John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
This article dated Feb 03 (v1.1)



Defending the In-Box

The Psychology of Coping with Spam

In the early days, people on the Internet eagerly encouraged communication. They wanted to share ideas in an inviting, trusting atmosphere. As the population in cyberspace boomed - as large chunks of the internet took shape as market place, soapbox, and mischievous, even hostile playground - that atmosphere faded. Suspicion may override trust. Some users may find themselves wanting to shut down communication rather than open it up. I'd like to discuss one infamous trend fueling that isolationist desire, thereby contributing to the slow erosion of the old, idealistic Internet philosophy. It's a phenomenon that reinforces what used to be a paranoid stereotype about the internet - that cyberspace is filled with pornography and people trying to manipulate, deceive, and trick you. It's a mundane nuisance that everyone deals with everyday. It's called "spam."


What is spam....to you?

Some say the term comes from a Monty Python television episode in which a seemingly random and meaningless repetition of the song "spam, spam, lovely spam, wonderful spam" overpowered the rest of the show. Others claim the term originated among technology geeks at the University of Southern California who invented it because, like its lunchmeat namesake, almost no one seems to ask for or want it. If they do happen to get it, they most likely throw it away.

Definitions of spam vary. Advocates of the idealistic Internet philosophy may apply a broad stroke to include any message violating the traditional rules of netiquette that were intended to preserve online cooperation, helpfulness, trust, and, somewhat parsimoniously, bandwidth. Thinking like modern consumers, other users tend to define spam as the the electronic equivalent of junk mail. Some of the features of spam identified in the various definitions include:
- a communication that is unsolicited, including uninvited e-mail and messages that appear above and below your browser window ("pop-ups" and "pop-unders")

- an irrelevant, inappropriate, or repetitious e-mail or message board post

- an advertisement for some product or service

- a message sent indiscriminately to many people, including commercial messages, political and social commentaries

- email chain letters

- an attempt to flood and possibly crash a fixed-site by bombarding it with input data
In this article I'd like to focus specifically on email spam. Often I find myself comparing it to weeds. A weed, generally speaking, is anything that persistently grows where we don't want it to grow, that threatens to displace or choke out the plant life that we want to thrive. Those unwanted messages that steadily invade our in-box are spam. They obscure the communications we want to find, thwarting our attempts to cultivate chosen contacts and relationships.

A strong relationship exists between one's presence on the web and the amount of spam received. The more places in cyberspace that your e-mail address is listed, the more likely the spammers will find it and add it to their mailing lists. Paradoxically, then, the more available your address, the less likely people will be able to clearly contact you through the noise created by the spam you receive. Currently, I receive up to 100 spam emails a day.


The Invasion of Personal Space

As I've mentioned in various sections of this book, cyberspace is psychological space. The spaces we create with our online communication tools become extensions of our mind, of our personalities. Consciously or unconsciously, we may experience what happens in our email as voices and dialogues blended with our own thoughts. We may come to treasure the privacy of that personal space embodied by our in-box, where we encounter the presence of others that we choose to encounter. We might then perceive spam as an invasion of that personal space. It is an intrusion into our relationships and psyche.

Invasions trigger defensive responses. As territorial creatures, we protect our ground. But how you we stop spam from infiltrating our email? How do we keep the weeds out of our gardens? And if they succeed in implanting themselves, how easily can we spot them?

The strategy adopted by the spammer consists of two basic stages: (1) land the mail in your in-box, and, (2) entice you to open it. Likewise, your defensive campaign includes two basic tactics: using software filters and weeding by hand.


Juggling Software Filters

This tactic involves preemptive efforts to prevent spam from getting into your in-box, to vanquish those messages before they even reaches your eyes, like herbicides that destroy the weed seedlings before they get a chance to take root. This strategy relies on technology. Responding to demand, software companies now sell a variety of anti-spam products. The logic behind much of this software is basically the same: detect, then block or delete spam before it appears in the in-box. The concept is simple enough, but the detection of spam gets to be the tricky issue. Although most programs contain built-in filters, some spam will still get through. At that point the program usually allows the user to identify specific email addresses or keywords within the message subject or body that flag an email as spam.

