(This originally appeared in the North Adams Transcript in January, 2004, as part of a regular column I wrote for a couple years chronicling the absurd online world that existed prior to dominating commercial interests, curation, and, of course, social networks. Is there anyone left who ever clicks “Reply All” to respond to emails? I hope not.)
A while ago, I got well over a hundred e-mails from panicking people who were on the receiving end of virus-generated spam and decided to act out some silly cyber version of “It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World.”
It started obliviously enough with a few weird notices from some e-mail administrator somewhere that a message sent from the very exciting-sounding “Hotel La Flor de Itabo” had been purged after a virus had been detected. After that, some guy named Dale replied to the original message with this rant — if it was handwriting it would have been scrawled on a napkin: “I told you that I had viruses set aside for people who continue to send me Spam mail. I only use these viruses against perpetual spammers who do not heed my warnings. My filter has just informed me that YOU have tried to infect me with a virus. I suggest you explain yourself before something unfortunate happens. I am a real estate travel writer and if this is the way you treat people then I feel it could be worth my while to investigate and then publish. Do you really want that?”
Briefly, I thought he was talking to me directly and I shivered at the thought of his investigative prowess and publishing capabilities. Then the incredulous replies to Dale began, including one that stated simply “sent to Interpol” and another from an Australian guy telling everyone to just get a Mac. It was quickly realized by two more respondents that a virus had affected someone’s e-mail and had automatically been sending messages to the people in his address book — perhaps we should refrain from shooting out “Reply All” responses and driving each other mad.
Unfortunately, the following messages were filled with righteous indignation, typified by Andrew, stomping his virtual foot and yelling, “I demand to be removed from this mailing list NOW.” Pretty soon, the editor of “Fly Fishing in Salt Waters” magazine was asking to be left out and eventually, Spanish language requests were showing up, though with English subject lines like “NOT SEND ME ANY INFORMATION,PLEASE.” The animosity piled up with the requests. “PLEASE TAKE ME OFF THIS FRIGGING MAILING LIST” pled one subject line. The sinister sounding Karl Van Horn, whose subject line described him as a “pissed gringo,” told the virus passer “I am in country next week and just happen to have some errands in your area. I think I will stop by and have a talk with your office.”
Others followed and gaskets were blowing left and right. “I have had over 20 messages regarding this virus. You all are the virus. Don’t you have better things to do?” JoyceAnne admonished all the Chicken Littles, while Captain Smitty regaled us with some salty sea dog language: “You are useing my email address for spaming your crap out. Stop useing my email for your crap!!!!!” You can take the boy out of the Navy, but you can’t take the Navy out of the boy.
John Kelly threatened, “I’ll have Interpol Investigate this garbage. I have already tracked them, have pinpointed their geographic location and will have them raided for potential terrorist activity by mistaken.” The discombobulated Nissa Lundquist, quite late in the game, explained, “Not sure who any of you are, but this is Fenwick Fishing. Please stop emailing this stuff to our site.” Oh, sure, Fenwick Fishing has spoken, we wouldn’t want to upset Fenwick Fishing, now would we?
Tricia Willis blurted out, “Can you all just leave it alone and stop emailing? Please. Thanks” and then immediately regretted it — the next thing I got was a notice that “Tricia Willis would like to recall the message.” Too little, too late, Tricia, we all heard you.
Amitydr tried to add levity by commenting correctly that “This whole thing is ridiculous,” while a government worker in Oregon tore into everyone: “Will you stupid idiots please stop sending messages to ‘ALL!’” Remind me not to go to Portland until my infallibility kicks in; I don’t want to infuriate any workers for the Bonneville Power Administration. Even a meat and potatoes kind of straight talker named Mr. Denslow got all medieval on the spammer’s butt: “My email address is to be deleted from your database ASAP due to a virus threat from your server. Failure to comply with this request will result in action against your email privileges.” Mr. Denslow, it seems, is the Chief of E-mail.
One nice guy named Trogg took the time to write a very long explanation of viruses and scolded the nastiness: “Being abusive is just pathetic really isn’t it, i to have many viruses stored BUT i don’t threaten anyone who’s accidently transmitted one i use the system to track down the originator of the virus and send them a nice surprise in return.” Okay, the surprise thing is a little sinister, I agree.
It was about this point that everything clicked in my head: Old sea-faring guys who use “Capt” in their e-mail addresses; and other e-mail names like TangledAngler; editors of magazines like “Marlin” and “Salt Water Fly Fishing”; employees of Fenwick Fishing; and the original message coming from a resort hotel in Costa Rica? That’s it! There’s this Costa Rican angling association that has been sending me press releases for awhile now—I finally figured out that I was on this mailing list because I had been confused with someone who wrote a book tracing the history of a popular brand of fishing lure that I suppose they were all fans of.
Just because I’ve figured it out, that doesn’t mean anyone else has. Jennifer at the Wickaninnish Inn in British Columbia apologized, apparently believing this haven of “Rustic Elegance on Nature’s Edge” is responsible for the whole mess Some guy named Brian sent out seven emails to the list, demanding everyone step. One guy set up a Web page to explain the situation and what to do—and not do—about it.
Still, the frantic e-mails pour in. “Delete me from your list, my next step will be the FBI,” wrote someone called Bassman54. “All is lost, we are sinking fast, ALL OF US,” another guy moaned.
Well, not quite all of us.