The Semiotics of Spam

I’ve been thinking a lot about spam. This blog remains a fairly quiet corner of the internet where I can happily hold forth about food and books without feeling too self-conscious, but my essays in The Smart Set get a fair amount of exposure and re-linking, and with minimal internet fame comes a surprising number of unsolicited emails. For this reason, I have removed my Email address from the site. If you wish to contact me to talk about your school project, to tell me I’m making black eyed peas wrong, or other social pleasantries, feel free to use the comments to get in touch with me.

But if you want to ask me to promote your wedding cake toppers, your app for “happiness seekers,” your wacko diet, or your boring listicle, you are really barking up the wrong tree. To begin with, my blog is not so well-trafficked that your proposed “content” on behalf of your “clients” will get much exposure here. But more importantly, your proposals are a poor fit for my little hobby site. I hate weddings, diets, and happiness. (I love listicles, but not indiscriminately.)  And I already don’t have enough time to write and curate the content that interests me, let alone what interests your unnamed “clients.”

So these poorly targeted messages are clicked and dragged to the inbox tab for “promotions,” which I like to think of as “spam that I might want to look at later” (as sometimes I get follow-up messages from the “content” marketers,  and I like to have a record of contact).

Have you ever wondered where the term spam comes from? Like most slang, its leap from inside joke to OED lexicon is hard to trace exactly, and there are several recorded entry points. But the internet is an incessant self-curator, so there is some consensus that when MUD players decried text flooding in the 1980s, and when Usenet condemned repeat unsolicited ad posts in the early 1990s, they used “spam” in reference to the the “Spam” sketch from Monty Python in which a cafe customer is essentially spammed with the word spam: Spam (the meat product) appears in every dish on the menu, and when the customer protests, a bunch of Vikings start singing about Spam.

The Monty Python reference may account for the origins of the word, but not why the word caught on and stuck around. When the internet was young, it introduced all kinds of new  textual engagements, many of which–folders, inboxes, chat rooms, multi-user dungeons–were named or nicknamed to evoke more concrete spaces and habits of interaction. We don’t nest or name office folders the way we do computer folders, but it was easy to understand their organizational purpose by thinking of them as the tabbed manila folder usually depicted as an icon. But there’s not really anything like electronic spam out in meatspace that draws an easy comparison, except perhaps chopper-dropped flyers (which tend to be political rather than commercial in use). On the other hand, there’s not really anything else like actual spam out in the world anywhere, either, except  other canned meat products.

In The Sexual Politics of Meat, Carole Adams describes animals as an “absent referent” in the butcher shop or refrigerated grocery aisle: skinned, chopped, and sometimes deboned, the animal provenance of meat is obscured by the plastic-wrapped cuts for sale and the filets or patties on a menu. (Cuts of meat that do resemble their animals of origin have historically been considered exotic, savage, or undesirable in American culture, eaten by foreigners and the poor, until the nose-to-tail movement helped rebrand them as delicacies.) Spam, then,  is like the epitome of a sign without a referent: pink and paste-like, it is highly transformed, as far opposite from raw flesh on the culinary triangle as it can get without decomposing. Linguistically, the signifiers of Spam resist ties to a signified: it lays claim to pork and ham as components–both words removed a step from the living pig of their origin–and the word Spam itself has no definition or etymology. Or if it does, no one outside of Hormel knows what it is. “Spam” doesn’t stand for anything; Spam is Spam, signifying nothing but itself.

With no disrespect to canned Spam, it’s easy to see some parallels to electronic spam, which often seems to signify nothing. The spam comments filtered out by Akismet are usually outright nonsense, strings of words and letters with no message (albeit with a kind of absurd beauty).  The more articulate Emails and comments are still non sequitur at best: sent down to us from the ether with no explanation of why we should be interested in this sexy singles site, that dubious credit plan, or this other erectile dysfunction drug. Spam Emails don’t disguise themselves very well as other kinds of messages, even when they come from our friends’ accounts with links and the subject header “hi.” They rarely have anything to do with our lives or make a case as to why they should. They just are what they are. Origin, mysterious; referent, absent.

Technically, the promo and sponsor Emails I receive are not true spam–they are sort of targeted, and sent to few enough recipients that I receive follow-up messages from some–but, like any other unsolicited Emails, it is not always clear what their message is supposed to be and why it was sent to me.  Aside from my name and the topic of food, they make little effort to apply themselves to my life–they appear non sequitur, like the gratuitious use of Spam in the Monty Python sketch. And, while I know that the secrets in a can of Spam are appetizing or sustaining  for some–far be it for me to judge!–I do not feel inclined to open and try it myself.

Further reading: a rather extensive but fascinating documentation of the earliest instances of spam advertising.  Also, I just saw today: apparently there is a new book on the topic of electronic spam?

One response to “The Semiotics of Spam

  1. Pingback: Quick Hit: Pumpkin Spice the Movie | Scenes of Eating·

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