(I don’t usually post my Time Out columns about cyberspace–they go out of date too fast–but this one on spam was kind of fun to write. Carried in Time Out, Mumbai, April 2006)

Dr Mariam Abacha, look what you went and did. Though the infamous Nigerian ‘419’ scam wasn’t the first rip-off scheme to go viral on the Internet, it was one of the more tenacious scams—and it provided a blueprint of sorts for future scammers and spammers.

The Nigerian scam was simple: emails arrived from people purporting to be the wives of politicos (that was “Mariam Abacha”‘s USP), retired generals, aides to unseated dictators and the like. The pitch was the same: they had access to bank accounts containing untold wealth that they would gladly share with you if you would help them get the money out.

As with the Lottery Scam (“Congratulations! You have won a million gazillion dollars by doing absolutely nothing at all!”) and its more recent variants, such as the Publishing Scam (“We will pay you a zillion trillion dollars if you help us edit two short stories”), the story is unimportant: the aim is to get the sucker at the end to cough up his or her bank account numbers and other personal financial information.

The scary thing about online scams isn’t just how many people fell for them—the Nigerian scam briefly turned deadly, when a few people who’d been ripped off decided to go to Nigeria to investigate and were bumped off. It’s that the Lottery Letters, the Nigerian Scam and the Psychic’s Emails became the template for spammers. Every pitch that landed in our mailboxes after 1998 had the same feel to it, whether the spammer was selling university diplomas, time-share resorts, horny Asian babes or entire pharmacopeias of drugs guaranteed to improve your sex life.

By end-2005, spam blocking filters had improved, forcing spam into more and more creative alleys. The discovery that randomly generated phrases would usually get through firewalls and filters led to oddly beautiful spam: imagine fragments of poetry emerging in random order from the brain of a brilliant and disturbed alcoholic. In 2006, spam is moving towards the creative use of images and voices. And there’s a slow shift in attitudes to spam: while we still see it as the biggest nuisance on the Net, a small group of enthusiasts are beginning to see the creative possibilities in spam.

Spam poetry has been around as long as spam itself: purists insist that to qualify, poems cannot simply be about spam, but must use lines from genuine spam. (To get your spam, assuming you’re not satisfied with what’s coming through the usual channels, try The Incredible Spam Museum or The Spam Letters.) Spam Radio offers a nonstop feed of spam, with particularly choice selections being The Toilet Seat and The Polite Nigerian.

And now spam provides the building blocks for art. At Spamgraffiti, exhibits use randomly generated lines from specific spam to create an oddly beautiful, if slightly limited, pastiche of scrolling lines in different colours. Key phrases leap out from this spam quilt in a way that becomes more than a little menacing after you’ve done three exhibits or more. Elsewhere, digital photographer Adam Harvey has been making waves with a far more ambitious exhibition: he digitally maps the subject lines of spam emails into huge pornographic forms, using porn sites as his inspiration. What he’s emerged with is more art than titillation, grotesque and beautiful at the same time. I can see how this might be the wave of the future, with artists spurning offline junk in favour of virtual trash for their palettes.

Go visit:

Adam Harvey’s SAVE AS mixes porn sites, digital photography and spam email subject headers to spectacular effect.

Spamgraffiti: Freefloating lines of spam are used in a series of oddly beautiful collages.

Spamradio: You’ve seen enough of the Nigerians, the Viagra peddlers, the lottery holders: now listen to them.

SatireWire’s pathbreaking Poetry Spam contest from 2001, featuring the classic ‘Enlarge Your Boss’

Spam Letters and Spam Museum: can’t get enough spam? Go here.