Harley Hahn's
Internet Insecurity

Chapter 8...

Our Need to Communicate: Email, Chatting and Privacy

The Biological Urge to Communicate

There is a biological imperative within human beings that requires us to communicate. True, some of us like to talk more than others, and some of us need privacy more than others, but we all have a need — an inborn need — to connect to other people. It is a universal trait among normal, healthy people to desire a certain amount of congenial companionship. We need people with whom we can talk and interact.

Of course, we have all, at some time, wished for peace and quiet, and in our society, it is taken for granted that everyone needs some time to be alone. Actually, this is not the case with all societies, or even all people, which suggests that a temporary desire for isolation is more a learned behavior than anything else.

Human beings not only desire to be with other human beings; they need such contact. If you want to be happy, talking and interacting with other people is not optional. People without such companionship find it difficult to maintain their mental health. If you are ever forced to live completely alone, you will find that it will not be long before you become starved for someone to talk to.

Think of the extreme: what happens when you completely isolate a person, say, in a prison cell under solitary confinement? First he gets lonely, then nervous, and, eventually, crazy. Indeed, one of the quickest ways to travel from vibrant mental health to a full-blown case of despair is to become too isolated from one's fellow human beings.

Our need to communicate with others on a one-to-one basis is so strong that it manifests itself in many aspects of life, including how we choose to use our technology. In this chapter, we will take a deep look at the ways in which we communicate on the Internet, and ask why we act the way we do. As you will see, a number of customs and manners have arisen on the Net to govern our chatting, email and discussions. To make sense out of these customs, we must appreciate the biological principles that unconsciously direct our interactions.

To start, I am going to take you back to the olden days, the late 1960s, when there was, as yet, no Internet, no email, and no personal computers. In those days, computers were large, expensive, temperamental creatures that lived in glass houses — and we treated them with awe.

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Computing as a Social Activity

When I was a young lad, the word "computer" referred to what are now known as MAINFRAME COMPUTERS. These machines were so expensive, the only organizations that could afford one were large companies, universities and governments. Such computers consisted of many different parts, including large metal boxes, which had to be kept in a room in which the temperature and humidity were carefully controlled.

Most of the old computers were built by IBM, and were leased, not sold (IBM had a monopoly at the time). The most important computers were part of the IBM System/360 family. Because these machines cost so much, they had to be shared, often by hundreds or even thousands of people.

How expensive did computers used to be? When I was an undergraduate, a megabyte of memory cost $1,000,000 and was the size of several refrigerators (and that was in the days when $1,000,000 was a lot of money). Very few computers, however, had as much as a megabyte of memory.

Because a computer cost so much, it was common to house it in a large room with a great many windows. This was so that, when people walked by — especially visitors — they could look into the room, see the computer and be impressed. Such rooms were commonly referred to as GLASS HOUSES.

As a general rule, the only people who were allowed to go into the glass house and work with the computer directly were the OPERATORS. Most mainframe computers required one or more operators to always be there, to minister to the computer and to keep it running smoothly.

If you couldn't go into the computer room to work with the machine directly, how did you use a computer? In those days, programs were put onto punch cards, one line per card — that is, a 500-line program would take 500 cards. To run a program, you had to read the cards into the computer.

To create a program, you used a machine called a KEYPUNCH, which looked like a futuristic contraption from a 1940s science fiction movie, sort of like a typewriter on steroids. You put blank cards into the machine, and then typed your program, one line at a time. As you typed, one character at a time, the machine would punch holes in the card. Each character was represented by a particular combination of holes.

When you had punched all the cards, you were ready to run the program. To do so, you carried the cards over to a machine called a CARD READER. You would hand your cards to an operator, who would take them and put them in the card reader. The cards would be pulled through the machine very quickly, one card at a time. As each card passed through the machine, the holes would be sensed and the data on the card would be read into a temporary storage area of the computer. Once all the cards were read, your program would be put into an internal queue to wait its turn. Eventually, your program would be run by the computer. On many systems, you might have to wait a long time for your program to be run. For example, I have a friend who worked at UCLA during this time, and he remembers having to wait as long as a day to have his programs run.

In those days, the only type of output was printed paper. Once your program had run, the output would be printed on long continuous sheets of perforated "computer paper". Another operator, who worked at the printer, would process the paper as it came out, separating the output of one program from another. To see the results of your program, you would go to the printer room and retrieve your printout, a continuous, folded sheet of paper, often tens of pages long. You then took the printout to another room or an office where there were tables. You would lay the printout on a table and flip through, one page a time, looking at the output. If there was a mistake, you would go back to the keypunch, create a few new cards, use them to replace some of the old cards, and try again.

