Asshole x software = Asshole at scale

A builder recently dumped a couple of wheelbarrows full of rubble on the common land behind my house. He’s an asshole. But at least he is limited in how much of an asshole he can be by physical constraints, such as the amount of waste he can generate and dump in a day. With the right software, there is almost no limit to how big an asshole he could be.

Spammers send out millions of emails in the hope of getting a few hundred dollars in sales of Viagra, Ugg boots or whatever other dubious merchandise they might be pushing. According to one study the sending of 348 million pharmacy spam emails resulted in 83 million emails delivered and a grand total of 28 sales. That is a 0.0000081% conversion rate. Assuming that the 83 million emails delivered took an average of a second each for a human to scan and delete, that’s around 23 thousand hours wasted. For 28 sales,  netting perhaps a few hundred dollars in profit. You have to be a massive asshole to waste so much of other people’s time just to make a few hundred dollars.

Spamming is just one of the more obvious and egregious examples of being an asshole at scale. But there are lots more. Article spinning for example. This is where assholes use software to generate lots of small variations on a (usually poor written or plagiarised) article in a desperate attempt to increase their SEO ‘footprint’. It might seem like a clever way to game the system and get one over on the all-powerful Google. But, if it works, the search results will fill up with poorly written garbage and the signal gets squeezed out by ever increasing noise. A tragedy of the commons in which we all lose in the long run.

Comment spam on forums and blogs is another area where assholes can use software to scale their activities. To date this blog has had a total of 77,811 spam comments, most of them undoubtedly generated automatically. Thankfully, the vast majority were caught by WordPress’s Akismet software. But I still waste a few minutes every week sifting through the spam for false positives. If you multiply that by millions of blog and forum owners, week after week, it adds up to a massive amount of wasted time. Again for marginal gains.

As software becomes increasingly pervasive and bandwidth becomes ever cheaper, new areas are becoming available for assholes to exploit. For example using software to algorithmically generate vast numbers of T-shirt slogans for Amazon without properly checking the results. Not only does this fill up Amazon search results with garbage (many of the slogans make no sense) but some of the slogans were deeply offensive.

The best defense against the assholes is more software, for example: spam filtering software and improved search algorithms. I guess that is good news for those of us that make a living writing software. But I worry that the assholes will win the arms race in the long run and the Internet, one of the greatest inventions in human history, will be reduced to the information equivalent of grey goo.

What can we do about it as software developers? Firstly don’t be an asshole. Consider the overall impact of your actions. Sure you could blast out thousands of poorly targeted emails to promote your product. But, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Secondly, consider whether there is a product you could write that could help combat the assholes. People and businesses (especially businesses) will pay good money for products that save them time.

Finally, don’t create software for assholes. Generally speaking, a tool is not inherently good or evil. You can use a knife to stab someone, or cut a sandwich. But if you are writing software specifically aimed at spamming, spinning or other asshole scaling activities, then you are the biggest asshole of all.  With power comes responsibility.’If I didn’t do it someone else would’ is no defense. Of course, if you are a true asshole, you don’t (by definition) care what other people think. But, in the unlikely event that you are an asshole that has read this far, consider this – surely even you don’t want a customer base comprised entirely of assholes?

13 thoughts on “Asshole x software = Asshole at scale

  1. Richie Hindle

    The worst of it is that the assholes are getting cleverer. Only yesterday I was trawling through my own blog spam and found what I seriously thought was a false positive until I realised I’d read the content before.

    The robot had taken a paragraph of text from an independent online review of my product, and pasted that in as its comment. It was a paragraph contrasting my product with a similar-but-not-the-same product, and could easily have been a legitimate comment on my blog.

    (Full marks to Akismet for catching it – it did better than I did at first glance.)

  2. Gene Wirchenko

    I started a blog at the end of May. I have received one legitimate comment to which I replied. I have also received 421 comments that I have flagged as spam (drug spam mainly). There are 225 comments waiting. I doubt that any of them are legitimate. I cleared out my comments last week so this 225 is since about Thursday, maybe even Friday.

