Notes from the Spamorama

The Dowbrigade is getting to be a regular over at MIT’s Stata Center, attending events which are completely over our head but somehow more entertaining than staying home and watching Roswell reruns on the SciFi Channel. It’s twisted exterior and only slightly more subtle interior askewedness are starting to grow on us.

On Friday it was the 2007 Spam Conference, billed as a smorgasbord of "Spam, Phishing and Other Cybercrimes". Nestled among cryptic sessions on SMTP Multiplex throttling and SPF and Symmetric DNS, we were surprised to find on the agenda a couple of speakers who we knew and who, despite being very, very smart spoke a dialect of English we could understand, most of the time.

First, Jessica Baumgart spoke on Blog Spam, a topic the Dowbrigade has become somewhat familiar with lately. As readers will discover shortly, the Dowbrigade is about to be ignominiously uprooted from our squatter’s perch on an obscure branch of Harvard’s Manila Blog Server, because said server has been rendered inoperable, unreliable and unprotectable from pernicious blog spam.

We hope to be back online with a new and improved Dowbrigade News at this same internet address, but composed on a new blogging platform (WordPress) within a matter of hours after the migration, but early reports from early migrators are mixed. Some report few problems and are happily blogging away on their new platforms. Others have disappeared down digital black holes, never to be heard from again. A future posting will explain the migration more fully.

But back to j! She explained that blog spam takes two main forms, comment spam and trackback spam. Both are designed to create links back to a clients web site, boosting it in search engine results and other rankings. We learned that the far majority of this spam is generated by robots or automated programs, and that spammers have grown adept in creating multiple new blogs on free blogging servers for the express purpose of collecting these artificial links by the thousands.

These spam blogs are called, somewhat inevitably, "splogs". According to j, these had begun to spring up on the Harvard Manila Server, on which one needs not only a password but an email address in the in order to activate a new blog!

video of Jessica’s session

The next session featured Amanda Watlington, the search marketing guru. We enjoy listening to Amanda because she always makes us think of things we hadn’t considered before, even about topics we have been spending quite a lot of time trying to figure out.

She started her presentation by giving us the historical perspective, going back to the birth of spam in the 80’s. She spoke about the false dichotomy between black hats and white hats, and the nascent field of search marketing. It is a fine line between legitimate efforts on behalf of clients to increase their internet visibility and searchability, and a slew of questionable practices which fall under the pox-infested blanket of "spamming" . Extremely elucidating.

video of Amanda’s presentation

Most of those attending, of course, were avowedly of the "White Hat" camp, that is, they were looking for better ways to combat spam. However, it would be naive to think that an open conference of that nature would not be infiltrated by a few representatives of the other side.

One slightly shady individual, simultaneously a bit slicker and a bit seedier that the run-of-the-mill geeks in attendance, noting that statistics show that 98% of search engine users never look further than as far down the first screen of search results they can see without scrolling, asked the profound in unanswerable question, "What right does Google have to decide what people find when they are looking for absolutely anything?"

Spam Conference web page with video of the presentations

CNET article about the Spam Conference

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