"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 9 March 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Identity Crisis


[what im listening to this week-

Much like a dual-purpose kitchen

utensil, media products manage

to do more than one thing for

the user. A newspaper, an online

guide to anal sex for

heterosexuals, or a television

news show all inform, entertain,

and identify.


Well, OK: So they all identify.

The 40ish woman reading a

dog-eared copy of The Rules in

the company cafeteria is a

middle-manager's secretary; the

house with The Wall Street

Journal in the driveway belongs

to your boss; the trio of

sloppily dressed middle-aged

men sitting in the coffeehouse

at midday, bantering edgily

about the latest issue of The

Nation, are academics without

tenure (or, in Los Angeles,

marginal screenwriters); and the

guy slouched in the corner,

turning the pages of a notebook

filled with cryptic, marginless

notes and densely drawn diagrams

with a stubby, hairy thumb -

well, that's Sidney Blumenthal.

Try not to catch his eye.


The identifying value of the

packaging can and does outweigh

our interest in the nutritional

value of the cookies. A certain

Suck contributor, upon moving to

a new town, began to read both

local daily newspapers -

concluding, after a few weeks,

that Newspaper A was in many ways superior

to Newspaper B. He approached

his roommates with his

conclusion, even somewhat

obsessively placing sample

stories side-by-side on the

elegant thriftstore furnishings

to complete the argument for

canceling one subscription and

starting another. Long pause.

And then the roommates in

question, college-educated young

corporate up-and-comers all -

bound, variously, for law school

and/or middle-management -

reacted with deep and ill-hidden

horror: The new guy had placed

his hand ... on the tabloid, - on the

lower-class paper - the paper

with the big picture on the

front and no fold in the middle.


[space needle- beers in heaven

We only mention this because we

have been looking into what's

lately been purported to be a

whole new mirror. If you believe

what spam has to say about spam

("Our Research shows this site

would be of interest to you"),

bulk emailers have built

machinery that focuses, with

laserlike intensity, on just the

wired consumers most likely to

buy their product - that is, on

the precise cultural set most

closely matched to the identity

that fits the packaging they've

created. Which neatly explains

why the entire Suck masthead was

hit with that message offering

to sell the recipient the very

latest in flakwear, full-body

bulletproof armor woven out of

Kevlar Threat Level II: Cross

us, know death.


We were also genuinely amazed at

the spammer who managed to

figure out that we had taken

three years of German in high

school; unfortunately, however,

the person who sent us that

"Eintrag Ihrer Seite bei ber

400 Suchmaschinen fr DM 29"

message didn't seem to realize

that Mrs. Grabler was a very

sweet lady who graded the tests

based on how much you wanted a

decent grade. We pretty much

know how to count to 20 - only

in order - and say, "My father

is a pharmacist." ("Mein vater

ist ein apotheker," thank you

very much.) And too bad dad

isn't a pharmacist.


low- throw the line


We're not even going to mention

the email about taxidermic



The neat thing about spam,

however, is that - unlike other

forms of purportedly targeted

marketing - the targeted

customer is also invited,

passively and in the same

format, to be the seller; you

see both pitches. So that, in a

single download, you can read

both the you-have-been-


message and the message that

reads: "I just emailed 30

million people simultaneously,

by hitting just a few

keystrokes." Kind of a big

mirror. The "Eat Cookie! ...

Loose Weight! ... Make Money!"

message is clearly intended for

your ex - who never could spell,

even before putting on all those

extra pounds.


The great debate over spam is

the one about who pays for it,

and how much real harm it does.

Some accounts of the practice

put the extra load the

unrequested messages put on the

entire system of lines and boxes

at 10 percent of all Net

traffic, the implication being

that Net users have to pay the

hidden costs for the extra

hardware needed to handle the

traffic. True enough, we

suppose, but - while we hate

spam as much as the next s-class

Web site producers - we'd only

get really outraged over that 10

percent figure if we hadn't

spent the entire morning sending

"No, you're a chicken-butt"

messages back and forth to

friends on both coasts. The

simple fact that anyone on earth

might have used bandwidth to

monitor last week's Slate dialog

on whether dogs are better than

cats (or are cats better than

dogs? Oooh, it's so hard to

decide!) kind of ends the

discussion, forever and ever,

amen. (Speaking of Slate, we

expect that at least a tiny bit

of bandwidth was freed up this

week as the Microsoft webzine

went subscription-only. We'll

miss checking in every morning

with that impish iconoclast Mike

Kinsley, but we're already

paying just pennies a day to

sponsor a much cuter orphan in

the real third world.)


[swell- what i always wanted


Careful targeting of commercial

email messages, the sales pitch

goes (check your email), is

supposed to cut down on the

sheer bulk of spam, saving Net

users tons of money and allowing

information to zip around the

world like butter through a

hungry goose. But that

particular pitch has about as

much validity and appeal as a

cookie that allows you to loose

weight or body armor that

protects you from HTML shrapnel;

spam messages are, have been,

and will for at least the

immediate future continue to be

targeted with the care and

precision of the message the

Army Air Corps sent to the

residents of Dresden back in

'45. Until further notice -

presumably by bulk email - keep

your credibility card in your

wallet, and don't worry about

what those targeted pitches say

about your taste. It's not you.

It's them.

courtesy of Ambrose Beers