Hannah M.G. Shapero

Life online has its own type of virtual “weather,” and usually it’s snowing. It’s not snowing little flakes of ice, it’s snowing SPAMS. Every day I view the deposit of junk e-mail caught in my spam-filter, like a drift that piles up against the wall of a house. A few errant flakes of SPAM make it through a gap in a window, to appear on my active e-mail list, where I sweep them away as if with a puff of warm air.

In a snowstorm, uncounted zillions of flakes can fall, and each one of them is proverbially unique. I am told that billions, perhaps trillions of SPAM messages get sent every day, and fascinatingly, most of them are also unique – not through the turns of Nature, but as the result of clever, endlessly recombining word-and-number generators which ceaselessly attempt new ways to get through the filters.

In an idle moment, I took a look at some of the SPAMS stuck in the filter file, actually opening them to see what they said (NOT any attachments of course!). I know that opening the messages is still not a good idea, but curiosity got the better of me. What are all the snowflakes trying to say? Inside their misleading titles (“I finally found you!”, “Dinner tonight?” “Someone in this office likes you”...) were the now-familiar ads for penis enlargement pills, Viagra and other drugs, mortgage financial schemes, and of course pornography. From the sheer number of penis and Viagra ads, it seems that the Net has taken on a decidedly phallic quality, a virtual temple to Priapus, though it’s a Priapus that seems to need a lot of assistance.

But what impressed me the most about the lineup of SPAMS was that most of them were attributed to a person’s name, cited in the “sender” field. Bogus of course, and paired with a bogus address, but still a personal name. This is adopted as a strategy to get through the filters, though since they were caught by my filter, it wasn’t a very good strategy. Yet one after another, each SPAM mail had a person’s name attached to it. I looked at a week’s worth of SPAM – (yes, I have too much time on my hands) and found hundreds and hundreds of these names. I was receiving penis enlargement ads and drug ads from a whole crowd of people who were only names – a crowd of ghosts.

It is said that if you name something, then it has a kind of existence; it is made at least virtually real. Here on my screen was an endless roster of virtually real people: Mel Nolan. Timmy Clark. Rachael Fair. Theresa Schultz. Goldie Serrano. Debbie Cooper. Jed K. Burgos. Blair Harden. Kerry Cardenas. Anita Barone. Kitty Langston. Ruthie Yu. Irvin Flynn. Ellen Stephens. Dalton Avery. Tyrone Garces. Patricia Watkins. Michael Dominguez. Darin Sutherland….the list goes on and on and on. I collected more than three hundred names, all different. I have no idea how many other people received mail from these phantom names, but for me, every snowflake had a name, and none of them repeated. There were no repetitions of even common names like “Smith” or “Jones” or “Martinez.”

I started to wonder: who were these people? A kind of sociological curiosity arose in me, and I started taking notes. I noticed that the ethnic range of these names was rather limited. Apart from a couple of Chinese or Jewish names, almost all of the names were either “Anglo” or Latin, and even the Latin names often had an “Anglo” first name. There were also numerous names which seemed to fit the stereotype of an “African-American” or black-sounding name. But other than the one or two I observed, there were no Chinese or Japanese names, no Vietnamese or Indian or Middle Eastern names, and no African or other ethnic names either. There were also no names that were clearly “European” such as German, Italian, or French names. And, more subtly, there seemed to be no “British” – sounding names either – no one named Trevor or Nigel or, for that matter, Camilla.

The phone book of any American city is filled with a global variety of ethnicities and ethnic names. Plundering the phonebook to randomly generate names would not yield such an exclusive selection. Where did these names come from? They were contemporary names, not ones from the past with their Biblical and historical allusions. And they were American names, this earnest mixture of Anglo and Latin. Where were these people? Were they really real somewhere? They were not cute internet nicknames, they were given names. Were they plundered from mailing lists, hacked from office rosters of companies and firms or insurance listings or internet providers’ memberships? I have heard that names and addresses of “real” people are commonly stripped and used as the origin of spams, in a scam known as a “joe job.” Were all of these hundreds (thousands!) victimized this way? Was there really a Kirk Perry, a Frederic Beal, a Hugh Sandoval, a Stanley Godwin, an Arline Booth, a Carrie McIntyre, or a Jay Rodriguez, now cursing and frantically changing his or her e-mail address because his name and identity have been stolen in order to promote a penis enlargement pill? If some sort of “random name generator” is being used, it is sophisticated; it hardly ever comes up with something that sounds odd or absurd.

As I often do, I had surrealistic thoughts. The SPAMS, as thick as snowflakes in February, fill the virtual air, each with its own “realistic” sender name: Danielle Corcoran, Cassandra Pace, Coleman Lamb, William Fisher, Cathy Ann McNeil, Mariana Perez, Toby Bruce, Benjamin Bailey, Daniel Knowles, Jennifer Shore. Billions of SPAMS, every day. One day’s worth of SPAM has far exceeded the population of the entire Earth. Each day, astronomical numbers of virtual people are being named and thus, in a ghostly way, created. Do they have souls? Do they have lives, working in their offices somewhere in another dimension created by the unrelenting machinations of SPAM coders? Whole cities full of people, working tirelessly to send you penis enlargement ads and mortgage scams and Viagra and amateur teen girl webcam pictures?

I have read speculations by imaginative physicists who posit that there are an infinite number of universes, parallel but unreachable from ours, and in at least some of them are Earths just like ours, with people just like us. In fact, somewhere out there, supposedly, is our exact duplicate. Is this snowfall of personalized junk e-mail really the whisper across the dimensions of other universes, filled with uncounted but named beings, whose only trace on our consciousness is a subject line with a name that sounds tantalizingly real: Clark Bernard, Robert Allen, Shawnda Ivan, Merrill Nichols, Averyl Sanders, Dwayne Negron, Nadia Duran, Janet Filson Davis, Andrea Nichols, J.D. Martinsen, Florence Siegel, Margaret Madden…..?

Afterword: A little research on the Net (Google) revealed the source of these names, or something like it: the Kleimo Random Name Generator: http://www.kleimo.com/random/name.cfm which has adjustable parameters to "create" as many people, with as common or as unusual a name as you want. It takes names from the U.S. Census and scrambles them to create an instant crowd of virtual friends.

© 2003 Hannah M.G. Shapero

Hannah M.G. Shapero, is an American artist, writer and incorrigible baseball fan. Check out her website for some beautiful work.