But the spammers are clever. They continually alter their address and message content so their mail can successfully slip through the built-in and user-defined filters. The result is an endless cat-and-mouse game in which the user is continually modifying filters in order to screen out the ever-mutating old spam mail, as well as any brand new spam that starts to arrive. Some technically savvy users, who enjoy tinkering with software, may enjoy this duel. No doubt they feel empowered in knowing that they can use their skills to try to defeat the encroaching enemy. But this game is time-consuming. Some users feel that simply deleting spam by hand may require no more, or even less, time and effort than constantly patching up the holes in one's filters.

This software defense also requires a complex "signal detection" juggling act. How do you balance the false hits against the false misses? If you make your filters robust, you will eliminate lots of spam at the risk of also blocking out valid messages. Targeting any email with a subject title containing the word "penis" will quickly eliminate messages bolding claiming a product that will dramatically increase your size, but what about that long-lost, zany friend who decides to contact you with a surprise phallic joke as the title of his email? On the other hand, if you ease up on your filters you will increase the possibility of letting desirable mail through, at the cost of letting in more spam as well. Where is that delicate balance of just enough blocking? Just how open and vulnerable, versus closed and protected, does a person want to be? It's an interesting psychological question.

For those who desire an airtight defense, some programs will only let through mail that comes from specific people and addresses that have been approved by the user. All other messages are blocked. Obviously, the user may indeed wish to read some incoming mail that is not on the approved list - for example, a friend or colleague who is contacting the user for the first time. Because these programs place blocked mail in a specific folder or directory, a kind of spam detention camp, the user can go into that directory to review the list of messages to see whether any are worth redeeming.


Weeding by Hand

The user then faces the same challenge as someone who is not using any software filters software at all, who instead scans the list of messages in the in-box. Which ones are spam? Do you know a weed when you see it? Of course, one person's weed is another's flower, so the answer is partly personal and philosophical. Nevertheless, this defensive campaign of weeding out spam by hand turns into a fascinating psychological game. The spammer wants you to open that email so the message can spring before your eyes, if only for a second before you delete it. But you don't want to waste your time, especially if you're scanning down a list of dozens of messages, with some of them packed full of graphics that compel you to either wait impatiently while they load or forcefully click your way out before the weed can finish growing. To spare yourself some time and frustration, you make your decision to delete by evaluating the sender's name and the subject title without opening the message. This, then, is the game: can you detect the weeds, or does the spammer succeed in tricking you to open that can of spam?


To Open or Not: Recognizing the Types of Spam Trickery

Here I'd like to share samples of some of the spam I've received. Not the whole message, because then I'd be spamming you. I'll just list the senders' names and subject titles. I'd like to use them as illustrations of that interesting duel between spammer and spammee - that game called "to open or not to open." Keep in mind that some of these crafty emails might also involve attempts to infect your computer with a virus. We can consider these viral-packed messages to be a type of spam - poisonous spam.


drgrv@msn.comEat pizza, watch TV ... and lose 22 pounds
pershaxa@msn.comMake your Penis Huge
a0351mshw@hotmail.com Want to make $ in the market? Easy...
investor relationsDouble your money every week, here is proof!
deanot9@truesavings.comLower your mortgage payment
cheap_inkr@hotmail.com save up to 80% for your Inkjets and toners

Activating Cultural Preoccupations: These advertizements are rather easy to spot as spam. Nevertheless, depending on personal needs, a person may be tempted to open one. Some of these messages are coming from well-known online services, which seems to lend some legitimacy. And who doesn't want to save money, lose weight, or increase penis size? We live in a culture that dwells on making comparisons. "Less" and "More" are on everyone's mind. These messages tap that reservoir of obsessions underlying our society. In a fascinating sociological experiment we might categorize and tally such messages as a kind of barometer of American life. Someone is probably doing that research right now.


vfkefnvjkfln@dandy.net Take hold of your Pleasure!
success We Guarantee your success
cruising23@msn.com Make IT big... FOREVER
Raplph Jinkins IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE
patrickmcgregor Learn How To Love
leiy zhouh Let's Dance and forget pains
Tracey It worked for me - it will work for you
FREEDOM What is Freedom to you ?

Activating Archetypal Concerns: Here we see the message titles playing not just on the obsessions of the American psyche, but also on fundamental existential and archetypal concerns - issues basic to simply being human. Success, pain, pleasure, love, freedom, celebration, life transformation. The message titles present these ideas in a very vague, generic manner, almost like an inkblot test. What does "pleasure" and "freedom" and "love" mean to you? Advertisers well know that ambiguous messages pull on one's imagination. They activate the unconscious mind. We can't help but project our own thoughts, feelings, and needs into that ambiguity, even if we aren't fully aware of that projection. If you sense something of yourself in the message subject, you will be tempted to open it.


