Kids and Kong

Spambots: The new scourge of blogs

A month ago, I started getting a strange flood of postings to the Collision Detection comment fields. The postings were like this:

Phentermine and Viagra for US: Viagra,
Viagra Online,
Buy Phentermine

SPAM report to esliejikmertv@bk.ru.
Will be eliminated.

Posted by: Viagra on October 2, 2003 09:59 AM

You can see an example here, in the comments to an item I wrote about JetBlue. The comments weren’t put there by humans; they were written by spambots. Essentially, spam artists have created a new generation of bots that crawl through blogs and leave spam messages as postings to the boards. There are now over 100 such postings on my blog alone, and probably tens of millions worldwide. I’m probably going to have to spend an hour deleting them all manually.

Welcome to yet another battle in today’s Turing-Test world — where the line between humans and artificial intelligence is increasingly blurring. This isn’t because A.I. has become particuarly smart or lifelike. It’s because, oddly enough, A.I. doesn’t have to be particularly smart or lifelike to pass as human. After all, if you can write some text in my comment boards and click “enter”, you are, by blog standards, real enough to be sidered a person. Same deal with email spam. A bot can crank out a “hot chicks R waiting 4 U” email and send it to your inbox. So can I. So who’s more real?

Thankfully, some programmers have been concocting simple-but-effective techniques for preventing spambots from posting to blogs. One example is Jay Allen’s concept for modifying a several simple Movable Type plug-ins, so that you can quickly blacklist any posting that mentions a particular spam URL. That’s cool, but it requires knowing quite rather more plug-in kung fu than the average blogger would have. With luck, the brainiacs at Movable Type will soon release a single plug-in that autoconfigures this technique, making it point-and-click simple. Either way, it’s emblematic of the surreal task that we face every day online, where we increasingly must a) use spam filters to figure out whether someone emailing us is actually a real person; and even more weirdly, b) pass spam-stopping tests to prove to other people that we ourselves are real humans (as I’ve written about many times before).

Ironic, isn’t it? We’ve been worrying for years that intelligent machines would take over the planet and make humans obsolete. We’ve obsessed over the war between robots and humanity — in which evil, stone-cold metallic monsters blast us into dust with Death Rays. Now the war is truly here, but the real danger is not that the robots will kill us; it’s that they’ll bury us alive in penis-enlargement ads.

Ever more evidence that the true sci-fi prophets weren’t H.G. Wells or Orson Scott Card, with their tales of Earth menaced by evil bug-like aliens. They were Philip K. Dick and William Gibson — the guys who wrote bleak, sad predictions of holographic pitchmanship and the neural hawking of breakfast cereal.

When it comes to the future, we’re not facing the “new new thing” so much as the “same old same old.” Sigh.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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Collision Detection: A Blog by Clive Thompson