September 23, 2020

Spam Kings: Mini-Review

I just finished reading Brian McWilliams’ new book Spam Kings. It’s an entertaining read that offers an interesting, nontechnical peek at some of the personalities behind the spam wars.

The book’s central figure is Davis Hawke, an amoral character responsible for most of the spam promoting male anatomical enhancement products. (The only thing that these products have reliably expanded is Hawke’s cash flow.) Hawke turned to spamming after the failure of his first career as a neo-Nazi leader, and he displays all of the class and moral judgment that one would expect given this background. His (financial) success as a spammer is due to his gift for writing persuasively sleazy ad copy, his persistence, and his willingness to do anything to make a buck. One almost wonders whether such a character could really exist outside of detective fiction; but apparently he does.

The anti-spammers, while somewhat more conventional in personality (but then again, who isn’t) also make interesting character studies. Some are system administrators whose jobs are complicated by spam, but many are like Susan Gunn (a.k.a. Shiksaa), an ordinary netizen who transformed her anger at spammers into a crusade to unmask and frustrate them.

When these personalities collide, the result is a kind of online trench warfare, involving technology, old-fashioned detective work, lawsuits, and occasional threats and intimidation. The spammers are far from unified, double-crossing each other like Elmore Leonard villains. The anti-spammers are at most a loosely organized coalition. Both sides are plagued by leaks and defections. The anti-spammers occasionally break the law; the spammers routinely hide in the quasi-legal murk.

When things heat up, a veteran anti-spammer asks an insightful question: Are we fighting against the spammers, or fighting against spam? Sometimes it does seem that the whole exercise has turned into an elaborate capture-the-flag game between the two communities. Yet despite the occasional excess, one ends up admiring the determination of the anti-spammers, and happy about the results they have achieved. Even as spam multiplies, the life of a spammer is not a happy or comfortable one.

(O’Reilly, the book’s publisher, sent me a free copy of the book. Thanks! Hint to other publishers: I’m more likely to read and review your books if you do this too.)

Comments

  1. Hawke turned to spamming after the failure of his first career as a neo-Nazi leader …

    So some spammers are really, truly, honest-to-god … NAZIS?

    Net-flamers everywhere are vindicated 🙂

  2. Ed,

    Just found your blog and am enjoying your articles. However, since many of us come from different backgrounds, I would love to see you use more html to clarify your text. For example, who is Elmore Leonard? A simple link would help all of us enjoy your references.

  3. Dave Provine says:

    Uh, isn’t that what Google is for?