If you’ve spent any time at all as a IT professional, you know that your colleagues have what to outsiders could only be considered a bizarre sense of humour, and will often latch on to memes and other pop culture references that seem to remain funny for long after they should have faded to ignominy. Take, for example, the Harlem Shake, planking, or even this one. Yes, yes I did. Sorry. This time honoured tradition goes back to the earliest days of computers, and the story of why Unsolicited Commercial Email is called spam.
In 1970, the fledging ARPANET had not yet hit its first real growth spurt and had only four connected nodes. On the other hand, British sketch comedy was enjoying its golden age, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus was one of the best shows on BBC One. At the end of one episode, the comic troop performed a sketch in a restaurant where two patrons wanted to order breakfast, and practically every item on the menu came with spam, a canned meat product. The woman of the couple apparently did not like spam and became rather vocal in her objections, while the man seemed to think nothing was wrong. Throughout, a group of Vikings would interject with song, and, well, if you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out, and need to go see it for yourself to really understand what was happening.
Between the thousands of times the word spam was mentioned in the sketch, and that proto-spammers in MUDs sometimes used lines from the sketch to overwhelm others, the verb “spamming” was born. MUDs were multi-user dungeons, a successor to the early chat room, and veteran users would often paste in large numbers of messages to either block out others, or to force their comments to scroll of the screen. Quotes from the Monty Python sketch about spam and other sketches were frequently used, since geeks being geeks they all loved Python (the comics, not the language.) There’s even a story of one user programming a macro to just repeat the word spam again and again. By popular convention, the actions of these users came to be called spamming, and the product of their efforts spam. It was a short hop from these early Internet communications forms to similarly wasteful USENET postings, and then to email.
Of course, the Hormel Meat Company product Spam (note the capital S) predates all of this. The Spiced Ham in a can product first came out in 1937 and has sold over 7 billion cans of the different varieties since then. Hormel has unsuccessfully tried legal actions against several anti-spam products over the years in an attempt to protect its trademark or image, but seems only to object when spam capitalised, as they maintain that is their trademark. By accepted convention, Spam is the tasty canned meat, and spam is the garbage that fills our inboxes.
And finally, just in case you are one of the approximately .004% of IT professionals who are not familiar with the genius that is Monty Python, here’s the skit that is commonly considered the inspiration for calling junkmail spam. Make sure you read the credits at the end!