The modem coughs and screams like someone beatboxing to white noise. Why the shit do modems always default to ear-splitting volume levels, and why can I never remember where you go to change it?
The connection happens and I’m ready to begin work for the day. I open Microsoft Outlook Express, hit “Check Email”, and then brace myself for the worst part of the day.
Part of my job involves answering technical questions from our users. This means my email is public. It’s posted on our website, and it’s in my signature on the message board. Which means spam bots have had years to discover it. Which means all the spammers have it. Also, a couple of years ago our company went from free-to-play to a paid model. This pissed people off, and part of the public backlash / protest was that someone signed our emails up for various porn mailing lists.
I don’t know if it’s the mailing lists or the spam bots, but these days I get between one and two hundred emails a day, and 90% of them are advertisements for pornography.
Maybe if you’re young you imagine “porn” means HD video of attractive people doing obvious things that I don’t need to belabor here. But this is 1997, and spammers don’t yet have vast botnets of compromised machines to deliver their spam payload. The internet is slow, bandwidth is expensive, and spammers still sort of pay to send out their spam.
Because of this, they want to keep the image size down. So almost every email has some postage-stamp image attached. It’s either a non-animated GIF that’s been smashed down to ~16 colors, or a JPG with the compression-vs-quality slider set to “garbage”. Because of the limited detail available, the spammers have to crop the images to the most “important” elements. And to the spammers, the most important part of a pornographic image is the vagina.
So this is my morning. A couple hundred emails containing 160×160 images of blurry vaginas. The images are often so horrible that you can barely tell what you’re looking at. It’s just a gradient of flesh tones. If you didn’t know from context that these were vaginas, you might guess some of them were armpits. There’s no sense of who is in the picture, what they’re doing, or what position they’re in. Maybe about 1 in 5 of them will show penetration. Again, it will be zoomed in to the point where it feels more like a nature special than something designed to be titillating.
Once in a while you’ll get a picture of a girl’s face. This might sound nice, but these are not happy playful models. The girls are dead-eyed and sullen, or wearing awful forced smiles. And even if a healthy, pretty face makes it through, doesn’t get cropped, and survives the compression process, it doesn’t help because her face is re-contextualized by the other images. It’s like if you take a portrait of a normal, healthy, genial guy and mix it in with a bunch of Charles Manson-looking serial killers. He doesn’t brighten up the lineup. Instead, his smile takes on a sinister quality.
Since most images are faceless, I’m left with the impression that everyone in these pictures is just as miserable as the unhappy looking ones. All of the images take on an insidious, desperate quality, like Polaroids sent by kidnappers.
I don’t want to see this stuff. It’s not sexy. I don’t know a lot about sex, but I’m willing to make a guess that a majority of people – even a majority of young guys – don’t find this arousing. It’s actually kind of depressing and disturbing. This is probably what it feels like to have someone expose themselves to you in public. It feels like it shouldn’t be a big deal, but it actually leaves you feeling kind of gross and you’re not sure why.
The best spam filtering tools of the day are not adequate to this job, and I’m using Microsoft Outlook, which is pretty far from the best tools of the day. It’s based on keywords, which doesn’t help when the entire email is just an image with a neon pink comic sans URL over a vagina. You can hide images, but people have a bad habit of using images as their email / message board signature, and part of my job involves dealing with screenshots that people send me. Turning images on and off on a per-email basis makes this entire task that much more of a time-sink, and I end up seeing a lot of vaginas anyway.
What I really need is a rule to hide all images in messages without text, but Outlook doesn’t have a way to do thatIt didn’t occur to me at the time, but if email programs did that then spammers would just add a bunch of random garbage text to their payload.. It also doesn’t let me turn off all images, but provide a convenient button to turn them on for one particular email. Instead it’s all-or-nothing, and the option to change it is buried three levels deep in a sub-menu. This is stupid. I can’t be the only one with this problem, can I?
“I’m an adult now,” I think to myself. “I can handle this.” It’s just body parts, right? Don’t get hung up on the human form. Nothing to be ashamed of. I’ll just delete the crap on move on.
It takes me a while to notice, but it’s not actually that easy. This task leaves me in a foul mood. I’m angry. I don’t even know who I’m angry at. Microsoft, for having such terrible tools? The pornographers, for having such appalling taste? The spammers, for being human vermin?
I try to keep my eyes at the top of the screen. I’ll read the subject title and hit delete without looking down if it seems suspect, or if I perceive fleshtones at the edge of my vision. Again, this makes the job sort of fiddly. I end up seeing a lot of stuff I don’t want to, and I delete a few things I need to answer. This is always awkward and makes it look like I’m shirking my job. It’s not like I can tell my boss, “Yeah, that guy sent me beige screenshots and so I deleted it because I thought it was a vagina.”
The Future is Here!
It’s been 20 years since those bad old days, I couldn’t be more pleased with how things turned out. If you’d asked me in 1997 what I thought the future was going to look like, I would have predicted one of two things:
- As bandwidth increases, the web will begin drowning in pornography.
- In response to #1, people will start passing laws that try to enforce American Television standards onto the web. (Because think of the children!) Porn will disappear into an underground of anonymous proxies and offshoreMeaning “Not in the United States”. servers. In turn, this might actually increase the volume of porn spam as the sites attempt to broadcast how to find their roaming servers.
But it turns out neither of those happened. We’ve got better filtering tools and the web got more civilized. Pornographers put up age gates and warning pages so you can’t stumble in accidentally. Porn spam is now a very small portion of global spam, which is itself less of a problem than it used to be. Gmail’s service-wide filters can make us almost immune to email spam.
People who want porn can find it right away, and people that don’t will never have to see it. Everybody wins. I’ve got multiple email accounts, I run a popular-ish website, and I do regular image searches, and yet I can’t remember the last time I was exposed to anything nasty. I regularly do Google Image Searches, and it’s never a problem. The Google filters are now so good that I turned OFF Safe Search a few years back and haven’t run into a situation where I regretted it. I think the last time I saw something remotely pornographic was when I played HuniePop, and I did that to myself.
I get that as you get older you’re supposed to start looking back at the “good old days”, but it hasn’t happened to me yet. The past sucks. The future is excellent. I hope I get to live in it for a long time.
 It didn’t occur to me at the time, but if email programs did that then spammers would just add a bunch of random garbage text to their payload.
 Meaning “Not in the United States”.
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