to read our messages. In addition, we are the first commercial e-mailer to distribute "remove" addresses to other bulk e-mailers. The management at Cyber Promotions would like to continue to improve the reputation of the commercial e-mail business. Recent articles in publications like the Philadelphia Inquirer and Money Daily have portrayed us as a high profile, responsible bulk e-mail firm. Our perfect records with the Better Business Bureau and Dun & Bradstreet also solidify our achievements.
Unfortunately, we have recently been victimized by an attack. We need your help to overcome this problem...
It has been reported to us that AOL's postmaster team decided to take the law into their own hands and "e-mail bomb" our auto-responder server. Each of their messages included the text, "America Online Postmaster Team
" and "Sanford Wallace: Junk Mail Spammer." These attacks took down our internet providers' servers. We will announce the names and phone numbers of those employees when (and if) our lawyers give us permission to do so. For the time being, we can not process any auto-remove requests and the commercial messages below do not include "virtual" e-mail addresses. If you are an auto-responder customer, please understand our delays now that we have discovered the reason we have run into so many technical problems as of late. If you are an advertiser who receives any TOS violations for advertising with our firm, please forward all correspondences to our attention so that you may participate in our possible class action law suit. We have also been advised that if our service providers do not agree to terminate all of our connectivity immediately, that the AOL postmaster team has threatened to continue to e-mail bomb their servers. If you have a problem with this interference of free American business and communication, please fax your feedback to (215) 288-9230. We intend to release this information to our many press contacts and to our legal advisors. If they think we're just going to go away - THEY'RE WRONG!
The amazing thing is that we have had to deal with these types of tactics for months now. A half a year ago, a member of AOL's feedback team decided to e-mail all of our advertisers a notice stating that they should never use our firm's services. The message included many false accusations, and as it turned out, the *exact* letter was sent out to advertisers of another bulk e-mail firm as well.
Then, in January we reprinted a quote from the January issue of Wired Magazine that stated that AOL's spokesperson "approved" of our activities. The next thing we knew, we received a letter from AOL's legal department that threatened us with legal action if we ever reproduced that quote again because it was supposedly misrepresented by the author of the article. Then, AOL went ahead and reproduced the article themselves! (Check keyword WIRED, go to the search section, type "Promo Enterprises" and read the article which includes the quote in question.)
ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! Can't we conduct our business without interference? We're not breaking any laws! Give us a break already! We want to continue to serve you (which is by your choice), and we also want to offer you the ability to remove yourself from our list if you no longer wish to receive further e-mails. THE CHOICE SHOULD BE YOURS! We can not perform those duties until this latest problem is overcome. PLEASE, send your supportive comments to us immediately via facsimile: (215) 288-9230. That may be our only hope to fix this unfortunate problem quickly.
If you are not interested in receiving our e-mails, we can not electronically remove you from our list at this time, but we will be happy to reimburse you for your online time spent reading our e-mails (Please limit to 30 cents per e-mail plus 32 cents for postage) You must indicate the dates of receipt and the subject line of each transmission:
Send bill to: Cyber Promotions, Inc., 8001 Castor Avenue, Suite 127, Philadelpia PA 19152. All reasonable bills will be paid within 10 business days.
Recently, a frustrated user posted a long, and rather eloquent, diatribe against unsolicited, private e-mail to a specialty UNIX discussion newsgroup. Generally, individuals who contribute help and discussion in public forums don't entertain private requests; the goal of shared discussion is shared benefits. Private requests for free help, like private e-j-mail, are an unsolicited intrusion:
"... Its bad enough when marketing cretins use Usenet to generate lists to try to sell their products. But they have been around for a few years now, I deal with them by noting the name of their company and product and refusing to ever consider buying anything from them, even if it is the best product or lowest price. So at least there is some small way to get back at them, one that if enough people did the same, they'd find they couldn't get much business off Usenet. Especially since some people have used stronger tactics in the past, like programming their modems to flood their 800 numbers with useless calls that cost them real money. I don't think this is the most civilized way to respond, but I understand it, and don't feel at all sorry for those poor slobs who get huge phone bills and miss actual customer calls because of that sort of revenge tactic.
"This sort of abuse of mailing me directly because I am a frequent poster to comp.sys.hp.hpux is the sort of thing that will someday cause me to no longer post to the group. I already know a few very knowledgeable people who read this group but refuse to ever post anything helpful to others because they got too annoyed by people trying to get at them directly ... I don't like the fact that a complete stranger thinks that rather than posting to the group, where I may or may not choose to read his posting, and may or may not choose to respond, he will mail me directly and force me to read his question. I liken it to seeing an ad in the phone book for an auto repair shop that includes the name of their chief mechanic, and someone out of the blue, not a customer or friend, calls that mechanic up at home and asks him questions about how to tune up his car. Few people would have the gall to do that, but apparently some people on Usenet have no trouble with doing essentially the same thing....
"I do hope this does stop, because I like the idea of Usenet, when used as it is intended. But if these ever more frequently appearing boors don't cease and desist, I will probably have to stop posting in order to hide from them. And I'm sure I won't be the only one....
"I am not writing this hoping that the boors will see themselves and reform. It is pointless, there are always more where they came from. I guess I am hoping that if most other people feel like I do, they will refuse to ever help anyone who directly mails them in this manner. If it proves useless, and generates plenty of letters of stern disapproval (and while I won't flame them myself, I wouldn't put down anyone annoyed enough to do it themselves) and no letters containing actual answers, at least it might be done infrequently enough that most people can tolerate it, like we tolerate the occasional direct mail ads. If even one person provides a helpful response, it will only encourage these people to do the same thing again. I think it is obvious where this leads."
From THE JARGON FILE Version 2.9.12
KIBO /ki:'boh/ 1. [acronym] Knowledge In, Bullshit Out. A summary of what happens whenever valid data is passed through an organization (or person) that deliberately or accidentally disregards or ignores its significance. Consider, for example, what an advertising campaign can do with a product's actual specifications.
-- D.B. Spalding
(C) Copyright 1996 D.B. Spalding. All rights reserved.
D.B. Spalding is a cross-media “infopreneur”: columnist, reviewer, producer, consultant and online content developer. He writes frequently about music, film, computing and the mass- and multimedia. Many of his articles can be found on the World Wide Web at www.korova.com.