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The Column

Breaking the Chain Mail
1/23/05

When I was in 8th grade, I thought both chain letters and the people who sent them were exceedingly annoying. Now that I'm older, I realize I was wrong. The letters aren't that bad.

Chain mail wouldn't do anyone any harm if no one sent it. Except maybe James Peterson, a man with an Anglo-Saxon name living in a non-specific location in Asia, who broke the chain in 1682. He was poked to death by his Aunt Bea.

Chain letters are where frivolity and superstition meet to form "frivostition," better known to the rest of the world as "my god, why do people keep sending these stupid things?" And that was before the world had email. Now it's only gotten worse.

Chain letters have no purpose. Chain letters take up space. Chain letters need to be stopped. Wow, I never realized how similar chain letters are to Regis Philbin.

I'm writing about chain letters now because I get several dozen every day. I understood why everyone sent them when the internet first became popular - there was a novelty in the newfound ability to annoy all your friends at once. But I've been online for the last ten years, and my god why do people keep sending these stupid things?

There are many types of chain letters. The most easily dismissed is the death letter. This is the letter that tells you a scary story and that you'll die unless you quickly send it to your friends, who then get the opportunity to face death, too. But I'm a better friend than that. If I had a choice between taking a bullet and wishing the same fate on 10 of my buddies, I'd take the bullet. Except if my buddies were people who sent chain letters. Then I'd let em have it.

There's also the scheme letter, like the one about Bill Gates tracking your email or the American Cancer Society donating three cents every time you forward it. Aside from the obvious point of ACS being the ones to ACCEPT donations, wouldn't something like that make the news if it were actually happening? What? Check if it's true before sending out a letter to several dozen people? Why would anyone do that?

The worst are the attempted heart-wrenching letters. These letters are supposed to be about something important, but are so childishly written that you end up getting more upset that your time was wasted reading it than at the actual story. Usually it's about a phony encounter in a night club or a made up DUI, or some sort of debilitating disease that doesn't really exist. These come in all forms, but usually involve a poorly rhyming poem with haphazard meter.

A recent letter that's been going around like this is the "ribbon" for the soldiers. That letter fits into this category for one main reason - the opening line physically threatens people who don't forward it. Your support for the troops is great, but isn't intimidating people into helping spread peace a bit ironic? And instead of writing a letter about the troops, why don't you write a letter TO the troops instead? Oh, because that would take time and effort. My fault.

There are two other strains of chain letters that have appeared more recently. One is the anti-chain letter chain letter, which is when someone hits "reply-to-all" with a message that contains a variation of "yo, stop sending me this crap." The other is the anti-chain letter chain letter apology chain letter, which is a bit more complex. After someone sends out a variation of "yo, stop sending me this crap," a few people who never sent chain mail will reply complaining that they did nothing wrong. So these people are smart enough to avoid sending chain mail, but not smart enough to know the difference between a personal reply and a form letter. The "yo, stop sending me this crap" guy then replies with another mass e-mail apologizing and explaining who they were talking to. In other words, the guy complaining about chain mail just sent out two more pieces of chain mail.

When I first started getting chain letters on the web, I sent ten copies of the letter back to whoever sent it to me. That prevented them from ever sending me another piece of chain mail. A mail bomb, sure, but no chain mail. I recommend you try that sometime. Sure, you'll have to deal with the impending loss of friendship, but do you really want to stay friends with someone who keeps sending you tweety birds? Just think of it as e-mail address book Darwinism.

I hope you enjoyed my take on these nuisances. Now send this column to 14 of your friends in the next eight seconds or Aunt Bea is coming to dinner.

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