The evolution dissent


“Hello”: the voice of spam

As I’ve written before, we now live in the Turing age. Every time we open our email boxes, we’re forced to conduct dozens of Turing tests, trying to quickly figure out which of the pieces of email are from real humans, and which were sent by spambots.

This battle has now claimed its first linguistic casualty. It occurred to me yesterday that you can no longer send an email to anyone with the sole word “hello” in the message header.

Why? Because the email recipient is almost certain to throw out your email before reading it. And why would they do that? Because the MyDoom virus has been flooding our inboxes with endless copies of itself, half of which say merely “hi” or “hello” in the message field. I personally have been getting between 20 and 60 copies of MyDoom every day for the last two weeks. So as I go through my email every day, numbly disposing of the 70 to 80 per cent of which is spam (and I get about 300 messages a day), I’m almost certain to throw out anything with “hi” or “hello”.

The other day, I got an email from a friend saying, hey, did you get the email I sent you last week? And I hadn’t. I didn’t remember reading anything from him. He insisted he’d sent me an email, so I asked him, hey, just out of interest, what did you put in the message line? Oh, I said “hello,” he replied.

Heh. That’s the problem. These days, saying “hello” and “hi” instantly and definitively marks you as a spambot. I, and most other people on the Net, will immediately delete your mail and won’t even waste the microsecond necessary to glance over to see which email address the email has come from.

So here’s a tip for anyone who’s trying to email me. If you want to appear human-like, put a human-like message header on your email. And that means you can’t say just “hello” or “hi,” because that no longer qualifies as a human-like message.

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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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