From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

October 31, 2006*: The friend of a friend of a friend of ...

We all have our own distinct peculiarities and among the many of my own, this column is perhaps the most fitting venue for the revealing confession that I devote much more time than is called for to reading the header messages of the e-mails I receive. What particularly interest me are the paths that mail that gets forwarded to me travels. It's not that I actually care who, besides me, receives one message or another, but reading these headers offers me a glimpse into the various inter-connecting communities that I inhabit.

Because, numerous times in the past, I've expressed my distaste for chain letters, a number of friends pass these on to me - not because they want to irritate me, but to offer me an opportunity to see what's new (or, as is more often the case, what's old, but once again making the rounds) among these, and then add them to my collection. Actually, I prefer to let others collect these. I collect Nigerian scam mail messages, which for quite a number of years now have been coming from numerous countries, and not just from Nigeria. It's not something I devote much effort to, but I save those that arrive in my inbox. This being the case, I'm sure I've missed many of these, as though it matters. I can recall that many years ago there was somebody who was kept busy collecting get-rich-quick chain letters. These seem to have ceased to be popular - or at least I haven't received any in a long time. Numerous lotteries still inform me that I've won one or another jackpot, though not only had I not entered these, I didn't even know of their existence. I trust that somebody is collecting these, or any number of other scams that today are only bothersome, but that someday may hold sociological interest to somebody working on a doctorate.

Am I the only person who reads these headers? There are times when it's painfully obvious that at least some people who perhaps should be doing so aren't. At least a couple of times I've received, within the span of a few minutes, the same message at least twice, one as a "legitimate" forwarding of the original mailing, and then because I'm on the mailing list of someone else forwarding that same letter. A quick glance at the list of those who received the original message would easily have shown multiple double recipients. Checking through the names on a list and removing those that are doubles before clicking on send, especially on a long list, can be quite time consuming. It's much easier to simply forward a message without bothering to check the list. Which is, I guess, why it happens so often.

If we care to look, occasional treasures can be found within these lists. The addresses of well known actors, politicians, academics and more are often scattered throughout these lists, but though nothing stops us from copying these addresses into our address books, there's not much benefit in doing so. After all, what would we write to these people, that we found their addresses on a forwarded piece of junk mail and thought that, well, since all I have to do is click in order to send you mail, maybe you ...? So though we may get excited by finding a name of this sort on the list, the novelty wears off rather quickly.

I have, however, occasionally benefited by scanning these lists. More than once I've stumbled upon an address which is slightly different from one in my address book, and I then realize (let's say because an "e" in a name on my list is an "i" in the same name on the one I've received) why mail to this particular person has continually bounced back to me, and I can then correct the address on my own list. And of course sometimes we find an address for what definitely seems to be an old friend with whom we've lost contact, and we tell ourselves "why not write her", and in this way reestablish contact after many years. Though we can't count on this happening, it's a rather serendipitous means of discovering "whatever happened to" someone whom we vaguely remember.

Numerous times I've received PowerPoint presentations about friendship, or something similar, with hints that if I really appreciate someone's friendship, I'll pass this presentation on to those others I care about. Personally, I'm of the opinion that breaking the chain is the sign of a more real friendship, though writing friends and telling them "you're my friend, and that's the reason I'm not sending you a PowerPoint presentation that I've recently received for the I-long-ago-lost-count time" is not only awkward, it's close to counter-productive. On the other hand, this doesn't mean that a "have you seen this?" isn't occasionally called for. Forwarding e-mail not only isn't evil, it's an inherent aspect of the tool. Still, it should be done sparingly, with an eye toward the proper fit between the mail being forwarded and the intended recipient, which only very rarely, if at all, should be a lengthy list of people.

And of course I have to admit that I've inadvertently done some mass mailing myself, a recent example of which was the impetus for this particular column. Actually, what happened was that I was in more than just a bit of a rush, and my hand clicked on "send" without my noticing that I'd placed the recipients list inside the "To" column, rather than in "Bcc". In this way I learned that there are at least a few others who read these lists. Two people called my attention to my mistake (of which I was already painfully much too aware) while one other person suggested, after scanning the list she was on, that I should add a couple of people whom she thought would appreciate getting the mail. Knowing I'm not alone in this somewhat innocuous vice is perhaps a bit comforting, and quite honestly, it doesn't really surprise me. It's a good guess that we're still in a rather vast minority. My experience, however, can at the least be the source of a bit of humility. I know what brought about my own slip of the mouse-click. It may well be that others forward mail in a similar fashion, regretting their click on send the moment the letter in queestion is out of their hands. If that's the case, having it happen to me might help me learn to be a bit more accepting of the faux pas committed by others.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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