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Just Add Water

Online do-gooders should think, then (maybe) send


My partner and I recently donated money to help Turkey earthquake victims. I then e-mailed several friends, including the address of a relief group with no particular religious strings attached. I also wrote that I'd moved and included my new address and phone number.

A couple days later, I got my own unedited e-mail back: I was on a list of spam recipients for my own e-mail. A friend had turned my personal note into a chain e-mail that could be circulating the planet by now -- complete with my personal info.

Argh. Read my lips: You can't change the world by pressing "send." Worse, you can do harm.

But, but, isn't the Internet a great vehicle for spreading charitable messages? Wasn't I trying to do good with the original e-mail? Yes. But the proof is in the caveats.

We too often pass along dumb jokes, urban legends, petitions and anything that reeks of "good cause" indiscriminately to every e-mail address we've managed to pack into our mailing list. We shouldn't.

"Good causes don't justify bad techniques," says e-mail ethics expert Michael Covington, the former chairman of the Computer Security and Ethical Use Committee at the University of Georgia at Athens.

Covington says the Internet is making it far too easy to become an armchair activist, without expending any more energy, or thought, than just forwarding an e-mail to an indiscriminate mailing list. Forwarding e-mails is not a smart activist tool, he says.

"[It's n]ot a legitimate one, nor an effective one," he says. "It will annoy people without advancing its cause."

Think about it. The problems with this just-add-water activism go much deeper than the sheer stupidity of turning a note from a friend into a hard-to-stop chain e-mail.

How do you know it's true? Once my e-mail has mutated through a few rotations, has someone along the line substituted his name and PO Box for the Turkish relief address?

Or, how do you know an e-mail even advances a real cause? I got another copy of the infamous NPR-PBS petition last week. It says Nina Tottenberg said that day that congressional funding for public broadcasting is in trouble, and this petition should be signed by Oct. 1. Every 50th, 100th, 150th, etc., recipient is asked to send the petitions to two e-mail addresses at the University of Northern Colorado.

Yet, it's a legendary chain e-mail started by two former UNC students in 1995. And even if the petition actually meant something, the students were long reprimanded and have graduated: E-mails to their school e-mail addresses are returned.

A quick Internet search identifies this hoax. Or visit one of many chain e-mail sites to see if it's listed (most are hackneyed by now). Try the Department of Energy's chain/hoax e-mail site (

Don't be gullible or have your feelings hurt when you're corrected. It is incumbent on each of us to be part of the solution (we've all contributed to the problem at some point). Do not forward any well-meaning e-mail without checking its veracity. If it can't be proved, don't send it. (Remember the Microsoft-racist hoax and the Tommy Hilfiger-racist legend?)

But -- and this is a big one -- even if it is technically true, you should think twice about passing along a feel-good chain e-mail (and it's illegal if it solicits money). They clog cyberspace and cost the receiver in both time and money.

"Instead, seek publicity through legitimate means," Covington says. Build a specific mailing list only with people who ask for targeted types of mailings. Or post a Web site. Send out press releases. Send personal messages to specific people not for public broadcast. Tell your friends to follow the same rules.

If you aren't willing to take the time to do it right, you should give up the activist armchair; you're probably in it for the wrong reasons.

"Are you doing an act of charity because you really want to help somebody, or because you just want a warm, fuzzy feeling for yourself?" Covington asks.

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