I like to read Bruce Sterling’s Beyond the Beyond blog for its glimpse into his favela-chic future. There, most everybody is poor, the whole world is a squat, and the people we now mostly aspire to be (the college-educated info-worker lucky few with white collar jobs or better — you know, the folks who have a shot at actually being wealthy while calling themselves middle class, the ones who can go to a doctor without financial stress, the ones who get to go to a dentist when their teeth don’t hurt yet) are trying to adjust to the culture shock of discovering themselves to be just another wretched class of pixel-stained technopeasantry.

Perhaps you ride the “no silver linings, no lemonade” bus with Douglas Coupland, or maybe you prefer to hope that people will pull together and Make some fun among the rubble (see A Happy Mutant’s Guide To the Near Future by Jim Leftwich, which struck me, though not so billed, as a direct response to the Douglas Coupland piece, and tasted very Sterling-ish to my tentacles). Either way, though, the point of the future is that it’s supposed to be happening tomorrow. Today, we still expect to find our knowledge workers chasing that 20th-century rainbow, not farming WOW gold elbow-to-elbow with a roomful of Chinese gamerboyz or working as a manual blog comment spamming robot.

Yes, boys and girls, that’s what has precipitated this morning’s rant. Recent improvements in my back-end blog technology have nuked most of the automated blog comment spam that used to plague me; at one point, I was having to clear five or six hundred robot spams a day from the moderation queue. These were machine generated texts, usually starting from some base text and then auto-morphed with a synonym replacement algorithm; so they looked like real comments but read like nonsense. It was annoying, and in bulk, taxing — but at least I understand the economics of robot spam. I hate it, but I understand it. And, I can fight it with better software. Battle won.

Of course we have always had people who would drop by and leave a comment for the sole purpose of dropping their URL in the box provided. With Google’s NoFollow, this is pretty pointless; but maybe they get a few clicks of traffic, and it happens. If the comment is real and the URL looks normal, there’s no way to avoid it, either. Fortunately people like this are usually lazy and/or greedy; there are usually obvious spam keywords in the link, and (it used to be) they would be unable or unwilling to spend the time to write a decent comment. So we’d get “Haha, nice pic!” and a link to some buy-my-penis-pills-now site from a first time commenter, not hard to nuke from first-time-commenter moderation.

No, boys and girls, what’s new in the last six months, and growing rapidly, is the seemingly hand-rolled comment spam that is so good it cannot be distinguished from the comments my regular commenters leave. It’s two or three sentences long, it’s on topic, it’s friendly, it’s fun, it would in every respect qualify for being passed through moderation. Except that it’s clearly been submitted in order to support a horrid spammy link. Instead of putting a name in the link box, the person will put whatever keyword they are trying to promote their site for in the search engines; and then they will put their keyword-laden URL in the URL box.

These happen with increasing frequency now. The sites are of all kinds, the emails and IP addresses differ, the commenting styles seem to differ, it has not seemed like just one person doing it. I’ve been open to the idea that there’s one “work from home” ring of people doing it in support of some solitary Black Hat SEO evil mastermind, but it’s been hard to believe they would actually be getting paid enough to make it worth their time. And given what I think I know about search engines these days, I don’t think this behavior makes economic sense. But the world changes rapidly, and one of the “features” is that what you think you know often turns out not to be so.

And so it would go, ever since my tech improvement made most of the automated stuff vanish from my site. I’d see one or two of these hand-rolled comment spams in my moderation queue every so often, I’d marvel at them as I nuked them, and then I would get on with my life.

Until this morning. One of these comments, on a post from 2007, seemed very familiar…

Light dawns on Marble Head. Ding ding ding ding!

Clever robot, have a pellet.

Challenge: You need a comment text good enough to convince a blog owner it was written by a human in response to a post on his blog. Where do you get one?

Duh answer: You just steal the comment text from the existing comment thread, and then you rely on the blog owner’s bad memory not to recognize that he’s already seen that comment years previously. On a blog with “only” 13,989 approved comments, what are the odds he’s going to remember the one you borrowed?

The reason this works so well — and had me convinced for a month I was dealing with pixel-stained technopeasant wretches — is that all of the comments were good enough to approve. Of course they were! Because they’d all been approved before, duh. The robot is well crafted in several ways. Not only is it smart enough to get around the ice that’s keeping most of the robots away from my site now, it’s set to stay several years in the past, hit my site no more than two or three times a day, generally not more than two or three times a week. But (I discover on looking in the spam bin) it always works by taking the first comment from the comment thread and attempting to repost it with its own spammy link.

As humbled as I am to discover that I’ve spent the last month failing to recognize the robot on the other side of the Turing Test, I’ll confess to a bit of relief that the world of bulk hand-crafted comment spam hasn’t arrived (yet).

{pause for breath}

That’s the end of the post, but if you’re still reading this deep into one of my ranty posts that has nothing to do with sex, I figure you’ll indulge me further. When I went to Boing Boing for those two links that I used in the second paragraph, I thought it was a sign of the apocalypse that there was nothing visible “above the fold” but their header banner and advertising, thusly:

nothing but ads today at boing boing

Given that I’ve been considering a few tweaks to the ErosBlog template to modernize the look and create some of the larger ad spaces that advertisers are looking for these days, I was wondering whether I should take that as an omen. I hope I’ll never go that far (shudder) but if one can get away with that and still enjoy the cool reputation Boing Boing enjoys, maybe I’ve been too conservative?

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