  3. Sunil

    It’s easier to turn off comments on my blog, and I have as a result. I’ve also had to patch my forum to stop ass hats. I’ve also come across a bot IP database recently that I’m thinking of making use of to stop these guys.

    I wonder how often people realize they are being assholes. Spam is pretty clear. But the Amazon T-shirts thing (which made the news), might well have originated with somebody thinking something like “I can save time on typing in lots of similar slogans, for red, green, black, white, etc. t-shirts”, somebody else (or the same person) thinking “there won’t be too many mishits” and/or “people will just ignore a few garbage entries”, etc. It’s easy to make this kind of mistake – I once sent some poor person about 1000 duplicate email notifications after a script went haywire. And I’m constantly getting helpful “bounce back” emails from ISPs went spammers send email with a fake return address which happens to match a domain I own.

    1. Andy Brice Post author

      I think your interpretation is rather generous. The fact that they generated slogans such as “carry on raping” was extreme sloppiness, at the very least.

      Ironically this comment was marked as spam…

  4. thequiche

    I stumbled across this blog post while searching for informations and was recommended this by a friend. Truly you are a wonderful writer and I will put your feed into my rss reader. I did find it hard to find in Google though and wanted to offer you my crappy back linking service or a guest blog post with a link back to my crappy product.

    More seriously, very well put though I fear the kind of assholes you refer to can barely read, let alone process the information. You are spot on about the opportunity out there for entrepreneurs and companies to filter it out. Bring on the day.

  5. SomeGuy

    Great article. I enjoyed it enough to respond.

    “surely even you don’t want all assholes COMPRISING your customer base?”
    “surely even you don’t want a customer base COMPOSED entirely of assholes?”

    – A grammar asshole.

    1. Andy Brice Post author

      I am very happy to have mistakes corrected. But the current sentence looks ok to me. Is it grammatically incorrect? On what grounds?

      1. SomeGuy

        Sorry, I was wrong. After re-reading on the topic, I’m reminded that it’s the whole that comprises the parts. There are mixed opinions on whether ‘is comprised of’ is valid — which is to say, it’s valid at least some of the time :)
        Again, sorry for intruding. I really did enjoy the article.

  6. Chris Bruno

    I am curious about what you consider spam on a forum. Suppose it is a forum for math teachers talking about worksheets, and I drop in and say, I have a website that generates math worksheets and provide the link. Would you consider that forum spam?

    1. Andy Brice Post author

      In depends on what the rules of the forum are. Most forums don’t like people starting threads to promote products – even if the product is relevant to the forum. However mentioning your product in a reply (as long as it is relevant) should be fine.

      Automated commenting on lots of different forums is a definite no-no.

  7. Vlasta

    Spam is unavoidable. It simply is a part of the internet ecosystem, just like viruses and parasites are part of nature. How do living organisms fight parasites? With variability – each specimen is a bit different, which makes it hard for the parasites to succeed at scale. The same strategy can be used when fighting spam. Customize your website script, make it unique, and your comment/forum spam will diminish greatly. If you are running a stock Drupal or WordPress or any other popular CMS, you will be overwhelmed by spammers and rightly so. You are the low hanging fruit.

  8. Andy

    Great article and one that resonates a lot with me. It’s not only the nuisance factor that gets up my nose about these people. It’s also that they insult my intelligence. They really seem to think I am unaware of what they are doing. Askimet continues to do do a sterling job but I still get the odd classic sneaking through, this one for a betting site…

    “Long droughts between wins happen even for the most successful handicappers happen and even if we miss 35 middles in row we must always remember delayed success is the nature of the bet. One outstanding and less unpredictable cricket betting market is the number of runs scored by the nominated batsman. 5 more than 10, the number of freekicks you sold at.”

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