Monday, May 20, 2013

The chain-mail conundrum

Forwarding e-mails (mostly received from others who have similarly forwarded them to us) is a favourite pastime of many. Some have, however, made it a full-time occupation. This piece is primarily about them.

Anyone accessing the internet sometime or the other would surely be aware that there exists an active industry churning out (and recycling) sob-stories, free offers, religious craps and the like, looking for victims in the cyberspace. The first variety is mostly of the ‘chicken soup for the soul’ brand. The stories are mushy, tell of some act of charity or bravery, preach some wonderful sermons (even the Pope could take a leaf out of them) which sound great when you read it for the first time, some lifestyle tips and so on. The basic idea is primarily to pull at the readers’ heart strings (the success of the ‘chicken soup...’ series of books will give you some idea of their universal appeal) and trap them into following the subsequent steps.
Then there is another variety. This says, ‘Forward to ten of your friends in five minutes and you will be the beneficiary of all the blessings of some god or the other, get a free Sony Ericsson high-end mobile phone (claiming that it was a marketing drive by Sony); forward to twenty in 5/10 minutes, and you get a S-Class Mercedes; forward it to forty in five minutes and your Swiss Bank numbered account will be credited with hundred million dollars (yes, USD!)’. And then they add the fear factor, full of threats and horrendous consequences. God (the same one, in all probability!) help you if you don’t do as told. The wrath of Satan will befall you…etc. etc. etc. Some of these e-mails follow up with supposedly real names of those who acted promptly and received unheard of rewards. They also give details of who got what and how much (there is no means to verify the information, but who is interested!). Such e-mails also tell you who got punished for not following the directives in such e-mails.
Some may even ask you to copy the message to a particular address every time you forward a message to twenty others. Obviously to keep track of all your good deeds and later send you the rewards for your troubles, or so you assume!
Whereas the first group play on people’s emotions, the second play on the primal instincts of fear and greed. Some who forward these e-mails want to spread good cheer. Others say to themselves, “It costs me nothing to forward it to 20 of my acquaintances. May be, it could benefit them too (of course, after first benefiting ME!)’’. A click of the mouse, and your mail box is deluged with these messages, day in and day out. The threat at the end of such e-mails, of course, plays its silent role in acting as a motivator.
There is another type of people who probably have nothing better to do. They forward to you YouTube links to items which they assume that you’d enjoy, find useful or informative, or something absolutely irrelevant (to you, but not to him). There are several I know of who keep forwarding messages, at the same time stating something like, “Got this from a friend on the net. No idea if it works. Nothing to lose by someone trying it out.” (Quoted verbatim from a message received on 12 September from a friend of mine based in London). The message was about removing gall stones! You’d have to have his head examined to find out why on earth this "friend" (who had no idea if I or any member of my family had gall stones!) found it necessary to send that message to me.
After I received one so-called e-mail about the Sony Ericsson promotion, I checked with Sony. They denied having ever floated such a promotion (I still have their e-mail with me). There was another about some hospital in Nebraska, USA where a teenaged boy was dying of cancer. The mail said that he had a message for everyone (another lengthy sob story). The hospital promptly denied ever having such a person as its patient.
Many must have forwarded mails they received with 5/10/15 minutes of opening their mail boxes, expecting a reward or to escape the threatened consequences. I wonder how many individuals that you PERSONALLY know that have received the promised windfall benefits. How many have been cast into Hell for not doing as directed? Incidentally, how does anyone actually count the ‘minutes’ (remember the threat, if you do not forward to so many individuals within so many minutes....etc.)? From the time it arrives in your mail box, from the time you open your mail, how? Who keeps track, anyway?
The question that begs an answer is this: If these ‘forward>forward>forward’ e-mails were actually meaningless pursuits or of no consequence, why were they being generated? What makes them go around the world so many times? To answer the second question first, it is nothing but greed, the lure of easy money, of something for nothing. The answer to the first question, and the more relevant one, is: Obviously, for someone’s benefit. For, every time you open your address book and forward these e-mails, you are revealing to the world personal details (e-mail is personal contact information) of someone else, giving a go-bye to the confidentiality or the convenience of the person concerned, acting without his knowledge and permission. The person who receives your bulk mail may know only you. He may not have the faintest idea who the others included in your copied/forwarded mail might happen to be.
But then, would he care in the least? Not at all! He would forward your mail anyway, once again. It takes just a click of the mouse and costs virtually nothing; what does he got to lose, any way? May be someone will benefit, he’d hope. Never mind if he does not agree to the content of the message. Greed and fear help him to overcome such minor distractions. Before forwarding, neither would he take the trouble to physically delete the e-mail addresses carried over from earlier (unknown) senders. So the length of message keeps growing, carrying over all the gory details from former posts.
Can you estimate even roughly how many e-mail addresses one such ‘forwarded’ e-mail may contain if each of us has sent to ten others; every one of those ten having sent it to another ten, and so on, one particular mail having passed through ten hands and multiplied on an exponential basis? If you try out your maths, the answer would stagger you.
