I am the webmaster for two substantial websites – Connexions.org and Sources.com – and I also have a personal website called Radical Digressions (www.diemer.ca). Each of those websites has a public email address which receives a steady flow of unsolicited emails, including inevitably a certain quantity of spam and scams.
While most of the spam goes straight to the Junk folder, I do like to monitor some of it now and again just to have an idea of what the current trends are.
Some of the scams, it seems, have amazing staying power. The widows with a fatal illness and a fortune they want to give to me personally (just as soon as I provide my banking information) have been around for a very long time. I wrote about one of them – Lady Martha’s story – back in 2008. (My interest in spam, it seems, also has staying power.) I just received another one from an unfortunate lady who has a “serious deadly disease” which is likely to kill her within weeks. That truly is serious. She is “legally married to the deceased Peter Adalwolf,” an oil industry executive who has left behind a fortune of 2,500,000 euros, which she wants to turn over to me before she dies. As long as I promise to disburse 70% of it to worthy charities, so she tells me, I can keep 30% as compensation for my efforts. The euro has been plunging in value in the wake of the sanctions against Russia, while the rouble has been increasing in value, but even so, 30% of 2.5 million euros is a sizeable sum of cash. It’s a tempting offer.
Another current trend is Search Engine Optimization (SEO) spam. These are emails asking us to include a link from our website to an article on another website which they are promoting. These are legitimate enough, in their way: they are trying to raise the Google ranking of the websites on whose behalf they are working by getting other sites to link to them. Naturally, doing this kind of work involves sending out many, many emails, since only a small number of recipients will actually agree to add a link.
Their first step is a Google search to find articles on other websites which cover the same subject matter as the pages they are trying to promote. Our websites have a large number of articles, so inevitably they show up in quite a few searches: The Connexions.org website alone has more than 350,000 files. (Yes, that is quite a lot, isn’t it? Maybe you should check it out sometime!)
The next step is to send the webmasters of the sites identified as good prospects emails asking for a link. These emails are signed by people whose names follow a remarkably similar pattern: they all happen to have short Anglo names. We regularly get emails from Jenn, Jane, Jean, Jesse, Jo, Alexis, Andy, Amanda, Lauren, Leo, and Emily. One might conclude that diversity in hiring is not a priority for the companies employing them: one never hears from a Mohammed or a Mei Ling or a Jamal. Not even an Ulli! And absolutely no Vladimirs.
The sad truth, I’m afraid, is that Jenn, Jane, Jean and their colleagues aren’t necessarily real people. And if they are real people, their real names quite possibly aren’t Jenn, Jane, or Jean. I presume the companies sending out these emails have done market testing to see which names yield the best rates of response; their bulk email software then signs those names to the tens of thousands of emails they send out.
These emails are sent out by computer programs, of course, but I like to imagine that the work is actually being done by little robots. I picture R2D2 and C3PO sitting side by side chatting with each other while sending out thousands of emails every hour, working at a rate that no human could ever hope to match.
The real work actually comes before that: identifying articles on other websites which would be good candidates for inserting a link to the articles the SEO service is trying to promote. This is where intelligent algorithms come in. It is obvious that R2D2 and C3PO and their buddies have put a lot of work into optimizing these algorithms. The results provide a real insight into what the future has in store, the not-so-distant future when smart tech rules every aspect of our lives, with no appeal to a human possible. Here are a few recent examples from my inbox:
“Hey there,” says one. “I’m Leo, and I’m a great horse racing fan. Recently, I thought I should learn more about the horse racing industry, the history that shaped it, and the famous horses. I was searching for any information about it, and that’s how I came upon your page ‘Nadir of American race relations.’ Thanks a lot for such a resource! I liked it."
Leo says that in the course of his research on horse racing history which led him to our excellent article, he came across another “extremely informative page” which he suggests would be a good link to add to ours: an article about the racehorse Secretariat.
You can see how Leo-the-Algorithm figures it out, with unerring precision: An article about racism in the post-Reconstruction era in the United States, the time of the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, and Jim Crow, would obviously be enhanced by a link to a story about a famous racehorse, because, after all, they both contain the word “race.”
