The First Spam Email

I’ve been talking about, dealing with (in a “user-generated content context”), and thinking about spam a lot lately.  As an investor in email related companies going back to the mid-1990’s, I started experiencing spam as a real problem around 2000.  Chris, Ryan, and I spent a lot of time thinking about it and ended up investing in two companies – Return Path and Postini – which have both been very successful companies on the good side of the war against spam.

I was trying to remember when the first spam appeared (I had early 1980’s in my mind) so I went to the source of all knowledge (Wikipedia) and looked up spam.  I turns out the first official email spam was in 1978.  The ramp of spam – especially in the last three years – has been incredible.

  • 1978 – An e-mail spam is sent to 600 addresses
  • 1994 – First large-scale spam sent to 6000 newsgroups, reaching millions of people
  • 2005 – (June) 30 billion per day
  • 2006 – (June) 55 billion per day
  • 2006 – (December) 85 billion per day
  • 2007 – (February) 90 billion per day

Due to the magic of Postini, I see none of it (although according to Postini I’m now getting over 2000 per day on average.)

  • But how many false positives do you get? Have you checked?

    That’s my beef with Email anti-spam.

    The way I deal with spam is as follows: my Gmail account is all-purpose, but I specifically filter out the Email *I* want and label it explicitly (with Gmail labels). The fact that Gmail allows for also helps in identifying specific-purpose Email (for instance certain purposes get their own tags, matched up to a label). Since Gmail, I’ve been thinking of Email as a “pull what I want when I want” operation, rather than a “filter stuff” operation.

    Don’t get me wrong, some spam still trickles through and for that I use Gmail’s “Mark as Spam” — they haven’t been really good at learning though, in my experience (so far) — but the stuff that gets through only gets through to my most general (“liberal”) label, and it’s relatively easy to deal with.

  • Re: false positives – virtually none. I agree that there is a wide variety of “false positive” issues with spam filters (that’s part of what Return Path helps with!) but Postini has tuned their engine to the point where they are processing over 1 billion messages a day and have a trivial number of false positives (at least in my experience.)

  • I am going to deep breath here, write this response, then wait 5 minutes before sending… to make sure I don’t go into my uncontrolled rant on spam…

    What absolutely amazes me is the consistancy in the number of spams that end up in my spam-bucket each day. Over the last 6 to 8 months, it has grown over 100%. But on a day-to-day basis it is within +- 3 or 4 of the same number. Which sort of tells me that as the big ISP boys, comcast, aol, etc etc crank up and stop more and more, the Spam-guys perfectly match the exact same pace. And the spammers have very predictable flows on a day to day basis.

    Meanwhile, I have become a spammer myself… adopting their tricks and techniques just to freakin’ announce a bike ride to 15 buddies without getting myself blackballed off AOL for two weeks.

    Okay. I’m calm again. Pulse rate, back in 60’s. I can hit the POST button now.


  • Tom

    Apparently there is a new documentary about spam appropriately titled “Spam”. There is some canadian press coverage at