A point that often goes unappreciated is the fact that every message that one sends, carries with it an electronic signature. The digital signature is not readily visible, but it is not a great secret and is easily accessible to anyone who wishes to have it for his use. The signature can help the receiver of a message trace the electronic path right back to the source and identify the origin of every message generated. Your location and identity remain confidential no more, thanks to someone else’s generosity.
The e-mail fraud (I would call it just that) is, thus, nothing but the cheapest and the most convenient method used to get hold of totally free, genuine, current and active e-mail addresses. Obtaining such databases would, otherwise, cost the earth.
Spams have unfortunately become a part of our life. We know that computer-generated e-mails are one of the many methods used to spawn spam mails. But the chances are that e-mails created by computer programmes may not be real or active. These attempts are mostly shots in the dark. Therefore, the hit rate is very low, and the results uncertain. On the other hand, the e-mail addresses that you and I help to generate so freely for their benefit, because of their very nature, are worth much, much more. These are, therefore, much sought after by the senders of spam mails and the faceless mail-marketing guys.
There is a third group of the ‘forward’ club that I have not talked about yet. They forward to their friends matters of special interest like jokes, management lessons and things they like to share. I have nothing against them as such. On the contrary, I have in my collection some gems I received from my very considerate friends who shared them with me.
These messages are not harmful because the sender does not insist that you forward these messages to ten or twenty others in ten minutes (or God help you...!). These have little or no nuisance value, since these e-mails are mostly one-to-one, or one-to-many, and are confined to a close circle. Most of the time they do not multiply exponentially, neither do they land in the hands of total outsiders as do the other mails, or pass on personal information to all and sundry.
However, a few words of caution may be in order here. Firstly, before you forward an item that you like to share with someone you know, do show some respect for his time and patience. Rather than simply clicking on the ‘forward’ button, take a little trouble to go through the body of the e-mail. Delete the portions that are irrelevant (like the preceding personal messages, or the large number of e-mail addresses). Clean up the message, retain only the section that you wish him to read, before you hit the ‘forward’ button. This will not only help the receiver to find the intended part quickly, but keep the length of the message to the minimum, thus reducing the overall load on the system.
Secondly, take a second to add a personal note to the person you are forwarding the message to. It is courteous to do so. More importantly, it tells the receiver that the message is not the carrier of any virus. Computer virus gets transmitted through auto-generated messages (mostly, but not always, as attachments) that sometimes carry a bland, impersonal text message on the body of the e-mail, thus: ‘Hi, you’d like this’, ‘something interesting for you’, ‘good one, have a look’, or ‘Hi, this is great, very interesting.’ Some of the computer viruses can hijack your address book without your knowledge and send off e-mails with bland messages as described above. If such mails are opened, the computers of your friends who receive them would get infected. The chain thus continues to grow.
As a matter of routine precaution, I delete all messages (including attachments) that do not carry a personal note addressed to me. On receipt of these impersonal messages, (if I don’t delete them immediately) I invariably enquire with the sender if he/she had actually sent me the message. Till date, 99% of these messages have turned out to be false, virus generated/affected, hence promptly deleted.
Finally, size matters (no pun intended). If the file size is large (say, containing several pictures, pushing up the file size to over 3 MB), do your friend a favour. Think twice before you send him such messages. Large files clog up the mail box, slow down the system horrendously, and act as great nuisance on a busy day, especially if the download takes ages and one is pressed for time.
Therefore, before you blindly hit the ‘forward’ button, take a few seconds to think about the implication of your action.
As I finished writing this piece, I received another ‘forwarded’ e-mail titled ‘Health tips - the joy of good sex’. It had some saucy pictures of an attractive couple in various suggestive poses and stages of undress. At the tail-end of the series of pictures and the narratives recounting the benefits of good sex, the message said (I quote exactly as received): “Do not keep this message, it must disappear from you mailbox in 96 hours. Send 10 copies and see what happens in 4 days. This message must go around the world. She will visit you 4 days after you have received this message, but only if you circulate it. If you do not, then you will never have good sexual relations again for the rest of your life. You will be celibate and your genital organs will rotten and fall off.”
Read carefully through the above quote, and you cannot miss the several fallacies in the message. Yet, I received it because someone did act on it, did actually forward it to me without giving a thought about how ridiculous the message, the promise and the threat were. He forwarded it without a thought about how ridiculous the sender himself may appear by doing so, since he had taken the time and the trouble to forward to others such an idiotic item, obviously looking forward to the promised visit or hoping to avoid the implied threat.
Of course, I have no intention whatsoever to forward the message to anyone, to circulate it futher. If you need a copy of the message, you would have to ask me specifically, before I delete it. You can also e-mail me direct if you want to know if I happen to remain in one piece after the 96-hour deadline [the deadline has passed as I write this article :-)].
Incidentally, ever wondered how one would react to the message (especially the bits about the promised visit by the curvaceous female pictured in the message, and about the threat of losing a male organ) if the recipient happened to be a female of the species!
Originally written on Sunday, July 30, 2006

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