Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave with your hands over your eyes and cotton in your ears, you’ve heard of spam, that is, unsolicited bulk email. Even if you are sans e-mail (in which case, you’re a fossil), you’ve become at least vaguely acquainted with the concept from blunted stories from the evening news or press releases about the CAN-SPAM act.
Spam Kings is an interesting approach to the history of spam. It’s nonfiction, but stylistically poses as a narrative instead of exposition. It follows (almost biographically) the exploits of some of the net’s biggest spammers (Davis Hawkes, Scott Richter, & al) as well as some of its biggest heroes (Steve Linford, Susan Gunn a.k.a. Shiksaa). It seems, in general, to glean most of its information from news reports and old Usenet postings. How many hours McWilliams spent trawling through Google Groups in search of old postings, I don’t even want to imagine.
I would have, however, liked to have seen a bit more source citing (it’s currently limited to a brief list of endnotes), especially since McWilliam’s narrative approach to the topic adds dimensions to the story that may or may not be there. When he talks about, for instance, Davis Hawkes, he uses an “omniscient narrator,” and it is easy for readers to fall into the trap of believing that all the sentiments that McWilliams expresses and all the words that he puts in Hawkes’ mouth, so to speak, are genuine. But of course, it’s all speculative.
This isn’t to slight McWilliam’s efforts: it obviously took exhaustive research, and the book is for the most part well-written and well-paced, coming in at about 300 pages. There’s plenty of explained jargon that was even new to me (and will be to most readers who aren’t a part of the spam/antispam community). Even though I consider myself well-versed in the history (recent history) of the net and its goings-on, there was a lot here about spamming that I didn’t know, and McWilliam’s decision to illumine the subject via a small but intermingling cast of characters was a brilliant approach to a dense and possibly inaccessible topic.
Even for someone who isn’t interesting in tech topics per se, this book is an excellent account of a scourge that plagues anybody with internet connectivity.