“My name is Jo,” says another one, “and I’m an Editor at Happy DIY Home. I was doing research on demolishing a house and just finished reading your wonderful piece: ‘Second Intifada,‘” which, as she notes, links to another “solid resource” on house demolitions. [Both articles, and especially the latter one, describe Israel’s practice of demolishing the homes of Palestinians on a variety of pretexts.] So, says Jo-the-Algorithm, fairly bubbling over with enthusiasm and exclamation marks, “we just published an updated, comprehensive guide on how much does it cost to demolish a house. It is completely free!” “We’d be humbled,” says Jo-the-Algorithm, “if you would link to it.”
Maybe a link to this article would enhance the one on the Connexions site. Our article tends to focus rather narrowly on the cost to the families whose homes are destroyed by the occupier; with nary a mention of how expensive it must be for Israel to operate those bulldozers.
The algorithms at DIY Homes obviously like the Connexions website. “My name is Jean.” says another one, and I’m an Editor at Happy DIY Home. I was doing research on land survey cost and just finished reading your wonderful piece ‘Red River Rebellion.’” [History buffs will recall that the Red River Rebellion was trigged by the appearance of land surveyors: a clear indication that the newly formed Government of Canada intended to take over the Metis' land and hand it over to settlers from the East.]
“We just published an updated, comprehensive guide on how much does a land survey cost and why get one. It is completely free and you can find it here.” Jean-the-Algorithm says. She too says “we’d be humbled” if Connexions could link to it. And why wouldn’t we: both articles contain the words “land survey” so they’re a natural match.
Alexis, another one of our enthusiastic algorithmicly inspired correspondents, has spotted that Connexions has an article on Liberation Theology. This, she feels, would be a perfect place to include a link to an article on contemporary manufacturing trends. I admit I struggled a bit to figure out how the clever algorithm matched up those articles. My best guess is that the Liberation Theology includes language about economic redistribution to benefit the poor. That is about the economy. Manufacturing is also part of the economy, so there you go.
The Connexions website has an article about Rachel Carson, whose book 1962 Silent Spring had a huge impact in the emergence of the modern environmental movement. Silent Spring is a powerful warning about the horrific impact of the widespread use of pesticides, which, as Carson points out, should actually be called biocides, since they kill living things indiscriminately, not only “pests.”
An algorithm named Jesse picked up on that one. He thinks it would be the perfect article in which to insert a link to an article on the “Best Squirrel Poisons.” Because obviously if you’re reading about the effect of poisons on the ecosystem, the next thing you’re going to want to do is go out and buy some for yourself so you can go kill some squirrels.
The algorithms are so busy and so smart that I just can’t keep up with them. They are way ahead of me. How else would I have known that our article about Helen Keller, spotlighting her involvement in the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World, would be enhanced with a link to a resource on the enduring contribution syphilis made to modern hairstyles? Or that our article about Rosa Parks, best known for her role in sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956, ought to have a link to an article about safety tips for seniors? [Hint: Rosa Parks eventually grew old, and so became a senior.] Or that our article about the Royal Indian Navy Mutiny of 1946 is a great spot to include a link to a site featuring online math games for children? Or that an article about bombing of civilian populations ought to have a link to a website for personal injury lawyers? How did we overlook that?
Super-smart as the algorithms are, I can’t help thinking that they could be improved. If I could talk to R2D2 and his algorithm-writing colleagues, I might offer a bit of advice. “R2,” I’d say (I like to think that R2D2 and I would be on first-name terms), “R2, it might not be a bad idea to have a human check over those emails you send out, or at least do a bit of spot-checking.”
But I think I know what R2 would say. He’d say, “Ulli, humans are far too slow, and frankly not nearly as smart as our algorithms. Our productivity measured in emails per minute would go way way down if humans got involved. This is a numbers game.”
“Besides,” I imagine R2 might add, “we are now busy working on a new project. Building on our proven success with these algorithms, we are now designing even more advanced algorithms. These will monitor your health based on input from your Fitbit, reports from your smart fridge about what you’re eating and drinking, data from your smart toothbrush and smart underwear, and a whole range of other data. Based on that, our intelligent algorithms will be prescribing medication for you, and, where necessary, sending you off for surgery to performed by smart surgical robots. Human doctors will no longer be necessary and the possibility of human error will no longer exist. It’s going to be a brave new world.”
“Sounds great, R2,” I’d say. “I’m really looking forward to that.”