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Back on the Chain Gang

I’ve had it. I’m sick of receiving chain mail. I’m sure many of you have received these bits of oozing Internet abuse as well, ranging from the Good Times Virus hoax (it is a complete hoax, folks, and the damage it causes stems purely from being redistributed in email) to the latest petition for a worthy cause. Chain mail, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, includes any message that asks you to forward it on to a bunch of your friends, leaving the exhortation to continue the forwarding intact. The topic of the message doesn’t matter – chain mail of any sort is an abuse of the Internet and of your fellow Internet citizens.

I don’t know what happened, but chain mail has been clanking into my mailbox more frequently than ever before. First, the Good Times Virus hoax monopolized the discussion on the Apple Internet Users mailing list for a few days, then I got a copy of the standard "you’ll have bad luck unless…" message and its raunchier "you’ll have bad luck in bed unless…" cousin. They were followed by chain mail messages encouraging me to support PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) and NPR (National Public Radio). Finally, I received a number of copies of a chain mail prank that hoped to result in tons of people sending a copy of the Bill of Rights to President Clinton’s email address on the same day. That prank also appeared in some of the Apple Internet lists that Chuq von Rospach runs, and he unsubscribed the person who submitted it from all the lists within minutes of seeing the message, since chain mail is an express violation of the charter of those lists.

What’s so wrong with chain mail that I’m ranting about it in this article? Why is it cause to be blackballed from mailing lists? Why, if you send it to me, will I give you one warning and after that report you to your postmaster with the recommendation that your account be revoked?

Have you ever played the game where you hypothetically place a penny on the lower left corner of a checkerboard, then double the number of pennies on each square, moving left to right and up each row? The second square contains two pennies, the third four, the fourth eight, the fifth sixteen, and so on. I say hypothetical game, because by the last square, you’ve amassed a vast fortune.

Chain mail has the potential to grow even more quickly. If one person starts a piece of chain mail, they’re unlikely to just send it to two other people, and each of those people (if they’re sufficiently gullible to forward it on at all) are also unlikely to limit themselves to just two other people each. Many of us have tens of people in our address books, and some people probably have over a hundred people to whom they could send such trash. My impression is that most of the chain mail messages I see have about 25 people in the header, and if that impression is both real and continued at every generation, you can see how chain mail could grow exponentially and significantly slow down delivery of all other mail, as the many mail servers on the Internet struggle to process millions of copies of the same message.

I’m sure there are technical solutions to the problem, and if it continues to get worse, someone will implement them, much as people invented cancelbots to cancel spam postings on Usenet. We shouldn’t let it get that far though, since chain mail is not a technical problem. It’s a societal problem, and by participating in it you allow someone else to exploit you for their purposes. Even worse, you help them exploit even more people, wasting more time, disk space, and money than before. It’s bad enough to be a victim, but it’s worse to become an accessory.

So, if you receive chain mail of any sort, don’t forward it on. Delete it immediately and break the chain before it has a chance to enslave others. I also always send back a short note (a piece of boilerplate text these days) telling the original sender what they’ve done wrong and asking them never to repeat the mistake. Perhaps we can put an end to chain mail by refusing to participate and by educating those who are either gullible or don’t yet see the error of their ways.

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