The Origins of Spam
Spam, spam, spam. You hear about it all the time. Spam e-mail, spam pop-up ads, anti-spam legislation… The word has even made its way from the internet realm into the “real world.” Obnoxious clusters of billboards are visual spam. Telemarketers peddle phone spam. Annoying, aggressive salesmen are spammers.
Did you ever stop to wonder where the word came from? Sure, spam has the reputation of being a disgusting substance without much nutritional value… But the story doesn’t end there. I was a witness to the birth of spam.*
On AOL in the early 90s, science fiction chatrooms were extremely popular. I was about thirteen, and my favorite TV show was Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Next Generation was cool, but DS9 was my passion. For my entire eighth grade year, I wore a Bajoran earring to school — a silver disc the size of a quarter, connected with chain to an ear cuff worn on the upper part of the ear. Mine had several delicate chains I’d salvaged from old necklaces, and a dangling piece of crystal. I wore it on my left earlobe, and the other kids in my class thought I was nuts.
I proudly called myself a Trekker — not a Trekkie, that was original series, my mom’s generation. I spent my spare time in AOL chatrooms with other Trek fans, swapping trivia and playing games to simulate life in Starfleet. Looking back, most of the other people in those chatrooms were probably young teenagers as well, but we felt very independent and grown-up pretending to be starship captains and adventurers. It was an escape, a beautiful fantasy world where we could be anything we wanted.
Until our happy fantasies were interrupted by Star Wars fans.
Where there might have been an affectionate brotherhood, a deadly rivalry existed between Star Trek fans and Star Wars fans. Most Trekkers didn’t really have anything against Star Wars, we just liked Star Trek better. We kept to ourselves and stayed in our own chatrooms, focused almost exclusively on Star Trek. Star Wars fans, on the other hand, used to invade Star Trek chat rooms constantly, for the sole purpose of insulting our show and degrading our fellow fans. “Star Trek is stupid,” they used to write. “Star Wars is the only REAL sci-fi, Star Trek is just stupid fluff about flying around in space, eating spam and tang. Why don’t YOU just go eat some spam and tang, stupid Trekkies?”
Trekkers fought back vehemently. We explained the difference between Trekker and Trekkie. We debated the merits of Star Trek, talked about character development and morality. We said they were just jealous because they only had three movies, where we had hundreds of episodes to savor. We tried being nice, we tried being rude, we tried using reason and humor and spite. More than anything, we begged them to just leave us alone.
When the Star Wars fans got tired of intelligent debate or angry arguments, they went back to their “spam and tang” logic. “Whatever,” they would write, “Star Trek is just about spam and tang.”
Spam and tang Spam and tang Spam and tang Spam and tang Spam and tang Spam and tang Spam and tang Spam and tang Spam and tang Spam and tang Spam and tang Spam and tang Spam and tang Spam and tang Spam and tang
They would copy the same message dozens, hundreds of times, filling up every line in the chatroom so nobody else could type. All we could do was copy the text into a complaint to AOL, and find another room to chat in. But inevitably, the Star Wars fans found us wherever we sought refuge, and filled our chatrooms with “spam and tang.” Apparently, the harassment of Trekkers was a source of great amusement for them. I can only guess that they shared the secrets of it in their chatrooms, encouraging all Star Wars fans to go forth and annoy Trekkers. The practice spread like wildfire and AOL started getting so many chatroom-misuse reports containing “spam and tang” that they dropped its official long-winded title and simply started calling it spam.
Eventually, strangers started popping into random chatrooms of all topics to advertise things, particularly porn websites (which were a novelty at the time). To get their point across, they would fill the chatroom with a repeating lines of text, and soon someone developed bits of software so advertisers could “hit” multiple chatrooms at once. Spam became synonymous not only with repeating text that prevented you from chatting, but also annoying, unwanted messages.
It wasn’t long before such advertisements started appearing in e-mail, which was gaining popularity at an exponential rate. From a small community of die-hard chatroom surfers, the term “spam” spread to the growing population of e-mail users. Eventually junk e-mail replaced chatroom advertising, and the word “spam” was engrained in our collective vocabulary.
My tastes have since moved on from Star Trek, and I don’t know anything about the current state of the Star Trek/Star Wars conflict. But sometimes, it gives me a small amount of perverse pleasure to hear people insulting spammers, when the word was once reserved for a very specific group of people who sought to antagonize my friends. It looks like the Trekkers won, after all.
* I’ve recently been informed that the word Spam was in use much earlier on usenet groups, derived from a scene in Monty Python — this story marks the word’s entry into common usage on America Online, which was the first web service for ordinary (non-technically-minded) people.