Measured Extravagance

2000-12-20 - 8:49 p.m.

Chain letters make me cranky, especially when they prey on people’s fears – a/k/a "So-and-so threw this letter away instead of forwarding it, and in the following year they lost their job and their dog was killed and their children were afflicted with lice and boils, etc."

I saw a new variation of this in an online petition for MADD that I received last week, where anyone who chose to delete the petition instead of forwarding it was condemned for their "unbounded selfishness." I found this repellently rude – if you want intelligent people to support your cause, preemptively accusing them of Grinchiness and Scroogery is not the way to go. For me, this sort of thing brings on "compassion fatigue" faster than a mailbox full of unsolicited and unattractive "complimentary" address labels and bumper stickers. (I also drop anyone who attaches my husband’s name to my donations – it’s especially insulting when marketers for women’s groups do this – and, as I told one politician soliciting my support, you do not win my friendship by presuming upon it before it is established: you do not convince me of your ability to build social bridges by addressing my husband with a nickname he detests.)

The fact is that most Internet petitions should be deleted instead of forwarded. The original intentions may have been good, but the petitions themselves are ultimately misguided and ineffective and, at worst, a drain on the resources of the very cause they are attempting to help. The online MADD petition demonstrates all of these points. To quote from the MADD petition summary at Snopes:

...this petition is actually having a negative impact, because people who don't know what to do with it are bombarding MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) with it, clogging their e-mail and taking up the time of staff members who now have to spend time responding to it rather than helping drunk driving victims. People who truly want to help should visit MADD's How You Can Help page instead.

Whenever you receive forwarded mail, I strongly recommend vetting it at Snopes: chances are, it’s already been examined there and found wanting. The "Snopesmasters" tackle not only petitions but "too good to be true offers" and urban legends and "glurges" (what I call the "too inspirational to be true" variants of chain mail. I am not automatically opposed to sentimentality, but, to steal a line from Second City, some of the glurges are so saccharine that they would make a Care Bear puke).

So, the next time someone sends you the $250 cookie recipe, or the NEH petition, or incredible offers from Disney or Bed Bath and Beyond, I urge you to hit "reply all" and encourage everyone to seek out http://www.snopes.com. Pass on the gospel of healthy skepticism! There are effective ways to support good causes and to increase the quotient of laughter and goodwill in the universe – chain mail is not one of them. When you forward mail, choose your recipients carefully: I don’t mind forwarded mail when the sender specifically matched me to its contents. I do get peeved when the sender clearly mindlessly dumped it on everyone in hir address-book. And I feel quite mixed when the sender happens to be a friend I hear from only via mass-mailings – on the one hand, the impersonality frosts me. On the other hand, it’s like certain holiday cards – you hear from those friends but once a year, but as long as the cards come, you know that they are alive and well and that a thread – no matter how slender or faded - still connects your patch of the universe and theirs – and I am absurdly fond of webs.

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