“(Your friend) wants to show you a picture,” the e-mail assured me. It was 1:30 a.m., hardly a time for cogent decision making. And I was jarred by a notoriously unstable acquaintance even wanting to show me something online. Date of birth? Whatever. E-mail address? Just take me to the goddamn picture. Gmail password? Now why didn’t that set off a red flag or ten? Google and Twitter both know my Gmail password, so I must have decided that Wegame—whatever the hell Wegame was—wasn’t any less deserving. Reflex overwhelmed reason. Even at the time, Wegame sounded less like the name of a photo-hosting Web site than a total obscurity looking for a viral push.
Within seconds the e-mail was sent to everyone with whom I had ever corresponded, and it carried a cryptic and less-than-reassuring subject line: “Armin Rosen wants to show you a picture.” It went to journalists and professors, to a former borough president, to at least a half-dozen rabbis, to magazine editorial boards. It spread to four continents, landing in the inbox of the clerk who’d processed my ticket on an Egyptian train, at the front desk of a hostel in Kiev, at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. It went to best friends and people I don’t remember meeting. It went to potential employers and Craigslist addresses that were deactivated years ago. It went to people I admire, and it went to people I barely tolerate.
The associational life I’d spent years building—even without any sense of actively building or accumulating anything—had been disturbed. As e-mails poured in, I started to appreciate the breadth of it. I discovered how to simultaneously message everyone in my address book—a brief explanation might have stanched any further embarrassment. But I couldn’t countenance the irony of spamming people in an attempt to apologize for spamming them.
I’m human enough that my instinct towards self-analysis doesn’t immediately trump my need for an external scapegoat. Thanks to Google, my villain now had a name: Jared Kim had spammed me. In fact, the 19-year-old Berkeley freshman turned startup CEO has spammed thousands and probably millions of people. Wegame, a sort of “Youtube for gamers,” received over $3 million in startup capital in 2008. They were apparently desperate to show some kind of return: On Aug 7, a Mormon-interest blog warned fellow LDS members against “email junk from Wegame.”
Middle-aged religious folk aren’t exactly Wegame’s target demographic, and the site’s Alexa ratings give a sense of how far the Wegame spam virus had spread by then. Alexa analyzes data from browsers with one of their tracking devices. The site uses this information to produce Nielsen-style projections for web traffic. The percentage of Alexa users who had visited Wegame went up almost 900 percent in August. Quantcast, another tracking site, reports a 450 percent increase in overall page views by the end of that month. But both sites report a staggering drop in traffic in early September, followed by even more spectacular gains later in the month. Presumably, a second spam wave was launched after the first one failed to bring a permanent increase in traffic.
Kim hasn’t publicly admitted anything or responded to e-mails I’ve sent him. But a Tweet from this past Wednesday offered a glimpse into my spammer’s dread psychology: “record day after record day.” His victory is empty and cynical, although the fact that an otherwise-competent entrepreneur would celebrate what looks to me like the implosion of his brand name makes me wonder if cynicism even exists anymore.
After all, people like me weren’t going to join Wegame. But a good 700 people in my address book now know it exists. Hey, I’ve even written an article about Wegame. You’re reading it, and unless you’re a tech nerd or a spam victim, you probably hadn’t heard of Wegame either. This is damned effective advertising—it’s almost as if there’s no difference between a reputation-wrecking business tactic and a brilliant one. Cynicism becomes a wellspring of entrepreneurial creativity. You can almost imagine the reverent hush that gripped the Wegame boardroom when someone came up with the idea of getting people to hack their own Gmail address books and instantaneously spam everyone in them. There’s ambition in this plan, this conquest of an infinity of private information, available if only human willpower could be overcome.
This is the most disquieting aspect of the Wegame spam wave, more aggravating, even, than the mental image of a card-shark millionaire teen delighting in and profiting by my gullibility. This wouldn’t have worked if my gullibility weren’t so easy to profit by.
Columbia law professor and internet privacy expert Eben Moglen explained that Kim knew his victims better than they knew themselves. “He knew you were going to give him your password,” Moglen said. “But you didn’t know you were going to give it to him.” How did Kim know? “Because you already gave your e-mail password to Google.”
For Moglen, web culture is creating an “architecture of non-privacy” in which we think nothing of donating our most intimate information to faceless, corporate third parties. Yet he emphasized that my socialization into this culture was hardly exculpatory. It was a culture that I had failed to understand or resist.
The success of the spam wave proves how deep this failure runs. After all, the Wegame spam virus is just a dormant bit of invasive software, were it not for the complicity of thinking, breathing human beings.
The author is a List College senior majoring in English and Judaic studies.