Brian Velquez
Date a lonely housewife!
pandora Darling
Dorothy Pics Attached
Gabriella Nolsen From Russia with love
Oloidia adult products for you
girls324Oloidia Nasty girls do it all!

Activating Sexuality: Here I'll highlight one particular primal concern that spammers often target - sexuality, along with all the nuances of seduction, romance, pleasure, wantonness, and depravity that one can imagine. These messages are easy to spot. For some people, they may be hard to resist. For others they may become an annoyingly chronic eyesore. Some people may wonder why spammers targeted them with these pornographic ads. They may wonder if online they said or visited something sexual that these spammers detected. Triggering all sorts of conscious and unconsciousness anxieties, sexual messages, even ones uninvited, can induce guilt. More often than not, these types of spam are randomly distributed, even, unfortunately and criminally, to children.


Sara Blake Rejection Policy-7573
tracking328@network.com Your computer is infected
Sim100DA@bigfoot.com You are being investigated
admins@skyyynet.com We are closing your account

Activating Anxiety: The title of these messages, even though they may have absolutely nothing to do with the content of the email, arouse anxiety. Did I do something wrong? Is something bad about to happen to me? It's hard to resist opening the message just to reassure ourselves that everything is OK. Horror stories about the Internet abound in the media, so cyberspace has evolved into a somewhat paranoid space, leading us to worry about our privacy and the safety of our computer systems. Some of those fears are not totally unjustified. Spam that activates those fears are difficult to ignore.


Lorna Blouin Time in a bottle for suler
Leoma Intplan suler Buy Generic and save
hassan_egueh Hi,suler,some questions
Kassie Oam suler return to your youth
deno_ran@hotmail.com Suler, I'm very tired of viruses too
Michel Narayana Grants for suler@voice.com
Rebbeca Amott Information for JOHN SULER

Faking a Personal Touch: If someone addresses you by name, you respond. The first time these "personalized" messages appear in your inbox, you will most likely open them, thinking that someone specifically addressed them to you. After only a tad more experience, you'll see that a computer generated these message titles, with your name or email address awkwardly inserted. These messages also have a personal touch in that they appear to come from a specific person rather than an organization or business. Do I know a "Kassie Oam?" The spammer hopes that your curiosity and willingness to respond to an individual, particularly one who addresses you by name, will prompt you to open that message. Keep in mind that these names may be purely fictitious, or even more insidiously, stolen. In an identity rip-off that some people call "spoofing," spammers use programs that filch real names and email addresses , then insert them into their spam mail as the senders.


Henry Re: Free Financial Consultation
Britney re: your request
Matt re: help
BrowningLuv Fw: Enjoy Romantic life !!
bakerd Fw: suler, some questions
correspondenceunit Hello, please try again
big@boss.com here is that sample you requested
Grazyna Shupe You Were Approved
source resources Service Notice

Faking Replies and Interactions: When a "re:" appears at the front of a subject line, we assume that someone is replying to a message that we sent - or, if we belong to an email group, that someone is replying to another member of the group. That simple prefix implies people responding to people, human interaction that probably includes you. And so we open the message to see what that discussion is about. If we find ourselves trying to recall if we sent an email entitled "your request" or "help," we may open the message out of curiosity, perhaps to reassure ourselves that we aren't suffering from a lapse of memory. We can throw into this category spam including a "Fw:" prefix, which also draws us into the illusion of human interaction by faking a person who decided to forward some important message to us. Some spam subject titles create the appearance of a reply to your actions without using a "re:" - as in messages that notify you of some service or product you supposedly requested.


whitny2003 re: purpose of this online hypertext book
atinuke ige re: professor of psychology, Rider University
a0351rb@hotmail.com re: why tell a zen story?

Snatching Quotes: A particularly devious use of the "re:" includes a subsequent subject title consisting of phrases stolen from one of your web pages. Apparently, spammers have robot programs that grab email addresses as well as text from web sites. These messages very likely will trick you into opening them, at least the first few times. They may give themselves away by the fact that the snatched quotes tend to be awkward and rather random.


