The Iron Skeptic - Home The Iron Skeptic - Articles The Iron Skeptic - Feedback The Iron Skeptic - Contact The Iron Skeptic - Miscellany The Iron Skeptic - FAQ

Why I Hate Email

If you're a university student, and more specifically if you're a university student that reads the science and technology section of the school newspaper, it's probably safe to say that you've got a lot of strong feelings regarding computers. What kinds are best, what software you prefer and so on. And I'm not just talking about those pale guys with penguins on their pocky-stained t-shirts: those of us using good old fashioned capitalist operating systems feel strongly too. And that's why I hate e-mail.

On any given day, my mailbox contains any of three things: spam from Drexel, hate-mail from people that think crop circles are UFO landing pads, and people trying to scam money out of me. E-mail hoaxes have been around since at least 1988, when a fellow by the name of Mike Rochenle alerted his friends that using a 2400 baud modem could cause their hard-drives to explode.

There are two reasons that people send hoax e-mails: because they're assholes, or because they want money from you. Hoax e-mailers that fall into the first category might include in their e-mail the address of a person they don't like, to see that person gets swamped with angry mail. Or they may be doing it to perpetuate some sort of personal agenda, like that time all the hardcore Christian evangelists e-mailed everyone to tell them Osama Bin Laden was going to poison a bunch of Halloween candy. (It turns out they just didn't like Halloween.)

One time I got an e-mail telling me that paramedics wanted everyone to put an entry in their cellphone labeled ICE (in case of emergency) in case of a terrible car accident or something. I'm not sure why the people who started this hoax did it, but none of the paramedics I know would recommend following their directions. In fact, just to spite them both (the hoaxers and my paramedic friends) the entry under ICE in my phone calls the county morgue. Take that, internet.

The ones that are from people that want money from you are a little more devious. We've all heard of the Nigerian prince that needs help getting a fortune of gold bars out of his war-ravaged country, but even I was surprised when the IRS contacted me last week to let me know that I had "Five Hundred Dollers!" coming to me in tax refund. It looked pretty official, and had a link to a pretty official-looking site. There were three things that made me suspicious: the fact that simple words like "dollars" were occasionally misspelled, the fact that it claimed I was only getting $500 back in, for some reason, November, and the website that the e-mail sent me to. It looked very official, but when I went to the basic website, ( as opposed to, say, it was obvious I wasn't dealing with the IRS.

There are some good rules of thumb to remember when reading an e-mail. If it says you're going to somehow make money out of it, and it's not an e-mail you were expecting from your bookie or something, it's not real. Second, almost every single e-mail that claims to help some good cause is a hoax; there's no way that forwarding an e-mail to a hundred people is going to save the life of a poor little child with cancer.

Hoax e-mails are also easy to identify from the format: they start out with some sort of emotional hook, follow it up with a threat, and wrap it all together with some request. For instance, the subject line or first paragraph of the e-mail may describe the plight of some poor child suffering from some terrible disease, or may try and flatter you into thinking that you, and only you, can help the sender with some weighty problem of great importance.

Once they've got you hooked, either with some story that tugs on your heart-strings or some story that inflates your ego, they move in for the threat. You see, if you don't help the sender out, a bus full of puppies is going to catch fire, or the communists are going to take over some foreign city or something else terrible. This isn't just the "you'll get your nose caught on a helicopter rotor" stuff from the old paper chain letters.

It's the request part that's the problem. Anything you get requested to do in one of these e-mails is not going to be good for anyone except for the guy that sent it. They're going to ask you for money, for one reason or another, with promises of great rewards in the future. It never, ever happens. Or they're going to ask you to send the e-mail on to other people. That's the one that makes me angry; getting suckered out of some of your own money is one thing, but when you forward these ridiculous e-mails to everyone you know, that affects me personally.

Let's say every adult in the country gets one hoax e-mail a day and that it takes them one minute to download, read and dispose of that e-mail. If that person's job pays $25 an hour, that e-mail has just cost the economy $41 million. Can you think of all the good that could be done with $41,000,000? I can't: it's beyond my ability to comprehend.

It's not so much the money that worries me, though. Every time one of these e-mails gets sent it clogs up and slows down the internet, which has a direct affect on all of us, whether we're using the internet for looking up slow-cooker recipes or for looking at naked ladies. More importantly, it consumes electricity: These e-mails are being sent out, and forwarded, with such regularity that it's putting a non-trivial load on our power systems. That means that when you alert me that by not using AOL this Thursday I'll become a millionaire for some reason, more power gets used, and the more power that gets used, the more foreigners we have to kill.

If you're against the war, fine, end it by not sending around ridiculous hoax e-mails. If you're for the war, also don't send hoax e-mails, and you'll be able to get just a little more mileage on your SUV. Whatever you do, don't send this crap to me, and remember that when dealing with e-mail it is always best to err on the side of bitter cynicism.

Be seeing you.

First Published in The Triangle, 12 December 2005