Chain Letters and those never-ending forwardings

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Since 07-24-05

From: []
Sent: Sunday, July 24, 2005 2:50 AM
To: undisclosed-recipients:
Subject: Chain Letters and those never-ending forwardings

Please take a minute and read this through in its entirety. Its some pretty darn good advice concerning chain letters or in some cases referred to as 'forwardings.'

Chain Letters ---  and  those 'never-ending' forwardings.

What are they? What's so bad about them? Why do people start them?...

1.  What is a chain letter?

An e-mail chain letter is any message that, either through overt instruction or through compelling content, encourages the reader to pass it on. Chain-letters promising good luck or instant fortune have been around for decades, but the explosion of e-mail has ushered in new types of chains, made them easier to distribute and harder to break.

2. Whats so bad about chain letters.

E-mail chain letters have many things wrong with them, depending on how they're used. Some use them to distribute news and information, unfortunately, chain letters are not a reliable source. Some use them to stay in touch, not realizing that most of their friends would prefer a personally-written note over a chain letter any day. Chain letters also present a serious risk to your privacy and that of your friends, as your contact information could end up being circulated around the globe. These aren't all the things that are wrong with chain letters, but they are the most compelling.

3.   Why is email a terrible tool for spreading information?

E-mail may be a quick an easy way to send a note to many people, but that does not make it a news media. E-mail lacks two important ingredients that make the mainstream media relatively trustworthy: Reliability (the message can be trusted to be unchanged from its original) and validity (the source is identified and qualified to provide the information).

Consider this example: The New York Times announces that it will no longer produce millions of copies of its world-renowned paper. Instead, they will produce one copy - in pencil - and drop it off at the end of your street, asking each household to read it and pass it on. You would question news delivered this way, wouldn't you?

  4.    Is there ever a chain letter that feels is OK to forward?

In short, no.

E-mail was never designed as a tool to broadcast information, and is too unreliable for that task. Few people consider the fallability of e-mail and trust it as they would a legitimate news medium, even though it lacks the the checks and balances that make the media valid. Without a valid source to check it against, any claim made via e-mail must be regarded a rumor at best.

Feel-good e-mails, poems, jokes and other drivel - the so-called 'harmless chain letters' - are too often used as a poor substitute for personal communication. We forward them as a way to let our friends know we're thinking of them, not realizing that most of them hate them. (Oh, they'd never tell you that to your face, but they hate them, trust me.)

Also, since few forwarders take the time to clean the message up and remove headers from previous forwards, they are in effect, broadcasting the e-mail address of everyone who received the message before them. This is a serious privacy threat and can contribute to increased spam.]

5.      What harm is there in forwarding feel-good and good luck chain letters?

First, you may have incorrectly assumed your friends want them. Though they are often sent with the best of intentions, these letters can (and do) frequently offend their receivers.

Second, since few forwarders take the time to clean up messages before they send them, these types of chains often include hundreds, even thousands of e-mail addresses from those who have sent and received it in the past. This is a significant privacy risk and a sure-fire way to get on spammers' lists.

Before you forward another chain letter, do a quick poll of your friends. Send them a note that says something like "From time to time, I see some interesting jokes, poems, stories or news I like to share with my friends. If you don't wish to be included in these mailings, please let me know." You may be surprised at the response you get if th

6. How do I tell my friends and family not to send chain letters without hurting their feelings?

Most people who forward chain letters believe they are doing something good. They think they are staying in touch and giving you potentially useful information. This "altruistic" spirit often makes the gentle approach incredibly ineffective.

Be direct. Tell them that you appreciate them thinking of you, but would prefer they only send you personally-authored letters that express their own thoughts and feeling in their own words. Tell them that you believe chain letters to be a waste of time and resources and would appreciate that they not send them to you. Share with them why you think chain letters are annoying. Point out that when a letter turns out to be false, it is embarrassing for both you and them.

Sometimes, the only way to get through to them is to embarrass them and hurt their feelings. Don't be afraid to correct them when they pass on incorrect information. Use the "Reply to All" feature of your e-mail program to make sure that everyone who received the message along with you, also gets the truth. But be careful not to unnecessarily belittle or insult them. Remember: they think they are doing a good thing. ]

7.  Do companies really use e-mail chain letter schemes to get customers?

Companies want you to visit their websites - that's where they make money through selling products and advertising. They won't typically use e-mail for any purpose other than to drive traffic to their site.

If you get an e-mail that tells you a company wants to give you free products or cash, but doesn't point you to a website, you can safely dismiss it as a hoax.

8.  What makes a person start a chain letter?

This is a simple question with a very complex answer. Chain letters are a very interesting social phenomenon. Their origins vary depending on the type of letter. Here's a quick overview:

Most chains are started and/or propagated with good intentions. Somebody found/heard some interesting information and felt compelled to share it and ask others to pass it along. Unfortunately, information sent this way is often incorrect, incomplete or biased.

Some chains start as private correspondence, but are shared with people outside the author's circle of friends because of the letter's contents. This is often done without the author's knowledge or permission.

Hoaxes make fun of those "gullible" enough to fall for them. You will see a lot of hoaxes targeted to America Online (AOL) and Microsoft Network (MSN) subscribers, as they are generally considered to have little or no Internet experience.

Spammers and scammers may start chain letters as a sneaky way to gather e-mail addresses to send their junk to.

Chain letters are also often borne of urban legends - stories of events or situations so amazing or amusing that we want (or fear) them to be true. These tales rarely have any verifiable information, but are represented as true by those who forward them.

9. Are chain letters threatening that something bad will happen to you if you don't  forward them illegal?

I know of no law in any jurisdiction that prohibits the sending of "forward this or else" e-mails. While some harassment arrests and convictions have been based in part on threatening e-mails from the harrasser, "forward or else" chain letters may not qualify under law as harassment - their threats are neither specific nor believable.

They aren't believable because what they claim - that the sender can track it and will know if you do/don't forward it - is technologically impossible. For the same reason, any law prohibiting them would be impossible to enforce.

Keep in mind, however, that I'm no legal expert. If you feel threatened or harassed by an e-mail you've received, consult a lawyer or law enforcement agency to find out what action is available to you.

10.   How should I clean up a chain email before sending it to someone?

If you absolutely must forward a chain letter, here are a few tips that may help you make the recipients less annoyed: 

Delete any indenting characters (like ">>"). They are a nuisance.

Get rid of unnecessary carriage returns (paragraph breaks).

Sure, this takes a little time, but if a message isn't worth 5 minutes of editing, maybe it's not worth forwarding.

Please pass this on to your buddies, friends and relatives.
YNCS Don Harribine, USN(Ret)