People Have Been Email-Spamming Since the Dawn of (Internet) Time

This is why we can’t have nice things

The canned precooked meat product is significantly less ubiquitous than its digital counterpart. (Flickr)
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Spam, spam, spam, spam. Spam, spam, spam, spam.

At least that’s how it can feel sometimes, looking at your email inbox. Spam—defined by Merriam-Webster as “unsolicited usually commercial e-mail sent to a large number of addresses”—seems like just the price you pay for having an email address, keeping you ever far from the mythical Inbox Zero. Here’s a ridiculous statistic: spam accounts for more than 85 per cent of daily emails, according to Jordan Robertson for Bloomberg. Government anti-spam policies in the U.S. and other countries haven't prevented spammers from getting their message out. It’s a dangerous, irritating digital plague. And it's been around since before the dawn of the internet, technically.

It all began on this day in 1978 with a man named Gary Thuerk.  

The original spammer. Finally, a culprit. And he’s not sorry, he told David Streitfeld for the Los Angeles Times in 2003. Streitfeld reported: "'I was the pioneer,' Thuerk says with quiet pride. ‘I saw a new way of doing things.’"

But tempting though it might be to blame Thuerk for the deluge of emails from Nigerian princes, the fake invoices and the indecent proposals, he told NPR’s All Things Considered in 2008 that he was only trying to reach out to a few hundred people when he sent the original message.

This was on the Arpanet, which is what the internet was called before it was the internet. There were just 2,600 people on the Arpanet, Thuerk said, and he wanted to reach out to the ones who were on the West Coast. The exact number of people (and the spelling of his last name) doesn’t stack up in every story in which this information appears, but he told NPR he wanted to reach 400 people. Streitfeld reported 600.  

“A marketing manager for Digital Equipment Corp., he wanted to publicize open houses in Los Angeles and San Mateo where the company's latest computers would be unveiled,” Streitfeld wrote. After assembling a list of the people in his printed Arpanet address book who fit the bill, Streitfeld wrote, Thuerk had his big, world-changing, horrible idea:

"It's too much work to send everyone an e-mail," he decided. "So we'll send one e-mail to everyone."

“The first spam was brief and straightforward. To emphasize the urgency of the matter, Thuerk wrote in all capital letters, a flourish adopted by many later spammers,” Streitfeld writes. And the people of the Arpanet were not happy with him. “He got some angry mail,” Streitfelt writes. “He was reprimanded by the Arpanet administrators and told not to do it again. But as advertising, it worked.”

Thuerk claims that his company profited because of the advertising, but told NPR that he didn’t spam again. “The discipline he got probably stopped spam from blooming for some years to come,” one internet historian told Streitfeld. At the same time, writes Michael Specter for The New Yorker, the conflict ignited a neverending war on the internet. "Thuerk saw no harm in his actions," Specter writes. "He and others viewed the network as an emerging symbol of intellectual freedom." How that can be equated with advertising isn't clear.

The Arpanet, and then the internet, didn’t forget, and spam began to blossom. But it didn’t have a name yet. That happened in the early 1990s, according to NPR, around the time when a man named Joel Fur, riffing off the infamous Monty Python skit that was bouncing around the internet at that time, used “spam” to refer specifically to advertising on the internet and by email.

It was the kind of cultural remixing that the internet is really, really good at: “Whenever it got really noisy online, somebody would eventually start just typing, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam…” he told NPR.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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