Sunday, December 03, 2006

The scourge of email forwards

What is it about email that turns off the critical thinking skills of people with college degrees who are generally capable of simple analysis?

If a friend told you that his friend told him that his friend told him that ... his friend told him that a virus was going to wipe out humanity tomorrow, you probably wouldn't go out in the street shouting “the end is near”. And yet, when such dire warnings come over email (although usually in the form of “beware the virus Tim that will cause your computer to explode into pixie dust”), they get passed on without question.

Perhaps, the forwarding tendency could be understood when email was a young technology for the general population. Then, the simple novelty of forwarding text to a hundred AOL accounts might have explained it. But, even over a decade later, when email is ubiquitous and there isn't an inbox that hasn't been hit by spam, some people can't stop forwarding. Some of the forwards from that bygone decade are still being passed around as breaking news. And, they're still being forwarded. After all, it says in it that it will happen “next Monday.”

And, now, here's where the small amount of thinking comes in. There's are search engines out there. One of the popular ones is called Google. It takes a few seconds to type a few key words from the email forward into this search engine, and a fraction of a second for the results to come back to you. It takes less than a minute to skim a few results to see if the claim is true. And, in that minute, you can spare your friends a bit of time, and a bit of anxiety over whatever the email forward is warning about.

As is, I've only received one email warning that had any semblance of truth to it. It was about one of the Windows worms (though I can't remember which one). Of course, it had the doomsday scenario written in it, and never bothered mentioning that it only affected Windows. The forwarder (and the original author) never considered that I might be using GNU/Linux or a Mac.

You can be part of the solution. Just take the anti-forwarding pledge:

I pledge not to forward email without first checking whether the claim is true.

Or, don't take the pledge. Forward this post to ten people. If you do, a Nigerian will contact you with information about how you can help a ruthless dictator launder a billion dollars. He promises to give you a cut.

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