Friday, November 21, 2003

This Just In…

Imagine if you will: The year is 2003. Mid-November, to be exact, and a columnist from the Globe and Mail is pondering the vexation that is SPAM. Let us put forth a number of hypothetical intellectual considerations (all of which reasonable). We assume the author of this column, prior to penning the piece, will have deduced the following:

1) Roughly 99.9786574 percent of those reading the column will have already experienced the frustration of SPAM in some form or another.

2) Of that group, at least, say 85 percent have probably already read at least one article detailing the hassle, frustration, lost productivity and bandwidth waste related to unsolicited email.

3) From 1 and 2, we might conclude that a columnist in so lofty a forum as the Globe and Mail should tell us something we don’t already know.

4) Recent writings on the topic might (nay, should) be considered. The sworn enemy of the Globe, the National Post, recently wrote about Scott Richter, the world’s fourth largest spammer (or "commercial e-mail distributor"), in the October issue of National Post Business Magazine. Some worthwhile insights there. As well, George Emerson, in ROB, in May of this year, wrote about how the "SPAM crisis" in the workplace is as laughable and as overblown as Y2K, affecting only 15 percent of the population who qualify as "power e-mailers." Everyone gets flooded with crap through hotmail, but most workplaces are immunized. I can’t summarize the Emerson article here, but it’s an excellent article that proves conventional wisdom on the topic is faulty at best.

So, taking all these factors into consideration, how should the columnist proceed? One idea would be to stake out a bold, brave, contrary position, such as "SPAM is good" and then laud the strange, creative and downright bizarre attempts at parting a fool and his or her credit card number.

Here’s another promising direction: recently, myself and Clive Thompson, among many others, have been collecting SPAM poetics, those extra sentences inserted into garbage messages designed to try and trick filters. That would make an interesting column, methinks. The new poetry, for free.

Barring that, skip the topic entirely, since it’s been done to death.

What should be avoided, one would think, assuming the person writing the column had performed some due diligence, is to bore us stupid by providing a mundane re-cap of attempts to legislate SPAM out of existence, an incredibly over-discussed and utterly barren topic. This just in, Kate Taylor gets SPAM too. Wow, stop the presses everyone:

When I tell people about my recent spate of spam, they express one or the other of two opposite reactions. One group of sheltered souls, who have unusual e-mail addresses and a short list of correspondents, have never bought or subscribed to anything on-line and have never released their e-mail address to a commercial Web site, are appalled. The other group of jaded cynics -- mainly my Globe and Mail colleagues -- laconically go one better: 300 in a week, why I probably get 300 a day, they say.

Journalists are particularly susceptible to spam because they are in the business of gathering and distributing information and so can't filter e-mail too heavily.

(Above excerpt from the Wednesday, November 19, 2003 Globe and Mail.)

What sort of blinkered vanity drives a person to think we care about their inbox?

From what I understand, Kate Taylor was an excellent theatre critic, and her novel, Mme. Proust and the Kosher Kitchen, was met with favourable reviews. So we know that Ms. Taylor is an accomplished wordsmith, and someone with plenty of talent and ability. Indeed, the sentence construction and craft of her column isn’t in question, but rather, the dull content. The ability to write well and the ability to write a good column are two mutually exclusive ideas.

Now, the bigger question emerges: why is the Globe allowing her to faceplant twice a week? (For a fascinating, politically astute analysis of why the Globe and the Post continue to cram their respective newspapers with columnist after columnist while closing foreign bureaus, read Rachel Pulfer’s article in the September/October 2002 issue of This Magazine.)

A friend of mine, up until recently, wrote a weekly column for the National Post. He thought quite seriously about the column, how he should approach various issues, how he could best react and respond to the ideas and events du jour and push the agenda or dialogue forward instead of simply re-hashing the status quo. He sweated his copy most weeks, following the dictum that good writing is never easy.

A column is driven by relevancy and the ability to say something new about a topic already familiar, or introduce us to something we know nothing about and make us care about it. Perhaps I’m in the minority of folks who have read about SPAM once too often, but in 2003, you really don’t have to explain to your readership its origins:

Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam. . . . Most commentators believe the term, originally the brand name of a processed meat, was borrowed as a nickname for unsolicited commercial e-mail because of an old Monty Python skit in which a gaggle of Vikings drown out all other conversation with a rising chorus of "spam".

For examples of columnists with confidence, strong voices and ability to burn, might I suggest reading Lynn Coady or Carl Wilson or Adam Sternbergh or Ben Rayner. Even Eckler can trick you into reading an entire column about some quirk of modern life inflicted upon her by cruel fate.

And yes, I’m aware the mark of a good columnist is their ability to provoke others into responding to their words. But as you can tell, I’m critiquing her lack of ideas, as opposed to her zany opinions on the urgent matters of the day.