Chain emails and Saint George

About this time each year for some reason, a certain friend of mine gets into a panic and passes on chain emails in renewed hope that she will come into money. Last year she sent everyone the It-Really-Works-Bill-Gates-Will-Pay-You-$275K email. A day later she apologized.

Does she recognize what all these chain emails are really about? Chain letters and Ponzi schemes in the cyber world take on an entirely different purpose than they used to have through snail-mail. And they succeed wildly. Chain emails circulate for large computers to map contact patterns and networks.

When you forward a chain email, its authors track whom you sent it to and how quickly. That’s why the email is launched in the first place, to chart enormous networks of who is in touch with whom. At the most superficial level, the process determines which email addresses are valid. To information traders the emails reveal social connections and hierarchies.

We’re not just talking about the pyramid schemes, we’re also talking about all those clever emails you get in the morning that apparently made one of your relatives smile. Where did you think those come from? Did you think some cherub with time on his hands, sitting at his kitchen window in Hawaii, composed a funny story addressing impish Americanisms which through myriad cyber degrees of separation found itself in your aunt’s incoming email? You’d be right. Except about the cherub’s clients who are watching the logs as their whimsical package bounces along.

Especially if the message involves embedded graphics. Server-side graphic files telegraph the whereabouts of an email in real time. Often graphic files are disguised as text. (MSN and Hotmail track all their email using embedded graphics that pretend to be text. Given that linked files require many times more computation power than does text, disguising the files AS TEXT would seem to concede that Microsoft knows we would not appreciate what they are doing.)

Don’t you wonder why at the end of each and every one of those clever emails, the funny sentiment is always followed by urgent instruction to send it on?

Do these authors think that they are just SO funny, you MUST pass their work on to everyone you know? Do you see this at the end of newspaper columns or comic strips? Do book authors end their novels by recommending that you tell all your friends to buy a copy or face three years of bad luck?

If an email asks to be sent on, and you want to, and must, here’s how to do it without contributing to the fortunes of direct marketers and spammers. Copy and paste just the text into a fresh email, then send it on. If there is a graphic, save it to disk and then attach it.

Or put it on the web. Here’s an email forwarded to me from my good friend Paulette. 🙂 It’s an old joke, presented this go-round as Saint George.

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