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Email Spam: A People’s History

In 1997, Kevin Costner, inspired by a book written in 1985, talked Warner Brothers into spending $80M producing a film he wrote, directed, and starred in, glorifying the concept of mail as a key pillar of civilized society.

The film: The Postman

Without going too far into The Postman’s deep, intricate plot, we’ll summarize the key points:

  • The year is 2013.
  • An unspecified apocalyptic event, known only as “The Doomwar” has plunged mankind into chaos and disorder.
  • A nameless drifter (Costner) finds a postman’s uniform and decides to rebuild the United States, using the postal service as the centrepiece of its new government.
  • Inspired, many join his cause.
  • Bad guys try to stop Costner from delivering the mail.
  • Costner rallies an army of mail carriers and rides to war.
  • Costner defeats the head bad guy in a fight, thus enabling him and his ilk to deliver the mail unmolested.
  • Society flourishes.

*note: many conspiracy theorists have posited that The Postman may have been funded in part by the US Postal service by way of propaganda to boost its battered public image

Unsurprisingly, the film was an absolute disaster at the box office, losing Warner Brothers over $60M and tainting Costner’s otherwise sterling film making legacy:

Image credit: Warner bros

Erm… Anyway.

The Postman’s problem, apart from its obvious failings, is that it was made in a time and place where paper mail was being made redundant by the internet’s rise to prominence.

That same year (1997), America’s most popular sitcom, “Seinfeld” had an episode called “Junk mail”, in which Kramer attempts to cancel his mail service entirely at the post office, only to be kidnapped and intimidated by The US Postmaster General, who candidly admits that no-one actually “needs” the mail, but forces him to keep his mail service nonetheless.

Image credit: Sony Pictures Television
via GIPHY 

-“Why does he have a bucket on his head?”

– “Because we’re blind to their tyranny.”

– “Then shouldn’t you be wearing the bucket?”

Indeed, 1997 represents a watershed moment in direct mail marketing history, a pop culture sea change in public perception about the virtues of paper mail and the proliferation of junk mail and flyers clogging up mailboxes across the developed world.

On its surface, the internet appeared to present a perfect alternative.

Aside from a few unsolicited propositions from Nigerian Princes offering large sums of money in exchange for banking details, the email inbox had remained largely pristine.

But it couldn’t last.

Internet spamming had first become a business practice in 1994, when two Phoenix lawyers hired an unemployed programmer to post a message reading “Green Card Lottery, Final One?” on as many internet newsgroups as possible.

The concept seemed odd at the time, but slowly picked up steam as it yielded positive outcomes for those using it.

By the turn of the millennium, the practice of sending Unsolicited Commercial Email (UCE) and Unsolicited Bulk Email (UBE) was an exploding industry, and spam was beginning to drown out actual commercial communication altogether. This led to the invention of the “Junk Box”, which identified and separated such emails into a new folder, thus making them easier to ignore and delete.

outlook junk box

Image credit: Microsoft Outlook

By 2005, things had gotten ugly.

Russian spammer Vardan Kushnir, who is believed to have spammed every single Russian internet user, was found dead from multiple blunt-force blows to the head in his Moscow apartment.

Several other prolific spammers and email scam artists were sentenced to multiple-year prison sentences for their online activities.

As big business slowly awoke to the realities of the digital age, internet users worldwide became accustomed to the steady influx of promotional materials, scams, and advertisements. Governments relaxed in their endeavor to regulate this growing industry, and online marketing became a cornerstone of the marketing industry.

The Age of the Spam had begun in earnest.

Today, internet spam continues to follow the trends of the billions of consumers worldwide, and has made the jump from email inboxes to social media platforms and video sharing websites.

Spam has become such a pervasive presence in all internet activities that it has, for the most part, become white noise. Few and far between are the forms of spam still capable of soliciting a reaction, emotional or otherwise.

It is a field so oversaturated, so sophisticated, that most businesses have been left behind in the dust, right along with the Postmaster General and Kevin Costner, shaking their wrinkled fists in impotent rage at a world which has moved on and forgotten them.

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