Joeyhey
Jason Ching whats up?
RoXyxPri@earthlink.netHiya!
mtch17@sina.comHow're you doing?
BakersBDFHappy to see you
Justin I'll keep this short...
carlandhelenmessage from Anna, Mary's mother
jb_on_d007 Fw: Interesting relations for you
shuntel fgrice, Check This Out
friends are you :-)

Faking Informality and Acquaintance: Some messages contain subject lines worded in a casual, friendly style, which creates the illusion of someone who knows you. Seeing only the sender's first name reinforces that informal feeling. Other messages imply some kind of connection to you, as in suggesting that you saw this person recently or know someone that this sender knows. Again, keep in mind that these subject lines have absolutely nothing to do with the content of the email, which often is an advertisement of some sort.


agiliberto goldfish
lei zhou Shake it baby
chickfighting
jennifer........ incredibile........
dziubany Happy Epiphany
sounni wrgwger
123@av.vcd =?big5?Q
강정미 안녕하세요..

Quirky attention grabbers: Some message titles leave you scratching your head, including the absence of message titles. A curious sender name adds to the effect. You may know it's spam, but open it anyway out of curiosity, just to see what's inside. Message titles containing strange glitches often indicate message bodies filled with glitches, sometimes due to email coming from other countries that use different character sets which are not translated properly by your email software. You will probably open these messages only once. Afterwards, they become easily spotted targets for the delete button, like shooting fish in a barrel.


Additional Assaults: Spam Droppings, Clogging, and Spoofing

Unfortunately, your defensive campaign doesn't end with the spam deleted from your in-box. Much spam contains attachments that may pile up in your email attachments folder. In fact, an attachment icon appearing next to a message in your in-box is an additional cue indicating that the message may be spam. If you haven't already heard, never open these attachments, unless you have a death wish for unleashing a virus or are very confident that the attachment is safe. Some email programs enable you to delete attachments automatically when you delete the message in your inbox, although a few sneaky attachments may still linger.

Some spam, along with their quite large attachments, also may pile up on your ISP server, even though other mail is downloaded and then deleted from your account. If left unchecked, this pile will build until your disk space on the server is full, creating a clog that will cause incoming mail to bounce back to their senders with a "mailbox full" error message. If your ISP does not inform you of your clogged disk space, you may never know that people can no longer email you. Essentially, these spam droppings have stopped up your email service. It's a case of constipation. Check your email program to enable features that will delete these messages on the server. A last resort is to delete by hand the lingering spam using webmail, which many ISP services offer.

Here I'm very conscious of using the word "droppings" along with the associated scatological metaphors. Cleaning spam and their attachments out of your drive and ISP account certainly may feel like clearing out muck. You may experience that purging process as somewhat satisfying, though not nearly as satisfying as it would be to never have to deal with spam again.

As I mentioned earlier, some spammers will "spoof" you. They'll send out email to many people, perhaps even addresses stolen from your own address book, using your name and return address. Without consent, you have been conscripted into the spam army. You have become the spammer that you intended to fight. Here's where setting up firewalls and deleting email attachments becomes important in keeping identity thieves out of your computer, out of your personal space.

Some conscription may be more willing on your part. Chain-letters alerting people to fictitious information can lure people into sending or forwarding messages to others. So, for example, "congress is considering legislation to make every call to an Internet provider a billable long-distance call , so email your congressman in protest and send this message to everyone you know" or "a dying child wants to receive thousands of email in order to die happy" or "forward this email to your friends to let them know that there's a new deadly virus called Have a Nice Day" (some would say that this message itself is the virus). Whether or not a person falls for these spam scams often depends on how knowledgeable they are about the Internet, and how susceptible they might be to alarmist reactions and pleas for protest and sympathy.


An old Zen saying states that "pulling weeds gives nourishment to the garden." I've taken this to mean that weeds, once pulled and buried beneath the dirt, become fertilizer for the other plants. What then of spam that we delete from our computers? In concrete terms, we create more disk space for other more useful files. Is it also possible that in learning how to identify, filter, and remove spam - in deciding what we do and don't want in our psychic space - we learn something about ourselves?


See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace:

Cyberspace as a psychological space
E-mail communication and relationships


back to the Psychology of Cyberspace home page
www.rider.edu/users/suler/psycyber/psycyber.html