Textual harassment

Ever wonder how you could maximally harass a Mac user with a minimal amount of effort? If that person is an iChat user, it’s really quite simple: Just add that person’s iChat ID to the Buddy List of a Mac in an Apple Retail Store. You’ve just doomed them to a grim future of fielding countless requests for AV conferences from Apple Store customers sampling iChat and the built-in iSight cameras that come with new Intel-based Macs.

Not that I’m bitter about this or anything.

Yes, I fell victim to just such a prank/unintentional mistake/colossal irritation when, a few weeks ago, I started getting meaningless iChat requests—inane messages that contained little more than a “Hello?” or ”Who’s this?” (An especially annoying introduction, since you messaged me first, buddy .) It seemed like every few minutes I’d get another one.

And that proved to be particularly unfortunate, since iChat tends to be running whenever I’m working: Here at Macworld , we use it frequently to communicate about stories and handle all the other tasks that go into producing a magazine and Web site. Quitting iChat or going offline means shutting down one of my primary means of collaboration and communication.

In my case, I at first assumed these chat requests were from random people who’d come across my iChat ID in a poorly-vetted screenshot; I dismissed them without paying too much attention. But I eventually noticed that they were all coming from the same iChat account: ars039.14@mac.com . My next thought was that this was some solitary jerk doing his best to disrupt my work. But I found it odd that on the occasions when I responded—“Who’s this?” or “Can I ask where you got my iChat ID?”—the person on the other end never continued the conversation. (I mean, what’s up with that? I was at least expecting a good taunt. It was as if Bart Simpson tried to prank call Moe’s Tavern—and then hung up the phone as soon as Moe answered.)

After thinking about the situation for a bit, I realized that every Mac in every Apple Store around the world has iChat installed (and usually running); could “ars” stand for “Apple Retail Store?” That made sense. And the “039.14” might be IT-speak for “Computer No. 14 in Store No. 39.” (That wasn’t your next thought? Well, once you’ve worked in IT and had to keep track of hundreds of computers, your mind works in funny ways.) If so, that would mean that my iChat ID had been—*gasp*—added to the Buddy List of a demonstration Mac in an Apple Store. Which would explain a lot. And it meant I had to track down that machine if I wanted any peace in my work day.

Hoping I’d deciphered Apple’s computer-naming code, my next task was to figure out which Apple Store was No. 39. First I looked online to find the 39th store opened. That would have been the West County store in Des Peres, Missouri. So I called the store, which was surprisingly resistant to tell me whether or not it was, indeed, Store No. 39. After I explained the situation, the person with whom I spoke finally let me know that no, this was not the store I was looking for (but couldn’t—or wouldn’t—tell me which store was No. 39—evidently this is what is known as a “trade secret”).

So I did some more sleuthing and found ifoAppleStore’s list of Apple Stores and store numbers. Jackpot! The offending retail establishment, Apple Store No. 39, was the Valley Fair store in Santa Clara/San Jose, California. Now I was getting somewhere. I called the store and explained the situation to the manager, who was convinced that I must have been at the store and added myself to the Mac’s Buddy List—or at least that one of my friends had done so. (No dice, my friend.) But he did offer to help find the offending Mac. (Which was indeed Mac No. 14 in that store—let’s hear it for good IT policy! Almost—he didn’t know which machine was No. 14, so he had to search for it.)

A couple hours later, I received the following iChat message:

AIM IM with ars039.14@mac.com.

1:47 PM

there you are

finally found the computer 14

deleting you now

ok

you are no longer on this buddy list

Since then, iChat has been blissfully calm, with only work-related queries—from people I actually know—breaking the silence.

It could have been worse

Now don’t get me wrong; this isn’t just the case of one Macworld editor griping about the more-than-occasional unwanted iChat invitation. In fact, I consider myself lucky: Messaging spam is becoming a growing issue for many users. Several people I know complain of getting seemingly innocuous “Hello” iChat messages, only to be deluged with “chat-spam” if they respond. And, sadly, there are few ways to avoid such messages. You could go to iChat’s Preferences and set iChat to reject messages from users not in your Buddy List. But what if there are people who need to reach you who aren’t already on that list? In larger organizations, that’s not an unreasonable scenario. (I regularly receive legitimate iChat messages from software developers, product vendors, and—yes—even Macworld readers, none of whom are on my Buddy List.)

So although I personally haven’t had the misfortune of falling victim to chat-spam, enough people have that as instant messaging becomes an increasingly popular way to stay in touch—especially for work-related communication—dealing with such unwanted messages is going to become an important issue. If anything, my experience made me realize that for IM to really take off among the non-tech crowd, there needs to be a way to sort out the valuable messages from the unwanted ones, not unlike how spam filters cut down on the amount of junk e-mail. How would this work? I’m not sure—chat works much differently than e-mail, so it would have to be a much different mechanism.

But one thing’s for sure: Chat applications are going to have to become more sophisticated to deal with this issue.

  
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