Tuesday, May 1, 2007

On forwarded emails and common sense

I have an email address and so do you. And I get emails that I don’t particularly want. Everything from me having inherited some million dollars from some long lost aunt to offers that let me enlarge parts of the body that I don’t even have. But with improved spam blockers on the commercial email servers and my own departmental email server, most of these annoying emails don’t show up in my inbox and the few that do, I can delete easily enough with not needing to open it to figure out what it is. So this class of emails is not so annoying anymore.

At this stage, the only emails that I open before deleting are the emails from coworkers and friends. A portion of these emails are forwarded messages. Some of them are jokes or links to cute youtube videos and so on. Depending on how hectic life is when I receive such emails, I read the jokes or follow the links (a recent one I followed is this “Candy shop parody” by some desis) or just delete the email. Hence these emails are not in the annoying category yet.

The emails that fall strongly into the annoying category are the forwards that warn you about everything from spiders on toilet seats to burning aromatherapy candles to the possibility of suffocating in your own fart! You might say “why do they annoy you? If you are busy and you see “FWD:” in the subject line of an email just delete it!” But I find myself unable to do that, because I get these emails from people that are otherwise very smart and I respect them a lot. For example, the email that prompted me to write this rant came from this post doc friend of mine at IAS, Princeton, and he is one of the sharpest people I have met. I find myself unable to dismiss out right as nonsense things that people I respect send me. But I guess that is my fault, to assume that smart in one thing means smart in all things. I never learn.

In any case, what should a sensible person normally do before when one receives such an email? First use some common sense to weed out the absolutely absurd (like the last one in the examples earlier, we exhale way more CO2 than we fart) from the somewhat reasonable like the first two. Then you go to Hoax Slayer or Break the Chain or use the infinite resource that is Google to see how old this particular urban myth is and what is known about the claims. Then, you further apply your common sense if all this does not help you make up your mind. For example, suppose there was truth in the claim that you could die if you burn aromatherapy candles in an air conditioned room. The fragrance industry is a multi-million dollar enterprise in the US and companies get sued for anything and everything even if there is a semblance of truth and sure as hell the paranoia ridden media would have told you all about even the slightest health risk, perceived or established that you will never have to learn about it from a forwarded email from your grand aunt in India. So, you delete the email and don’t subject your friends to the effort of opening it and reading it.

Now suppose you are busy in life yourself and get such an email and don’t have the time to go through the process of making up your mind, but your first inclination is somewhat towards the claim. Then I think most people find compelled to pass on the warning, because of some kind of social responsibility they feel or something. But please! Spare me! If it is important I am sure to find out some other way. And if it is not, I don’t have to go through the exercise of deleting all but the most important mails in the morning, when I have woken up late because I was up late working and am running late for the first meeting of the day. Bottom line: email etiquette should require that you mark the subject of your forwarded emails as “junk”, “read at your leisure”, “just for fun” or in an unlikely scenario that I cannot even imagine right now “DON’T DELETE”.

No comments: