Spam, once only a brand of spiced canned meat, became a synonym for unsolicited emails, sent to large number of addresses, with the underlying intention of extorting money from its recipients. Although I will be using the term spam through out the essay, I will focus my research on the so called Spanish Prisoner or 419 scams (after the Nigerian Criminal Code that condemns impersonation of officials for monetary gains). The majority of these emails can be summarized to the following narrative: An individual in an African country comes across a large sum of money, but cannot access it. He or she then asks for the recipient's collaboration and personal details, in order to get hold of the money. As a reward a percentage of that sum will stay with the recipient. At first sight such scam might appear as either malevolent or extremely naïf. One might fear the consequences of engaging in an email exchange with the sender. Or one might laugh at spam's peculiar use of the English language, or its hilarious stories: My father was the former Kenya road Minister revealed Ms Alima Kipkalya in an email sent in December 2012. My believe is that a deeper insight into spam can reveal more than just fear or few laughs.
I intend this essay to be a journey following the close-reading of spam. I will divide the journey into three parts. Firstly I will describe the anatomy of spam. I will argue that although permanently evolving and adapting, spam is characterized by the persistence of its elements, being its language, structures, or described narratives. These constant elements give spam a distinct and recognizable character. And although they can have a homogenizing effect,a diverse and colorful landscape can be experience throughout these texts. In this section I will mainly focus on the work of authors, who have previously analyzed spam, such as Hito Steyerl, Theresa Heyd and Harvey Glickman.
Secondly I will approach spam as global cultural phenomena that defies geographic and cultural barriers. And while it might be considered a precarious activity, due to is fraudulent and usually unsuccessful nature, it plays an important role in the imagination of both senders and recipients. I will base my argument on Arjun Appadurai's theories no globalization of culture and human migration, as well as the work on West African contemporary urban culture by authors Jenna Burrell and Harvey Glickman. Lastly, I will ask whether spam forms a language of its own, with a strong enough character to be inscribed and recognized a sub-genre of digital folklore.
Spam constitutes a global cultural phenomena experienced by most of us on a daily basis. And although we often ignore it, throughout the essay I will argue why I consider it to have a strong aesthetic and social value. Spam writing techniques are usually focused on enticing and captivating the reader. Aims not that different from those of an artist, who strives to create works that will seduce and fascinate her audience. Spammers however don't aspire to artistic recognition. Motivation lays in the anticipated monetary return. Having said that, the ways in which literature is put to perform on those scams is both creative and unusual. As an example lets take the misspellings and use of broken English, common to spam. Intuitively we'd consider them as a handicap to the success of them scam, whereas in fact they constitute a deliberate choice. Behind them lays the belief that if spammers portrait themselves according stereotypical images of Africans more readers will respond to them, than they would to an earnest portrait (Glickman 2005). Once one has gone below surface of spam such diverse and inventive array of literary devices begins to surface.
On social level, spam seems to play a more complex role in the lives of those who write it, than simply a scheme to extort money from its readers. Jena Burrell upon interviewing young Ghanaian spammers in Accra, reports how the curiosity towards the foreign Other is present among this population. Often her interviewees also frame their spamming practice in relation to previous experiences with pen-pal programs (Burrell 2012). These facts seem to be inline with Arjun Appadurai's theory of the "work of imagination" in a globalized world. Appadurai argues that today imagination plays and important role in every-day-lives of many of us. Imagination is no a longer a impediment to ones productivity, but rather an escape that allow one to carry on with his or her live, no matter how terrible it is. The constant stream of images from other regions of the globe, brought to us by the mass-media, provides one with material that will expand one's "work of imagination". It will give him or her a wider repertoire of forms to image his or her possible life (Appadurai 1996). My suspicion is that email exchanges between spammers and their readers will add to this set of globally circulating images, by providing spammers with a set of more intimate and elaborate images on their recipients. As a result, the portraits of spammers imagined possible lives expand in complexity, detail, and tangibility.
Appadurai, Arjun (1996). "Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization". University of Minnesota. Minneapolis.
Glickman, Harvey (2005). "The Nigerian '419' Advance Fee Scams: Prank or Peril?" in Canadian Journal of African Studies Vol.39 No. 3 (pp. 460-489).