Thursday, February 02, 2006

Is this laudable? Or skanky? I can't decide. It's certainly a noteworthy way to make money on the Internet.

I've been a chat room user on the internet for perhaps over a decade. In the lightning-fast world of the internet, that's an extremely long time, indeed.

I sometimes get flustered or tongue-tied when meeting a new person, face to face. This is particularly so if that new person is an attractive, available woman. How is it that anxiety never got eliminated from our species by natural selection? I don't see any reproductive advantage to being shy.

Every aspect of the internet has become saturated with unwanted advertising. I'll be writing more on this whole topic, and possibly describing some of my thoughts about solutions.

Most readers of this column likely are all too familiar with e-mail "spam" -- unsolicited commercial sales pitches. Typical commodities include pornography, Viagra, other prescription pills, or perhaps get-rich quick schemes.

All of this internet-delivered advertising is annoying and counterproductive to society. Perhaps uniquely among advertising efforts, spam and the like are ALWAYS delivered when the audience is trying to accomplish something specific, and something other than looking at advertising. Advertising delivered at the worst possible moments. The guy who thought of this should have to face a firing squad.

The different uses of the internet make themselves targets of different kinds of unwanted advertising. With e-mail, the unwanted advertising is spam. With web browsing, the unwanted advertising is "pop-ups," or "pop-unders," or plain old misleading links inserted into material. Typically, these links are embedded in pages designed to find their way high in the results of Google searches.

Chat rooms have their own medium of unwanted advertising: bots. A chat room "bot" is a pseudo-identity...a screen name with output going onto the screens of people "in" a chat room. The bot is simply powered by some malignant computer program; no human being is sitting at a keyboard and screen to produce the text. Most commonly, these "bots" advertise pornography sites, or poker sites. I was flabbergasted recently to see one bot directing people to a site set up by the Jehovah's Witnesses. You know a neighborhood (physical or virtual) has gone downhill when the cults start recruiting.

Chat room bots upset me. In the early years of chat rooms, such annoyances were rare. People actually had lengthy, involved conversations in these rooms. They were a place where one could make friends from the other side of the globe, or down the street with equal ease.

Year by year, the steadily increasing saturation of bots has made chat rooms largely useless. It's a real loss. It's as though one's favorite neighborhood pub were invaded by unfriendly gorillas. I've lost a hangout for socializing. Well, maybe these gorillas call for ... guerilla warfare. Sorry for the pun.

In my recent readings about internet advertising, I've come to realize that the anti-social huns who create and deploy these "bots" are typically not the owners of the web sites being advertised. These bots are managed by "affiliates." Essentially, professional, independent carnival barkers, who get paid a percentage of the admission receipts.

The owners of these sites actually would rather not have their affiliates be overly aggressive in the advertising....being over-sold in irritating ways can be bad for business. Still, getting business by less-attractive means is far superior, in the mind of a business owner, than not getting business at all. So most of these sites being hawked tend to look the other way when it comes to overly aggressive sales techniques.

But under some circumstances, site owners will terminate their relationship with particular bot-master "affiliates." That is, if they the commercial site owner believes an affiliate is manipulating the system in a way that's bad for business, he's out on his ear.

This led to my thinking about strategies that people could use to help the entire internet be slightly less infested with bots (and spam, and pop-ups, etc). That is, if we consumers make clear to the commercial web site owners that they've LOST business, then the worst "affiliates" will be fired, and overall unmanageability of the web might improve.

I am under no illusion that I'm capable of being a one-man army against the hordes of bots. But I might possibly work out a system that other people could latch on to that might make some difference.

I am further under no illusion that nobody is going to get substantial numbers of internet users to draft letters of complaint to owners of commercial web sites about the marketing habits of their associates. Nobody has the time for this.

I was thinking that I might be able to design some simple program that millions of users could invoke with a few keystrokes. I imagine people might right-click on some irritatingly-promoted link to a site, and select something that would get the spam-writing affiliate promptly fired.

For example, a program to simply send a lot of "clicks" to a commercial web page from a single computer will look (to the web page owner) like the affiliate is simply clicking away at links that are supposed to net himself some income.

Anyway, suffice it to say that I've recently done some snooping around some links that crop up in spam e-mail, in bot output, and in pop-ups. Most of these links have embedded in the URL some username or ID to identify the "associate" who is to be credited the income from steering traffic to paying sites.

I found that some bots are badly programmed, and are sending traffic to paying sites with invalid affiliate IDs. That is, with usernames that haven't yet been signed up for. That is, usernames that you and I can claim, and probably pocket income that the spammers have essentially left laying on the table.

What I did was astonishingly straightforward. I simply examined some of the obnoxious links being thrown in my direction, parsed out the username (e.g., NoraSoHot5467 on [fabricated, not a real example]). By golly, I found I could go to and sign up as NoraSoHot5467. Not just as a consumer, but as an paid Affiliate. Yes, with my real SSN and address, so they can send real checks to me that I can cash. The first two links I tried from a particularly bot-infested site both proved to be wide open for the taking. I'm not going to specify what commercial sites these are for, nor what the IDs are. But I'll be keeping you blog readers posted about how much income I make off of this.

This particular anti-bot strategy won't necessarily do a lot to reign in the bot masters. It may simply make them a little more careful about the programming. But if enough people go prospecting for gold the way I did, we'll all become more knowledgeable about how the system work, about exactly what constitutes abuse, and about who and how to complain to in order to imrove things.

Working for a better internet,


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