What is Spam

Spam is defined by Charles Stivale in “Spam: Heteroglossia and Harassment in Cyberspace” as unnecessary data transmissions that are deliberately inputed on the recipient’s screen to simply fill in the empty spaces or sometimes to transmit aggressive messages. It is thus “generally taken to be a distinct form of online harassment” covering “a spectrum of intentions tending to emphasize its form, or what [Roman] Jakobson calls the ‘phatic’ linguistic function” (133-134). [1]

For Stivale, spamming constitutes a form of “dialogized heteroglossia” or what Mikhail Bakhtin examined as “the parodic, oppositional and polemical tension created by ‘low’ literary genres (e.g. fables, folksayings, anecdotes) directed against ‘official literary language'” (134). In opposition to a center hereby designated as the “formal, technical skills necessary for the programming and message generation that constitute daily conversations in realtime with other participants” are “different forms of spam exchange on the margins, still requiring some programming skill and conversational abilities, but nonetheless employing the former to challenge the more day-to-day (real-life) forms of the latter” (136-137).

These different forms of spam are categorized into three main types that overlap with each other: There’s what Stivale calls a “playful spam” that is inherent to the virtual environment or command functions that allows one to aggress other users in a comic way. Next is the “ambiguous spam,” wherein “a participant produces a series of transmissions that clearly irritate one or several players” such as typing over a hundred times the same letter that appears on the screen of other users (138). And finally we have the “pernicuous spam” which employ “programming skills… and aggressive and sexually explicit verbiage, to spam unwitting participants in ways that might well be legally actionable in real life” (140). ■


[1] According to the Semiotician Roman Jakobson, the phatic function helps perform social tasks such as establishing, prolonging, or discontinuing communication (such as “Hello?”) rather than simply relaying a message.


1 Comment

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