Thursday, June 24, 2004

Conceptual Analysis of Spam

I discovered a cool new google feature today. They do definitions. Check it out. I was wondering about the definition of spam. It started when I read this short post from Chris to the Rochester blog. Chris asks,
Anyone know how to stop spam comments?
Imagine a scenario like this. Suppose a spammer is advertising anti-spam software. (I don't know whether this actually happens or not, but I don't see any reason why it couldn't.) Suppose further that his spamming vehicle is blog comments. He has a little bot that goes around and posts his anti-spam service ads indiscriminitely to whatever weblogs he finds -- including, we may stipulate, to Chris's post. Has the Rochester blog been spammed? My intuitions are a little hazy here, but I think that's still spam. But let's look at some definitions. Merriam-Webster offers this definition of spam:
unsolicited usually commercial e-mail sent to a large number of addresses
This is clearly insufficient in at least one respect -- we know that spam needn't be email. Let's set that aside and focus on 'unsolicited' and the large number. Our hypothetical anti-spam spammer does distribute his spam to a large number. But would it be "unsolicited" on Chris's entry? I don't really know. Chris did solicit spam solutions. Of course, the solicitation played no causal role in the possible spamming. I thought that 'unsolicited' was a pretty unproblematic word, but I really don't know whether it applies in that case. Turning to more definitions, courtesy of google (linked above), I find the following elements appearing in various definitions, along with the ones m-w already gave:
  • Unwanted
  • Unsolicited
  • Large Number
  • "Inappropriate" (as in, "An inappropriate attempt to use a mailing list...")
  • Sent indiscriminately
These all seem to be importantly connected with the concept of spam, but I don't feel like I'm much closer to a conceptual analysis. Chris's spammer's message may very well fail to be unwanted. Chris may be glad that he got the piece of spam that he did, so 'unwanted' can't be a conceptual necessity. Similarly, it seems possible that our spammer could have begun spamming, but only gotten one message out before his server crashed. Then there'd be no large number, but I think the one message would still be spam. "Inappropriate" is more difficult to gauge, as it's a pretty heavy normative term. Inappropriate in what way, or from what viewpoint? For a profit-maximizing corporation, spamming might be the rational thing to do. And we can surely imagine cases in which spamming would even be the morally appropriate thing to do (let the world be destroyed unless you send out some spam tomorrow). I think that last one is key. Spam is sent out indiscriminately. I'm surprised it doesn't show up in more definitions -- it's only in two of Google's twenty-eight. The hip thing, I understand, is for philosophers not to worry about conceptual analyses, and talk about prototypes and clusters and fuzzy things like that. But I still get a little disappointed when I fail to pin down exactly what a fairly simple-seeming concept amounts to.


  1. Anyone know how to stop spam prototypes?

  2. The word also refers to html pages which repeat words to get higher rankings in search engines. It comes from the Monty Python spam song...

    Regards, Jeff Lee