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Remember When Spam Seemed Like the Biggest Problem on the Internet?

Launched in 2006, Guerrilla Mail has barely changed since—and thank goodness

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

My favorite genre of internet service and app is Does One Thing Really Well. Down for Everyone or Just Me tells you if it’s a website or your ISP that you should be cursing at. LMGTFY lets you shame the lazy searcher in your life. Shazam, game show and (for now) acquisition notwithstanding, tells you what song is playing. The provided service doesn’t even have to be a real utility: Yo, an app that famously blurted out the eponymous greeting to recipients and nothing else, played a role in my then-long-distance relationship (hubba hubba!); this week, my dad used the iNaturalist app to determine that his 5-year-old terrier mix is actually either a common raccoon or a Virginia opossum. (There is a whole cottage industry of sites offering answers to yes/no questions.) As feature creep gradually melts social media platforms into one another and sites and apps get ever bigger and heavier, there is something comforting about a site or an app that still does just one thing. It’s a rarity to pick a lane and stay in it.

And so I offer you one of my very most cherished websites on the internet: Guerrilla Mail, the perfectly bare-bones operation that has been keeping inboxes clean for 11 years and counting.

The premise of Guerrilla Mail is simple: Visit the site and you will find yourself looking at a newly created disposable email inbox. For as long as you keep the window open, the email address printed there—some scramble of letters, numbers, and characters at sharklasers.com (which is itself a clone of Guerrilla Mail)—will be yours and yours alone. Messages that arrive will be kept in your shiny new inbox for one hour, and then—poof—they will be slotted into the internet’s wood chipper and destroyed.

The idea is that if you need to receive something in the order of one email and nothing more, you use a Guerrilla Mail account, get the deed done, and never hear from the sender again. Need to give a hotel your email address to get on the Wi-Fi? Use Guerrilla Mail. Need to enter an address to unlock a store discount, but don’t want to end up on the mailing list? Use Guerrilla Mail. Need a one-time authorization code for something you’ll never use again? Use Guerrilla Mail. You get what you need, and no one—no marketer, no store that had a great Black Friday deal but is otherwise unaffordable—will ever darken your doorstep again. The whole thing is a decidedly spartan affair, a plain stretch of muted colors and Courier font to get you in and out as quickly as possible.

There was a time when spam seemed like the very worst problem facing the internet. As we all set up our first inboxes in the early aughts, and found vendors, grifters, and bots eager to fill them, panic followed. One research firm found that the average white-collar worker in the U.S. spent a quarter of his or her time at work sorting through an inbox. Congress passed a law to crack down on senders; the FBI launched a program called Project Slam-Spam. Software solutions arose with varying success—but better still to stop the problem at its source. And so: Guerrilla Mail.

The idea that spam would top a list of internet ailments now seems almost impossibly quaint. The internet has done many much worse things than promise to extend our collective manhoods. And the methods of stopping spam—both the true scattershot gibberish and the unwanted fluff that clutters inboxes far and wide—from getting into your inbox have gotten better. Filters built into email services have exponentially improved, and the balkanization of newsletters into services like MailChimp has made getting off corporate lists at least mostly reliable. (“Rethinking the ‘Never Unsubscribe’ Rule for Spam,” reads a David Pogue tech column from 2011 on the wonders of SafeUnsubscribe, now an officially AARP-endorsed service.)

But spam hasn’t gone away, even if it doesn’t have quite the air of doom it once did, and so Guerrilla Mail persists. There are plenty of similar services: Nada is a decidedly prettier variant, TempMailAddress gives you the option to keep the inbox around for longer, and TempInbox and Mailinator let you choose your disposable account name. There are many more, all of which do roughly the same thing: Take just a little bit of clutter out of your life. But it’s Guerrilla Mail that’s held on to its crusty mid-aughts looks and mission, offering this one small thing with no frills for all these years. And if that doesn’t count for beauty on the internet, then I don’t know what does.