Wednesday, August 30, 2006

RE: It's a pity because you could do it with her so much longer!

Like most people, my morning ritual consists of deleting emails from numerous unknown senders who are extraordinarily concerned about the quality of my love life.

Ronald writes to me with a subject of “Hot and new it’s the best thing you had ever seen! Delight.” After a genial greeting and word salad that allows this message to sneak through the filters, he transforms into my personal cheerleader: “Let’s make our ejaculation like steel!” We are united by sexual dysfunction. We’re in this together!

In another, the writer assures me that “this obstacle can be overcome by you, the real man.” Though I am not a man and steel-like ejaculations do not sound appealing, I am nonetheless intrigued by the tone of these emails, at times celebratory, aggressive, or gently reassuring. Stocks or pills or Nigerian businessmen: they want to enlarge something of mine, they want to share a secret, they want my assistance claiming money from an international bank, they want to verify my password. Even writing at its least sophisticated places demands on its reader.

I imagine that it’s about as hard to grab someone’s attention in a spam email as it is in a piece of literature. There are complicated mechanisms in place—let’s call them laundry or bills or walking the dog—that filter out these requests for our time. There are hundreds of competing forces that prevent us from sitting down and spending time with a good book.

Still, even with a filter designed to weed out spam, they get through. And I read them. How do they do it? The writers are very clever. They know the programs can predict common phrases like “buy Viagra here” and “multiple orgasms,” so they avoid them. They contort language and use nonsense passages or novel excerpts to reduce the likelihood of being categorized as spam. Once they make it through the filter, they catch my eye with a subject heading like “help desk response” or “order confirmation” that looks almost authentic. Sometimes the subjects are so delightfully ridiculous, such as “vast coconut” or “aardvark reverie,” that I can’t help myself.

What can a writer learn from the spammer? To catch an audience, you must entice, cajole, and proffer something they do not yet know they desire. In the words of a recent message, “Make your equipment suit the task— and she'll worship you for that!”


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