Surviving on spam

Junk e-mail offers author Bernard Cohen health, wealth and a successful writing career
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The Independent Culture
"YOU NEED more than talent to get published. You need to get noticed. And your chances of getting noticed depend on how easy you make it for agents and publishers to get to know you and your work." This advice arrives free and unsolicited, landing in my e-mail program's inbox among a list of discussions, schedules of ISP downtimes, invitations and gossip from friends.

It is accompanied by an opportunity to expose my writing on rosedog.com. Rosedog, I learn, is an easy-to-use and non-exclusive website wherein I can showcase as many manuscripts as I want. Because everyone else in the online world can, too, I have "an equal chance of getting noticed" by the decision-makers of the publishing world.

More advice came from service @comfind, which has "some great leads to products and services that can help BERNARD COHEN manage & improve its online business".

For the gender-free and corporate me, the Internet must be the tiger economy I've been seeking. Lance from New York - remember him? I don't either - already values my expertise: "I am considering starting an online business, but I don't know if my idea is good enough to succeed. As an experienced Internet user, could you please provide me your thoughts on my idea? My idea is to open an online store that allows people to purchase personal items from the privacy of home. I would then ship the items to the customers in discreet packages and maintain strict confidentiality."

Then, folksy ol' Lance confesses that he does already hold opinions: "I think most folks would like to purchase personal items in private. By personal items I mean birth control devices, feminine hygiene products, diet pills, hair treatments for balding and many other products such as adult diapers. I have always been embarrassed when purchasing some of these items and I figure there have to be many other folks that feel the same way.

"If you think this is a good idea or you might use a website like this, please reply to this message. If you have any suggestions, such as what type of products I should sell, please send me the advice."

Unfortunately for Lance, I prefer to buy these products from reputable retailers. In fact, I could become a retailer myself, either by selling sporting goods on a 20 per cent commission thanks to Link Exchange, or by joining CJ Taylor, who assures me I am "receiving this e-mail based on [my] Internet interests".

"I thought you might be interested in how to make some extra money," Taylor writes. "There are many different ways to do this on the Internet. Most are free and require little effort." Taylor offers the opportunity to assemble small wooden toys by hand in the comfort of my own home.

Later the same day I discover I not only have under-utilised entrepreneurial skills, I am a valued client, too. "Dear Customer," writes no name. "We have not heard from you in a long while. Please come back to visit. Are you interested in Anti-Aging [sic] systems?" I learn a lot "about the compound that is best described as a precursor secretagogue for inducing the body to release its own natural Gamma Hydroxy Butyric Acid".

This is disturbing stuff, but even more worrying is that scientific or market research must have proven that the Bernards of the world are more insomniac, narcoleptic, schizophrenic, Parkinsonian, amnesiac, tardively dyskinesiac, alcoholic and opiate-dependent, hyperactive, short, pained, flabby and (not surprising, given the preceding) anxious than the general population. This e-mail offered pituitary stimulants not only to me (bernard@hermes), but to bernard@earthling, bernard@ecr, bernard@encomix, bernard@eos, bernard@ete.com and on for pages.

Sorry, I've never bought pharmaceuticals online. I have not bought much at all - just a hard-to-find book from Amazon. I found quotes at an online travel agency, but matched them in the flesh at my local flight shop. Tabloids around the world warn that flesh is one thing readily available online. How right they are. I am propositioned every week by the new generation - "We JUST turned 18" - of sex-mad, computer-literate and anonymous women and men, many of whom are in denial of their very means of communication: "100% LIVE", they claim (the telltale blue of URLs standing out from a field of capital letters and exclamation marks), before continuing "& 100% NAKED & WILLING TO DO ANYTHING!!!"

Why do so many people claim to know so much about so many of my interests? Is it the cookies I keep accepting from strangers? Is it my multi-pseudonymous alter egos who fill in forms, enter competitions and generally make themselves known in all their falsity? Is it the Zeitgeist of the Nineties, which, according to Arthur Kroker in Spasm (St Martin's Press, 1993) "stretches before us like a shimmering uncertainty field in quantum physics: its politics intensely violent, yet strangely tranquil; its culture conspiracy- driven, yet perfectly transparent; its media seductive, yet always nauseous ..."?

Dr Vladimir A Kamyshnikov, of the Department of Economy, Tomsk State Architectural University Tomsk, Russia, may have the answers. "Dear Sir B Cohen," he begins (very promising). "There exists an opinion among specialists that one cannot create a method of solving any non-linear query. I hope now I can prove this information false. I suggest you to risk a small sum of money and sign a contract with me on creating a universal algorithm software for solving non-linear programming problems ..."

I am about to sign a cheque, but then I remember that junk mail is a linear problem. Immediately, an American solution arrives: from bebebebebe@usa.net. "Let us do your bulk e-mail advertising!!!

"Statistics show `in your face ads' (banners) are not working. People are tired of the forceful ads each and every time they click on to a site. Put your ad directly into their mailbox. Our clients find individual ads work and bring traffic to their site more than anything else.

"The way of the future for success in your business today! **best buy non-targeted mailings (worldwide) 100,000 - $175; 2 million - $1,200". And if all this is too squalid, too worldly, wecandoit.com's "interest is to help you and others achieve self-empowerment and the experience of love, peace, joy and oneness in your life".

It sounds lovely, and one day I will visit the site, I am sure, but what if I want sanctuary even from New Age spam? How can I stop the big clog? According to Rosedog, things won't get worse: "Your e-mail address is part of a mailing list that is never shared with third parties."

Vitaminman offers me the chance to unsubscribe simply by replying. (I assume that is a subscriber-only service.) My friendly bulk e-mail looks after all my interests: "To have your name added to the universal remove list please go to remove@noic.org and the name will be added and distributed to all members." Now that sounds like sensible advice.

The author is currently the online writer-in-residence at trAce http:// trace.ntu.ac.uk. His latest novel is `Snowdome' (Allen&Unwin)

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