Thursday, April 21, 2011

Nigerian spam lords and yet another reason to edit your stuff

My wife has been listing things on eBay lately (because we're trying to clean out the house a bit), and she's received three messages from one guy, whom she has deliberately ignored. The messages are unedited, uncapitalized, abbreviation-heavy, and terse -- like a dashed-off text message.

She says she's ignoring them because one of the things you have to look out for on sites like eBay are scammers or rip-off artists, and one thing most of those guys have in common is terribly edited writing.

"This guy might be legitimate, and may really be interested, but I'm not going to talk to him, just in case," she told me.

It occurred to me, when she said this, that I tend to treat unedited messages as though they're from spammers or con artists, too, and after a few seconds of thought, I realized why: those Nigerian 419 email scams. (You know the ones.) They're always filled with goofs and howlers. When I see an email or unsolicited Facebook message written in anything like that style, I tend to ignore or delete it (unless I recognize it's from a student).

It's a safe bet that lots of literate, educated people have instinctively adopted this Ignore-the-Error-Filled-Message defense. It's sensible and efficient. Of course, it's also likely to hit some false positives along the way. In all likelihood, a few legitimate messages are being lost in the process.

Is this phenomenon a kind of discrimination, like racial profiling, but targeting uneducated people instead of, say, Arabs? Maybe.

Is it reasonable to assume spammers and scammers are going to have lots of errors, and that well-edited messages are more likely to be legitimate?

Yes, I'd say that's reasonable.

If that seems to be a stretch -- and I realize it may -- here's why that assumption makes some sense: Conning people and spamming people are numbers games. The more people you hit, the more likely it is you find a sucker. Most of the suckers are not going to be terribly sharp. So if you're a con artist or spam lord, there's really not a very good reason to worry about grammar. The people who will spot the errors weren't likely to fall for the scam anyway. The people who are likely to fall for the scam aren't likely to care about or notice errors.

For this reason, most people who spend their days sending lots of messages into the Internet's ether, hoping to hook a mark or two, don't bother to edit their stuff. There's simply no compelling reason to bother.

Meanwhile, if you're going to email a complete stranger to ask a legitimate favor or to ask for money for a real thing, you're sending a message to just one person. You probably know the receiver is going to wonder, "Who the heck is this person, and is this some kind of spam?" Most reasonably intelligent senders will slow down to edit, so they'll be taken more seriously and make a good impression.

So, for reasons entirely unrelated to education, legitimate messages will tend to look more carefully edited than dishonest ones.

However, this does mean trouble for some writers out there: If you're writing honest messages but not slowing down to edit, you look exactly like a Nigerian spam lord, and smart people are inoculating themselves against that sort of thing.

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