Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Tom Coates on comment spam

The thing that disturbs you is only the sound

Of a low spark of high-heeled boys

That probably has nothing to do with the subject at hand, but since I’m listening to Traffic, I just threw it in.

Tom Coates, who’s had a lot more trouble with comment spam than I have (links to mine are here), has this very thoughtful
post on why it’s bad.

The reason – obviously – that webloggers allow individuals to put links to their homepages in their comments is so that we can strengthen links and ties between the members of our heavily abstracted community. We do it so that if people find a comment interesting they can go and read more about the person who commented. The cynicism involved in using such things for pure Google-juice – just to try and scrabble people to your porno site for a few extra cents – is just disgusting. And it’s not because it’s pornography, it’s because it’s brazen, disrespectful and offensive.

This was in response to a comment saying, in effect, "If you don’t like it, why don’t you just disable the URLs in comments?" It reminds me of Cliff Stoll’s defense of open– i.e., relatively unprotected– computer systems in his wonderful book The Cuckoo’s Egg: there are good social and cultural reasons for having open systems, and for respecting the boundaries of use that have to be maintained if they’re going to work.

It also raises a second issue. Sociologist T. L. Taylor, in her article "’Whose Game Is This Anyway?’: Negotiating Corporate Ownership in a Virtual World," argues that the creation of massive muliplayer game-worlds like Norrath and the Star Wars galaxy represents another example– virtual this time, but still important– of the intrusion of corporate spaces on public and private life. We spend more and more of our time in spaces that aren’t just "public" in the sense of being "not my house," but are owned and branded: malls, Starbucks, etc.. Kids have birthday parties in fast-food restaurants, or Gymboree; my daughter has already started a subtle "I want my 5th birthday"– which is 6 months away– at Chuck E Cheese, knowing full well that it would take half a year of pestering to get me to go in there.

It’s fun for the kids, but I wonder: as a moral principle, would it be better to avoid such venues in favor of public parks and other such spaces?

Comment spam, it seems to me, may represent an insidious new trend: the assumption on the part of companies that it’s all right for them to brand private spaces, to impose their messages wherever they can.

This is, in a sense, what the debate over the Do Not Call registry is about.

Comment spam may be the thin edge of a nasty wedge. If it does turn into something, it could have an even worse effect on blogging than spam has had on e-mail. For while mail spam is tiresome and time-consuming, comment spam can have the effect of overwhelming the social networks that are built up on blogs. The fact that I have to delete 50 messages for Viagra, Vicodin, and mortgages ever morning doesn’t mean I have a hard time talking to my friends; but comment spam, it seems to me, would have a more insidious effect on the conversational, networking aspect of blogs. And it means that my money goes to supporting ads from spammers.

Come to think of it, I think I’ll go change the URLs on those comment spams….

(Update, 10/8/2003: This piece by Halley also speaks well to the nature of these connections.


  1. So here’s a question – does ironic comment spam count? The “comment spam” I left was meant as a joke, an aside that riffed on the post to which you linked, rather than any attempt to boost my Google rankings or sell a product.

    Of course, leaving such an ironic comment would have some of the same consequences as intentional comment spam – a ranking system like Google doesn’t have a finely-honed sense of irony. It seems that the difference between a legit comment and comment spam lies in the intentionality of the sender…if you think I was serious, and only wanted to plant a foothold on your blog, then it’s spam, but if my comment is meaningful in some way (even as a lame joke), then it’s legitimate.

    The question is, how do you tell the difference?

  2. My first answer would be to invoke the old Potter Stewart line about pornography: I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it. But maybe I can’t. But which comment are you talking about? It doesn’t come to mind immediately, and MT only shows me the five most recent entries.

    I guess this might illuminate how thin the line is between irony and parody. Or it might illuminate that I need some coffee.

    Speaking of parody, did you hear about the California recall?

  3. This is the one I was thinking of – archive/001086.html

    As for California, I’d just say I’m thankful I don’t actually live there, but some of the most relevant academic job listings thus far seem to be in the UC system, so I’ll refrain from saying things I might regret later…oy!

  4. Wait a minute– I thought you were being sincere in that post!

  5. If I were being serious, would that make it comment spam? 😉

    Perhaps they were true sentiments, merely cloaked in the ironic vestments of a comment spam. It’s turtles all the way down…

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