Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Evil Wiles of the Chain Letter

My mother recently got a chain letter in her email, and was telling me how she hates it when people send them to her. Certain friends and family members are notorious for forwarding them us, and it really peeves us off, because they're a complete waste of our time. We simply delete them these days. Unfortunately, in many cases, you have to open the email before you can determine whether or not its a chain letter. And by the time you've opened it, you feel utterly compelled to finish reading it. It's like a hypnotic effect.

Once you've opened a chain letter, it's contents are like road kill: you have to look. You can't help it. You don't want to look, but you have to. Your brain screams, "It's not right! Turn the other way! Close your eyes!" But your eyes stare fixedly at it while your mouth drops open in horror and bile rises at the back of your throat. When you've finished reading it, you're left with that feeling that you just got ripped off, like you paid to see Saving Private Ryan and instead got something on the order of Killer Beach Bimbos from Outer Space.

Chain letters have even moved away from the email format and evolved into MySpace comments. (I haven't checked out sites like TagWorld or any of MySpace's competitors, so I can't really comment on that.) Fortunately, MySpace comments are easily ignored. You can just customize the page to not display them.

Now, chain letters pose a number of problems, as I see it:

  1. They waste the recipient's time. No one that I know likes to waste time reading them. I'd guess that those who do are also those who like to forward them, thereby propagating them and contributing to the misery of those who don't want to get them in the first place.

  2. They clog up mailboxes. Most users have a finite amount of space in their mailboxes. When your mail box runs out of space on the mail server, the mail server refuses to accept mail for you until you start clearing out your maibox. If your mailbox is full of spam, that tends to tick you off. No one wants to waste a limited amount of space on email that serves no purpose and that they'll just delete anyway. This is especially problematic if the chain letter includes images, audio, or video attachments.

  3. They tend to contain deeply nested attachments. Because they are forwarded so many times, and due to the way that many email programs forward emails, the message is forwarded as an attachment: its text is not included in the body. This forces the user to open the attachment in order to read the message, which is often a risky proposition these days, since many casual users either don't use virus software or don't keep it up to date. However, every time the message is forwarded, the message is sent as an attachment, with a new message wrapper. So the new recipients have one more layer to click through in order to get to the actual message. By the time it's been sent ten or twenty times, which happens quite frequently, the real message is so deeply embedded in nested attachments that it's a chore to reach it. This is a highly annoying aspect of these messages, and it wastes lots of time.

    The fact that the messages are included as message headers also bloats the size of the email itself. Instead of simply including the text of the body, and using a single mail header, the email is sent as a file attachment, with the complete email header plus the complete email header for the new email. Now if I send it again, I get to create an email that contains a new email header, plus a new file attachment that contains the email header and text for the email I received plus the original attachment. The file's just gotten much larger. When my recipient forwards the file, it will get larger again. This causes the chain letter's overall size when sent across the Internet to grow every time it is forwarded.

  4. They are propagated by exploiting human weakness. Chain letters aren't sent out by a mindless computer sitting in an air conditioned network operations center. Nor are they sent out by some hacker sitting in a dark room in his mom's basement somewhere. They are sent out by people who get them from their friends, and think they're cute, or touching, or emotionally stirring, and forward them on to their friends. They forward them on to the people that they think are most interested in them. And so, unlike spam, which dies when it hits a user's machine and (hopefully) goes to his or her recycle bin or junk email folder, the user keeps the chain letter alive by sharing it with his or her friends and coworkers. Further, the user sends it to multiple individuals, and those individuals do the same. So the chain letter is spread like a biological virus.

  5. They are nothing more than personal, selective spam. Don't believe me? defines spam as "unsolicited e-mail, often of a commercial nature, sent indiscriminately to multiple mailing lists, individuals, or newsgroups; junk e-mail." Now here, by "indiscriminately" we mean that the sender of a chain letter thinks that everyone wants to get the same chain letter that he or she did. "If I like it, certainly all of my friends and coworkers want to get it." So what does that mean, exactly?

    It means that the sender is distributing spam, knowingly and willingly, albeit naïvely. People have been sent to jail and fined for that because it's illegal in certain states. Why is it illegal? Because it annoys users, and wastes bandwidth and the recipients' resources. The biggest reason, however, is that it annoys users. This article shows that the vast majority of people want spam banned simply because it annoys them.

    By definition, spam is not required to be commercial in nature. That means that all those chain letters you get that promise you happiness, the good will of angels, good luck, blessings, prosperity, the love of your life within three days, your wish coming true, the prevention of bad luck, and on and on, are all spam. Most of us just haven't viewed chain letters in that light before.

And those are just the issues I can think of right off the top of my head.

While I'm at it, it isn't just novice users that get sucked into these emails. With address spoofing you can receive an email that looks perfectly legitimate, and you can start clicking on those attachments because it seems perfectly reasonable to do so. I've done it. My mom has done it. My coworkers have done it. You've typically already opened four or five layers before you realize what you've done and think to yourself, "What am I doing? This is obviously junk!"

So please, please, think before you send that next chain letter out. Those promises they make at the bottom of them are untrue. The threats they make are untrue. You control your own destiny, and no email is going to dictate it for you. Do you think that the destiny of the people that two whom you forward the email is going to be changed because you sent it to them?

You aren't helping anyone by forwarding these things. Point of fact, you're likely annoying more people than you're helping.

Do everyone a favor. When you receive a chain letter, delete it immediately. Then contact the person who sent it to you and politely ask them not to send them to you anymore.

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