Even Internet Gurus Have To Start Somewhere

Ever wonder what the Internet Gurus were doing before there was an Internet for them to be gurus of? Oh, there was an Internet, of course -- a large network of networks running IP that we all called the Internet -- but it wasn't The Internet. Your mother didn't have an account. Wal-Mart didn't have a URL. There was no spam. To hear them talk, you'd think that the Internet Gurus were stomping around saying, "Hey, don't you realise? This thing is going to be huge!" You'd think that they were masters of the technology, waiting for the rest of us to catch up.

Not quite.

Take Jakob Nielsen, Internet Usability Guru. The smartest person on the web, or one of the Web's 10 most influential people, according to the quotes included on his web page. Back before your mother had email, Jakob Nielsen was a research scientist at Bellcore, a research lab jointly funded by a consortium of the Baby Bells, where he studied usability and user interfaces. But not the Internet.

Jakob Sends Some Email

In 1994, Jakob moved jobs; he left Bellcore to join Sun Microsystems. Being an important chap, he didn't want anyone to lose touch with him, so he decided to send out some email to tell people his new contact details. This is probably something that any of us would do, but few of us would think as big as Jakob did.

First, he trawled through all his archived email, and extracted the recipient address of every single message. He eliminated the obvious duplicates, and ended up with a list of some 5500 addresses. So he made a big mailing list with all 5500 addresses on it, and sent a notice of his change of address to it. Many of those addresses were individuals. Maybe even most of them. But lots of them were mailing lists, some of which pointed at thousands of people. The British HCI mailing list. The announcements list for the ACM's CHI Special Interest Group. Lists used to announce talks, or software releases. Anything. And every one of them got a notice of Jakob's new address.

Of course, mailing lists have people on them in the end, and most of us are on more than one list. So people started getting lots of copies of the message. Three, four, ten, twenty times, the identical message would appear in your mailbox. I got fifteen, I think, but then they stopped. I think Jakob had been restrained, because it was noticable that I only got messages with recipient email addresses in the alphabetical range A-H. Perhaps after H, Jakob realised that people were beginning to get the message.

It was a new phenomenon for most of us. The idea that the same message would be sent out indiscriminately to thousands upon thousands of email addresses. It was new then; but these days we have a name for it.

Yep. Jakob Nielsen invented spam.

A Response

Anyway, all this happened in early to mid March. I was sitting around in the pub with some friends one day, and we were discussing this. We had proposed that your Nielsen Number was a measure of your connectedness or importance in the HCI community; how many times did you recieve Jakob's message? We wondered what was the right response. And of course, April 1 was coming up...

I logged into a machine in Edinburgh for which I had administrator privileges, and created a new account. The name I chose was "Craig Shergold". Craig's name was well known to anyone who clued in on the Net. Craig had once been dying of cancer and wanted to get into the Guiness Book of Records by receiving the largest number of Get-Well cards ever. The rumour had spread like wildfire on the net, and even though, many years later, Craig was completely recovered, the hospital was still innundated, every day, with sackloads of cards. The rumour proved impossible to kill, especially on the Internet, where it had morphed into various related forms (and is still sometimes seen).

On April 1, a message was sent from "Craig's" account to the ACM's HCI announcement list. It said:

I head that Jakob Neilsen has recently moved jobs. Does anyone have his new contact details?

-- Craig Shergold

Sure enough, I started getting all sorts of responses from folk who didn't realise they were being had. The list of respondents who forwarded me Jakob's message again read like the Who's Who of HCI. And, of course, Jakob was one of them. (Amusingly, I did get one response that said, "Hey, aren't you the guy who was dying of cancer?")

Which only goes to prove, I guess, that even Internet Gurus have to start somewhere.

There are two ironic postscripts. The first, as I learned from a friend who worked in the group at Sun that Jakob was joining, was that, in fact, when he sent his message out, Jakob had gotten his new phone number and email addresses wrong. Apparently, he had to be almost physically restrained from sending out a correction notice to the same list of addresses.

The other? Well, the other is this commentary from Jakob on the self-same problem -- spam, accidental and deliberate. It comes from one of his Internet "AlertBox" columns, posted September 1999:

A much better philosophy is to protect users' mailboxes from filling up. With the current system, anybody who can get hold of your email address has a license to dispose of a dime of your company's money. In the long term, the only way to eliminate spam is to charge the sender for the cost of the message, including the cost of the recipient's time.

When sending a message to a distribution list, the user should get a dialog box saying something like "You are about to send a message to 8,537 people. Do you want to proceed?" This simple question would eliminate much of the wasted email caused by people hitting the "reply-to-all" button instead of "reply-to-sender". And yet there is no way for the user's email client software to know how many people will receive the message. The architecture of the Internet prevents this information from being available.

[AlertBox 990919]

That's right, Jakob. It was the Internet's fault.

[Disclaimer: Joking aside, Jakob's comments on Web Usability are generally very worthwhile. He's come a long way...]