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Spam Revolution: The real threat

Is spam really the problem?

The costs of spam to business and individuals is estimated anywhere between US$20 and 50 million a year. I’ve talked about behaviors and habits that can help us from getting phished or taken in by a spammer, like not checking email when you’re tired and using anti-viral software. But is the problem really spam? Let’s do some quick estimates.a collage of spam emails with varying claims

Even if we all are falling for a trick or two because of our lowered defenses and bad habits, our mistakes wouldn’t add up to 50 million bucks. And even if every single poor person and every luddite over 65 were tricked into forking over their pesos, these email spammers wouldn’t stay in business. Middle class, high-school- and college-educated people are falling into the traps.

Really, though, I don’t think spam is the big problem. Yes, it’s inconvenient. And falling for phishing can lead to serious headaches, but as a whole the spam won’t impact our culture so much. The middle classers are getting scammed, alright, but not by the trillions of Nigerian Heir or UK lottery spams in general. These are successful campaigns just by sheer number (send out a trillion emails, get 5 bites a month, you get a living wage), but eventually they will become less and less of a threat. Email filter systems will get stronger and user behavior will become more defensive. These aren’t the scams we should worry about.

What SCAMS (*ahem*) movements do threaten our culture and why?

an old label, 1900s era, for a bottle of "snake oil" with two serpents facing each other under a red leaf logoBetter! Faster! Longer! Secret Inside!

These more damaging ventures come in the “improved ________” claims.  All sorts of products and theories, like iffy energy suppliers, vitamin supplements, diet fads and even a historically debunked (no pun intended) sleep pattern that seems to be all the rage online lately are the invading species of our time.

Sure, snake-oil salesmen have always existed. But now they are online, and they are tapping into a deep schema in our culture that some find impossible to resist. These are the really dangerous scams, because they have life-altering potential. They can suck years and savings away from someone’s life (and in the case of the sleep deprivation, cause death to the person and others; in 20% of all fatal car accidents fatigue is a factor).

Why are we falling for this crap? The narrative of “the revolution” lures us. The romantic wash of major disruption to the status quo paints us dreamy pictures of uncovering a long-life or untold-riches secret long hidden from “the people” by the elite or governments. We always tend to assume there is a cover-up. We love the story of information oppression and the lone Che-in-a-beret who leads the way to discovery. We love the feeling of being in our own elite small group of ever-the-wiser secret-holders who will rise above the ignorant masses.

The Ideal Story

Thousands of years of human history have formed this perfect story of secret Revolution. The Internet’s more evil types are cashing in on this legend and the legacy of the most recent 60 years, with the cultural revolution of the 60s, the mistrust of the government after Watergate and the Vietnam Era, and lately, the dink in our sense of security from 9/11.

Now more than ever, we assume we are on our own, individually, to discover what is best for our health and our fortunes. To some extent, this is true. We are responsible for our own lives. But what is this tendency, especially among older generations and online circles, to steadfastly believe that there is some sort of system that is methodically banning us from life-improving knowledge? Why has the Revolution narrative taken a hold of every start-up founder, every hopeful youtuber, every FOX viewer, and every QVC health shopper in the country?

There is no “system” and there is no fountain of youth or pot of gold. Yet we hold steady onto the rare examples (of dumb luck) of success and twist them to fit this romantic ideal of revolution. When the proliferation of the Internet came into existence, I had hoped that the miracle-cure market would suffer under the sheer weight of debunking information, but it seems the opposite is true. An influx of information has just led to a confused and grasping public that will try anything to feel good again.

Perhaps I’m being too cynical here. Perhaps we’re just in a “shiny!” phase and the snake-oil conspiracy-theory sellers will slink back into the slimy craigslist ads where they belong. For thousands of years, we’ve been told that there is a system, that there’s order, that there’s law in place, which means that there is some governing culture that can be brought down. We’ve been told there is such a thing as a single revolutionary idea and that even the most humble creature can happen upon it and change the world.

As long as we cling to that narrative, we’ll still have to suffer through relatives trying to sell us on their latest pyramid scheme over Thanksgiving dinner.


Photo credits:
Snake Oil pic
Spam collage: PurpleCar.net