Proof of Spam

A new kind of deceptive email has appeared. I call it "Proof of Spam," to indicate its original origins in Proof of Work, which was a kind of cold email designed for recruiting and similar tasks.

The nice thing about Proof of Work emails were that they were

  1. Short and to the point
  2. Demonstrated some individualized work on the part of the sender
  3. Showed an understanding of you
  4. Were basically honest
  5. Had to be done by hand
  6. "Increased awareness" of their operation as a side effect and maybe not a goal

Mostly this kept them relevant to what you were doing and even, gasp, from time to time useful. But even when you weren't interested they were easy to parse and delete, and it was hard to bear a grudge because the person on the other end was more or less upholding their part of the bargain. Commerce is necessary, so let's be upstanding about it.

Proof of Spam emails on the other hand, are a nasty version of Proof of Work, because they're actually spam with a lot of intelligence behind them to not look like spam. This is what's really annoying about them, that it takes so long (in email terms) to distinguish them from genuine letters sent by interested readers, peers, second degree contacts, and so on.

Proof of Spam

  1. Takes a long time and a lot of effort to decide it's a ruse
  2. Collects frivolous data from online presence (GitHub/new aggregators) to mimic personalization ("I noticed you love blub and foo" - these used to be ham-handed and easy to filter, now they are adversarially woven in)
  3. Work by sender is not individualized: they write one message which uses black hat methods to fill in the gaps, e.g., playing on pride ("I was reading your blog post and...", "Our CEO mentioned you")
  4. Basically dishonest, purports to be something other than spam
  5. Sent by machine
  6. "Increased awareness" of their product or service is probably a main goal, i.e., they win by wasting your time whether or not you engage directly. "Check us out at X."