Thanks to the internet, spam isn’t just a type of canned meat product. We all deal with spam at some point or another—but what is it, exactly, and why do we call it that? We explore the history and rationale behind the term.
Spam Is Unsolicited Bulk Communications
If you open your email inbox and see dozens (if not hundreds) of emails you didn’t ask for, you’re looking at spam. In tech, “spam” is a term for unwanted, unsolicited mass communications. While the term is most commonly associated with email, it can also be used to refer to spam comments on blogs and social media, physical junk mail, robocalls, and more.
Where Did the “Spam” Term Come From?
It’s commonly believed that the “spam” technology term originated as a reference to a 1970 Monty Python TV comedy sketch. In the sketch, a woman in a restaurant attempts to order from a menu full of items made with Spam luncheon meat (the food).
Part of the joke is that the menu items repetitively name spam as an ingredient, such as “Spam Spam Spam Spam sausage eggs and Spam.” Soon, a group of vikings begins singing “Spam, spam, spam, spam” repeatedly, drowning out conversation as the woman gets increasingly annoyed.
Some time in the late 1980s or early 1990s, people began to use the term “spam” to describe disruptive, repetitive messages on BBSes, MUDs, and in early online chat rooms. As the internet came to American households in the early 1990s, “spam” became widely known as the name for unsolicited internet posts and junk emails sent out to thousands of people at once.
Internet “spam” became such a huge cultural concept that, in 1998, the owner of the Spam trademark, Hormel, published a web page called “Spam and the Internet” that spelled out the company’s position on the relationship between SPAM and what they called “unsolicited commercial email (UCE).” It commented on the origins of the term:
Use of the term “SPAM” was adopted as a result of the Monty Python skit in which a group of Vikings sang a chorus of “SPAM, SPAM, SPAM . . . ” in an increasing crescendo, drowning out other conversation. Hence, the analogy applied because UCE was drowning out normal discourse on the Internet.
We do not object to use of this slang term to describe UCE, although we do object to the use of our product image in association with that term. Also, if the term is to be used, it should be used in all lower-case letters to distinguish it from our trademark SPAM, which should be used with all uppercase letters.
Interestingly, unsolicited emails predate the origin of the “spam” term. History shows that the earliest known mass commercial emailing occurred in 1978, sent by Gary Thuerk to advertise DEC’s new VAX computer systems. Due to a large negative response, Thuerk apologized, and reportedly, it took years before anyone saw a mass commercial email again.
You can reach even farther back if you want an example of some of the earliest “online” spam. In 1867, someone in London sent unsolicited commercial telegraph messages to people via telegram, causing no shortage of annoyance. So as long as there have been electronic communications mediums, spam hasn’t been too far behind.
What Is a Spambot?
Before we wrap up our discussion of spam, it’s worth noting that the source of a large amount of internet spam comes from spambots, which are programs that automatically send messages or post comments. These programs automatically fill out forms and pose as humans to spread their messages as far as possible.
To defend against spambots, a group of computer scientists invented CAPTCHA, a type of online test designed to screen out bots from posting online. It’s not perfect, but they can help screen out spam.
Also, most cell phone users suffer from an onslaught of robocalls these days, a type of automated telephone spam. Luckily, there are some ways to help reduce the impact of robocalls, but the spam calls still represent a serious issue that government agencies are trying to combat. It’s a never-ending battle: Wherever communications technology goes in the future, spam will likely follow.
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