Bumblebee Labs is called Bumblebee Labs because of the following quote:

Aerodynamically, the bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly. But the bee does not know this, so it goes on flying anyway – Antoine Magnan

A bumblebee is an occurrence which cannot be explained by our current theory and thus, demands special attention. Bumblebees are the keys to uncovering areas where our understanding of the world drastically fail and how we can construct a better theory to explain what is happening. But to even notice bumblebees, you have to be on the lookout for them. You have to make a commitment to noticing when you theory goes awry and be willing to dig for an answer.

I was reminded of bumblebees while reading about how researchers infiltrated the storm botnet and discovered that the response rate to spam is 1 in 125 million (Slashdot, Original Paper). How is it that spam is still so awful in this day and age? Spam should be just like any other business, those who are incompetent at it should go out of business and those who do the best, thrive. But this does not seemingly explain why spam seems to have such abysmal conversion rates and why spammers aren’t innovating and experimenting with better ways of spamming.

Spam seems like the perfect vehicle for a data driven, analytic approach. Each email is constructed programatically, websites are created in a largely automated fashion and the path from action to profit is easy to chart out. All the necessary ingredients for Spam 2.0 seem to have been around for the last 10 years and yet spam is still universally awful.

How do we explain the quality of spam then? I can think of a couple of possible explanations, none of them satisfying:

  • The spam we are getting now has been optimized and is the spam which maximizes conversion rates. If so, I would be very surprised as this seems to violate almost everything we know about marketing.
  • Spam suffers from a supply problem, not a demand problem. Spammers only profit when there’s something to sell and there’s simply not enough people wanting to sell via spam to bother increasing response rate. Andrew Chen writes about how your ad-supported Web 2.0 site is actually a B2B enterprise in disguise and the same issues could be facing spammers. However, for spammers hawking V1agra, it seems like the potential supply should be limitless so I’m going to discount this theory for now.
  • Quality is totally irrelevant to a spam campaign, high quality spam and low quality spam get close enough to the same response rate that it doesn’t matter. This might be true if you view spam not as an inducement but as a provider. The purpose of spam is not to convince you that you need a 12 inch h4rd C0ck, it’s to be there for those who have already decided a 12 inch h4rd C0ck is what would rock their world. If this is the case, it doesn’t matter what you put in the messages. However, this does not seem to account for Nigerian Scam emails which very much are set up like an inducement.
  • Spam is an oligopoly and hard to break into. It might be the case that there really only are 3 or 4 actual spammers in the world and it’s a hard market to break into. If that’s the case, then it could be none of them have the necessary awareness or expertise to conduct a data driven campaign. There does not seem any obvious structural element to spam though that would make this the case. Given how many Silicon Valley titans have been overthrown by entrepreneurs, spam doesn’t seem to be any different.
  • Spammers are all universally stupid. No one in spam is smart enough to conduct a data driven approach. This may be true but if so, it points to a gaping niche in the market which has been open for an extraordinarily long time. By all rights, an entrepreneur should have filled this space by now.

None of these explanations are wholly satisfying and none of them just plain sound right. There is one other explanation I have though which holds some tantalizing clues as to what the true answer might be. However, this explanation is so paradoxical, so shocking and so counter to our intuitive experience that all I can do today is lay the necessary groundwork to show how the problem of spam is a bumblebee that defies resolving with any of our conventional theories. If you have a better explanation for why spam is the way it is, post it in the comments. Otherwise, tune in tomorrow to understand the problem of spam can be explained by the fact that there are no evil geniuses.


  1. Bumblebee Labs Blog » Blog Archive » Nov 12th (day 30): No Evil Geniuses says:

    November 12th, 2008 at 12:04 pm (#)

    […] I wrote about the mystery of why spam was so bad at being spam and I claimed that it was a mystery that seemingly defied explanation. None of what I proposed as […]

  2. Tomasz Wegrzanowski says:

    August 17th, 2009 at 6:13 pm (#)

    Isn't saturation the most obvious solution?

    In a small scale marketing campaigns you can approximate that doubling the exposure will double the results, so talk about conversion ration etc. makes sense, but it will obviously not continue forever. Spam is just ridiculously cheap to send, what they optimize is total amount of replies, not amount of replies per spam. Every extra billion of spams gets you fewer marginal replies than the previous billion, but as long as it's worth more than tiny cost of sending it, it's worth sending that extra billion.

    Also such tiny conversion ration don't really violate the facts of marketing. Spam has to first get through all the spam filters, which surely trash vast majority of it. Then you have to deal with people being trained to ignore or delete unsolicited emails. Then the best you can hope for are conversion rates you get from completely untargeted advertisement. And even when someone wants to get 12 inch cock, your rates will be lowered by their lack of trust in your ability to provide it, and their unwillingness to give credit card details to a shady website.

    Add all these together and it's not certain that you can do much more than 125 million to 1, or that spammers are really all that bothered about having to send that many spams.

  3. Shalmanese says:

    August 17th, 2009 at 6:48 pm (#)

    In a small scale marketing campaign, doubling the exposure will double the results for the same conversion ratio, thus, you should be focused on generating leads. It's only for saturation campaigns that the conversion ratio becomes important because there's no other way to increase hits.

    If spam senders were economically rational actors, then they would either try and generate more leads or improve their emails depending on whichever has the largest hit/effort ratio. That they never seem to improve their emails means that either generating more leads is an incredibly effective way of generating hits, spam conversion rates are incredibly insensitive to content or spammers are not economically rational actors.

    Of the three, the last seems the less absurd.

  4. Software misengineering « Bumblebee Labs Blog says:

    August 30th, 2009 at 9:11 pm (#)

    […] mentioned previously that the reason this company is named Bumblebee Labs is from a term I coined: A bumblebee is an […]

  5. shezi says:

    March 16th, 2010 at 10:52 pm (#)

    Actually, science and engineering have know for a long time how bumblebees fly. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bumblebee#Flight

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