In 1997, we held the British Combinatorial Conference at Queen Mary. The weather was kind to us that week, and the attendance was 317, a record which has never been beaten. The publishers set up an impromptu book fair outside in the sunshine, and sold books by the carrier-bagful. I am told that it was a very successful conference. But I spent most of it behind the conference desk, fielding complaints; it seemed to me that it must have been a disaster. Professor X left his expensive camera in the back of the lecture room, and it wasn’t there when he returned; Professor Y didn’t like the breakfasts and demanded a refund; and so on. The lesson I should have learnt is that you can’t please everyone.

I am still not quite sure why I have become a blogger. Partly, I want to tell you interesting stuff. Partly, I enjoy a conversation. But one eye-opening fact I’ve learned is that, among comments sent to the blog, spam outnumbers genuine responses by a factor of twenty-five to one. WordPress, bless them, have a very good spam filter, and I almost never disagree with its judgment; but I always cast a cursory glance at the spam before pulling the plug on it.

Spam in blog comments is a bit different from regular email spam; people inviting me to give them my bank account details so they can clean out my account don’t seem to use this medium so much.

Some of it is simply advertising, and doesn’t even pretend to address the topic.(One this morning asked “Do you want an A in mathematics?”) But most spammers simply want to get something with their web address posted somewhere new, to attract the attention of possible customers or maybe search engines. A very common spam message is something along the lines of “I agree with what you say but I’d like to take issue with one or two points”. (The flattery always comes first; and both that and the criticism is completely generic.) Often the web address being promoted is embedded in the text in such a way that a human will not notice it; I assume these are simply directed at search engines.

But there is a very fine line between genuine comment and spam.

  • Recently I put in a plug for my lecture notes on probability. Several people have told me in the past that they find these notes helpful, and have used them. But it is certainly good advertising for my department when that happens.
  • Even “reputable” academic websites benefit when I link to them.
  • Some sites to which I link include advertising.
  • I try not to overdo links. I reckon that, if you are interested in what I say, you can easily find further information with Google. But that itself is advertising, since I have singled out one of several Internet search engines.

The upshot is that I am sure I have often overstepped the boundary. I am certainly not as strong-minded as my favourite blogger Diamond Geezer (whose work you should certainly read, if you haven’t yet). His blog gets enough traffic to make it worthwhile for sales representatives of various companies to contact him, offering him freebies in exchange for a plug for their product. From time to time, he posts a selection of these letters, with the names of the offending companies hidden.

I have a rough and ready rule that, if any request comes in a comment, it is probably spam, whereas if someone is prepared to email directly and engage in a conversation, it is serious. (Even that is not quite true, since one of my guest posts came as a comment, and I hope to have another in the near future.)

But this rule isn’t perfect. Barbara Jolie’s post on randomness satisfied the criterion above. But, as I said at the start, you can’t keep everyone happy. Anonymous seriously disapproved of what I did, and took me to task. Barbara’s post is not what I would have said myself – but surely that is the point of a guest post.

If you do disagree with me, you are welcome to comment; I tend to be rather liberal about approving comments. If it’s more serious, consider setting out your stall and asking me to post it. (Sorry for the mixed metaphor.)

I said not long ago that, when I began using the Internet, any commercial activity (even advertising lecture notes in an email signature) was a no-no. Things have changed; the Internet is a marketplace, and if you go to the marketplace, you cannot entirely avoid the fact that it is commerce.


About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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5 Responses to Spam

  1. Sean Carmody says:

    As a blogger myself, I am only too familiar with the challenges of blog comment spam. I have also repeatedly received unsolicited offers of guest posts on topics related to themes on the blog. While I have no qualms about including guest posts (many, if not all, of which take perspectives which would not be quite the same as my own), the approach I have adopted is only to include posts written by people I know personally, rather by those who make the unsolicited offers.

  2. How delightful! This article has been reproduced under “wordpress spam” at

  3. Overstepped a boundary? I don’t think so.

    If a comment comes from a commercial email address or website and says nothing relevant to the post, only a generic “I really like this”, then it might well be spam. I often delete those.

    Also, I wouldn’t read too much into any critical comment from someone called “Anonymous”…

  4. Ralph says:

    I don’t see why I should care where some piece of writing comes from, only whether I enjoy it or perhaps find it useful, and whether it contains some overly obnoxious attempt to deceive or manipulate.

    Other than such ordinary criteria, what difference does it make whether there is some side effect of a post, such as clicks going to another site? As long as any propaganda included does not greatly annoy or harm myself or others, it is of no importance to me.

    In the case of the “guest post” by Ms. Jolie, my only relevant opinion is that it is of poor quality. The idea that some sort of essential randomness might (or might not) exist, quite different from the apparent randomness we see around us, strikes me as naive. Such a thesis would be as untestable as anything I can think of. In fact (ahem), the idea would be untestable even in principle! Or… would it?

    Now my head is hurting, and it is all the fault of that spammy post.

  5. And so, after my words about the WordPress spam filter, I have just rescued a genuine comment from the bin…

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