Which Came First: Spam Mail or Spam Meat?

Which Came First: Spam Mail or Spam Meat?

Its spam, spam, and more spam. One can hardly avoid it. According to Cisco's SenderBase spam overview, 250 billion spam emails are sent each and every month. That indicates that more than 85% of all email traffic in the world is actually spam.

The origin of the word "spam" has long been a mystery. What caused it to spread so rapidly? When the term "spam" was first added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 1998, it mostly referred to unwanted email. It is now both a noun and a verb. As a noun, it means "unwanted or irrelevant messages sent over the Internet, usually to a large number of users, for advertising, phishing, spreading malware, etc."

How did we get here, though? The second entry down, "A canned meat product made primarily from ham," is what you're looking for to get started.

All you can eat

As a luncheon meat product, Spam was first marketed by Hormel Foods in 1937. Ken Daigneau, brother of Hormel Food's VP, came up with the term and won $100 in a contest to come up with a name for the product, at least according to the official Spam Story. Simplified from "spiced ham" or "shoulders of pork and ham," respectively.

By 1970, Hormel had sold over 2 billion cans of Spam, inspiring an irreverent Monty Python sketch in which a cafe's menu consists of an increasingly spam-heavy list of items, until a random group of vikings starts shouting "spam, spam, spam, lovely spam, wonderful spam!" and the waitress yells "Shut up!"

The problem of online spam

Undoubtedly, the first spam letter was sent long before the phrase became commonplace. According to Brad Templeton, it was probably provided by Gary Thuerk, a marketer for DEC, in 1978. With the use of a printed ARPANET directory, he promoted the DECSYSTEM-20 computer.

It is estimated that spammers make roughly $200 million a year but cost American consumers and businesses around $20 billion annually.

As a reference to the Python sketch, the term "Python" has been in usage since the 1980s, initially within the MUD (multi-user dungeon) community. Templeton's thorough research into the history of spam uncovered that the term was first used to describe sending large amounts of irrelevant text into a chat room or flooding a database with information. Imagine a robot that keeps repeating the word "spam" in its automated speech.

The Usenet user base was important in the explosion of spam's popularity. In a post titled "Transformed by programming ineptitude into a monster of Frankenstein proportions, it broke loose on the night of March 31, 1993, and proceeded to spam news with something in the order of 200 messages," Joel Furr described the consequences of a flaw in a program called ARMM. Since then, this creature has been on the loose, though its significance has changed over time.

The definition of spam has expanded. All that meant was that there was so much information coming at you at once that you couldn't process it. To paraphrase what Joel Furr told us, “Discussion forums were ineffective if the signal-to-noise ratio dropped a lot," and "it now tends to mean deceptive advertising in any electronic form that you have little or no ability to opt out of."

A spread of spam

The effects of spam on Usenet were devastating. Unknown spammers flooded it with unwanted material, and users abandoned ship before spam filters gained traction. Back in the day when primary email addresses were freely shared on message boards, forums, and IRC, spam exploded over the web.

Unfortunately, our network design and communications protocols were developed at a time when security was not a major issue, as Joel puts it.

In 2001, spam had grown to the point where many people began working on solutions. About 8% of the emails sent at the time were spam. Its popularity led to its incorporation as part of the names of businesses like Spam Arrest, an email source-verification software company created in 2001. Hormel Foods was upset that its trademark was being used without permission, so between 2002 and 2007, it filed several lawsuits against companies like Spam Arrest, Spambuster, and Spam Cube. All of these lawsuits were dismissed with prejudice.

Hormel dropped the lawsuit and has since embraced the spam legacy, supporting Spamalot production in 2006. Since then, this creature has been on the loose, though its significance has changed over time. We work hard to keep a lighthearted attitude toward our well-known brand and take pleasure in the playful admiration shown by our customers, who may associate our product with the internet or e-mail "spam," including photographs. To sum up what Hormel Foods' Manager of External Communications Rick Williamson told us, "Ultimately, we need to maintain our brand equity, but it's a fun and high-energy brand."

There is scant proof that it has a harmful effect. In 2007, Hormel sold its 7 billionth can of Spam, and sales have been brisked ever since. According to Hormel's annual report for 2013, sales of spam have risen for nine of the past ten years. Spam emails have likely spread even further than canned meat, despite the latter's obvious popularity. Symantec reported that spam made up 40 percent of all email in 2003, the same year that Bush signed the controversial CAN-SPAM Act into law. Some lawsuits followed, but hopes that legislation would end the spam problem were quickly crushed. The proportion of spam to total email reached a high of 89% in 2010.

For what purpose do spammers repeatedly send the same message?

Senders are drawn to the service because of how cheap it is. The fact that spam email costs the recipient more than it does the sender is one of its most damaging characteristics. According to The Economics of Spam, published in 2012, spammers make around $200 million annually but cost American consumers and businesses around $20 billion.

Joel says, "Most people don't have a huge problem with spam; spam filters exist, and for the most part, they work.” But there are always a few spams that slip through the filters, and the people who are most at risk—the elderly and others who are not computer literate and up to speed on current spam patterns—can fall victim." It's a constant uphill battle for anti-spam software and filters against an ever-evolving foe. The Spamhaus Project keeps tabs on spammers and does its best to expose them, but many of them evade capture. The swelling tide of spam only seems to get higher. Even if you never completely eliminate spam, at least you know where it originates.

But there are always a few spams which slip through the filters, and the people who are most at risk — the elderly and others who are not computer-savvy and up to speed on current spam patterns — can fall victim.” Anti-spam software and filters are fighting an adaptive enemy. The Spamhaus Project tracks spammers and tries to expose them, but they are often beyond the reach of law enforcement. Sadly, the rising sea of spam only seems to get deeper.