Online Skating: N.H. author tells tale of spam royalty
New Hampshire loves to highlight its role in cutting-edge tech stuff, so let us all celebrate spam. When it comes to inbox effluent, the Granite State can hold its head high!
After all, the legendary “Spamford” Wallace was a Seacoast resident for a while, and until very recently Queen City native Brad Bournival ran a multimillion-dollar “penis pill” empire out of a Manchester Millyard building.
And then there’s tech journalist Brian McWilliams of Durham. He’s not a spammer, but he has carved a niche for himself covering this interesting phenomenon, among other techy stuff. Long a reporter for places like Wired.com, he drew a lot of attention in 2002 for using password-guessing to read e-mail left on Saddam Hussein’s official Web page.
McWilliams’ expertise expanded recently with the publication of “Spam Kings,” his first book.
“Spam Kings” is a crime-novel-like, but highly nonfiction, account of the ongoing battle between spammers, including Bournival and Wallace, and anti-spammers.
“It seemed like a book that needed to be written,” said McWilliams in a recent telephone interview. “The spam problem has gotten to a level now in the mainstream media that it’s almost a household word. I figured it was timely to go behind the scenes and find out who are these people responsible for this problem.”
Behind the scenes he goes indeed. The 300-page tale is crammed full of details about the lives of folks involved on both sides of this messy fight. Much of it came from hours and hours of interviews – McWilliams is a reporter and not just a pundit, thank goodness, so the details fly fast and furious – plus the fact that once a conversation gets on the Internet, it almost never dies.
“One of the things that made the whole project even doable is that we are talking about people who are heavy Internet users and who expose a lot of their private doings online,” McWilliams said. IRC logs, Google Groups and other repositories of the typed online word came in very handy.
The hero of the book is “Shiskaa,” the online handle for a California spam fighter, and the anti-hero is Davis Hawke, a New England neo Nazi-turned-spammer who pulled down ungodly amounts of money – half a million a month at the peak, incredibly – selling crud like sexy pheromones (“get a date, guaranteed”) through zillions of unsolicited e-mails.
What’s most interesting about “Spam Kings” is seeing inside the heads of this pair. Like any story, and McWilliams wisely approached this as a story rather than a wicked long news article, its greatest value comes from the light it sheds on human nature.
The light isn’t very flattering to our species, since Hawke’s motivation is greed and arrogance while Shiskaa’s is self-righteous indignation, and both are capable of the sophomoric tittle-tattle that fills online discourse, but it rings true.
New Hampshire’s most interesting angle is Bournival, a Manchester West High School drop-out once known mostly for his chess prowess until he became a spam king. Hawke, also a very fine chess player, recruited Bournival into spamming after they met at a tournament.
You may have read about Bournival earlier this year, since he was one of a number of spammers sued by AOL and others under the federal “CAN SPAM” act. (This suit helped prod him into talking, says McWilliams.)
Bournival’s Amazing Internet Products in the Tower Mill Center in Manchester shipped out a ton of spam-sold products, notably Pinnacle Pills to enlarge certain portions of the male anatomy. He has since settled the suit, closed up shop and, according to McWilliams, moved out of the Millyard.
“It’s hard to know what he’ll do next,” McWilliams said of Bournival. “He still thinks there’s some kind of romance to the life of a spammer – sort of a cowboy life that was just thrilling – having more money than you know what to do with, being able to thumb your nose at your friends and family holding down boring jobs and going to school.”
And why was Bournival able to thumb his nose? Because people are idiots, that’s why.
If there weren’t enough folks to buy the dreck that spammers peddle, if there weren’t enough morons to fall for their scams and their patently false promises, then they wouldn’t peddle as much of it.
“I pin the blame pretty much on consumers for the willingness to suspend disbelief when they go on the Internet,” agreed McWilliams. “For snake-oil salesmen, this is the perfect medium.”
Believe it or not, though, he isn’t entirely pessimistic. It’s possible, McWilliams said, that spam is such a problem only because the Net is new.
“Maybe if there are a couple million people out there buying from spammers, maybe every month that number is going to decline because they’ll wise up, and then maybe it will (lessen),” he mused.
Maybe. But McWilliams’ own career makes that seem unlikely.
“I’m working on a story right now about anti-spammers trying to beat blog spam and wiki spam,” he said. (Don’t ask.)
Sigh. Well, let’s hope there will at least be good New Hampshire angles.
More information about McWilliams’ book, “Spam Kings,” is online at spamkings.biz.
David Brooks writes about technology for the Telegraph of Nashua. His column appears monthly.