The reason I am describing this in detail is because I want you to appreciate that creating and running programs was a slow, time-consuming activity. However, it was also a social activity. People spent time with other people: they helped one another with their programs, and they chatted as they punched cards and waited for their output to arrive. In a very real way, using a computer gave you a feeling of being part of a group.

And it was a lot of fun.

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The Golden Age of Computing

As the technology improved, computing technology also improved, changing the social environment. Card readers and printers were replaced by TERMINALS, devices that allowed people to use a computer from a remote location.

Each terminal had a keyboard and an output device, and was connected to a computer. You could use a terminal to create and run programs; you would type on the keyboard and look at the output.

With the early terminals, the output was printed on a continuous roll of paper. The most common terminals were the IBM 2740 and IBM 2741, which resembled the old Selectric typewriters (the ones with small, round typeballs). Within a few years, CRT TERMINALS became available, in which the output was displayed on a built-in screen, like a TV screen. (The term CRT refers to the picture tube, a "cathode ray tube".)

Both types of terminals — paper output and screen output — were a great improvement over the old system of keypunch machines, card readers and large expensive printers. Instead of having to punch cards, store them in boxes, and take them to a card reader, you could create and run a program while sitting in front of a terminal.

Before long, rooms full of keypunch machines were replaced by rooms full of terminals. Although computing became a bit more isolated, there was still a sense of community. People would gather in a terminal room to work and to talk, and there was still a strong tradition of friendliness and helping one another. In those days, the best way to meet smart people was to hang out in a terminal room, a place where many friendships were born.

Because computers were still expensive, no one person had his own. Instead, a system called TIME-SHARING was developed to let many people use the same computer at the same time. With a time-sharing system, a number of terminals were connected to a single computer. The operating system — the master control program that ran the computer — was designed to be able to switch back and forth quickly from one task to another. In this way, a single computer was able to support tens, or even hundreds, of simultaneous users, while running programs in the background.

In the early 1970s, a time-sharing system called UNIX was developed at Bell Labs, an AT&T research department. Unix was unusual in that it was designed by very smart people to be used by other very smart people. Before long, Unix had become the most popular time-sharing system in the world, and was used at many universities and research organizations.

From the beginning, Unix was designed to embrace communication and sharing. This was different from the other early operating systems, which, for the most part, were designed for business. For example, the programmers who designed the IBM operating systems assumed that people would want to keep their information as private as possible, and since IBM controlled everything relating to their computers, no one outside of IBM was able to make significant changes to the operating system.

The programmers who created Unix thought differently. Unix programmers were used to working in environments where sharing tools and helping other people was the norm. For this reason, they designed Unix to encourage people to share their programs and data with other people.

Moreover, any Unix user was allowed to look at the actual programs that made up the various components of the operating system. This meant that anyone could then make changes and improvements, and share them with other Unix users. As a result, once a programmer had solved a problem, it was unnecessary for other programmers to waste time solving the same problem. This encouraged Unix people to work together to make their tools better and better, which was one reason why Unix was so popular.

Another reason was that Unix was fun. For example, every Unix system came with a variety of built-in games. This encouraged people to enjoy Unix, and to learn how it worked in order to write more games.

Most important, Unix encouraged people to communicate. By the early 1970s, Unix users were able to send email and talk to one another from their terminals. In addition, every Unix system was designed to connect to other Unix systems. Long before the Internet was developed, many computers around the United States and in Europe were connected to one another via a special Unix-based network called UUCP. Compared to today's Internet, UUCP was slow and awkward, but it did encourage the free flow of information and data. Within a few years, academics and researchers all over the world were using Unix to send email, to share files, and to work together.

Every Unix system had a built-in online manual, and people were expected to use it to teach themselves the basics. However, learning the nuances, including advanced skills and programming techniques, was something that people taught one another informally. If you have only a PC or a Macintosh, it may be hard to believe, but there was a time when learning how to use a computer and how to write programs was something that people taught to one another in person. Although many Unix books came to be published (I myself wrote several), Unix, for the most part, was passed on from one person to another as an oral tradition. In this way, using a computer was as much a social activity as it was an intellectual activity.

Thus, it came to happen that, by the mid 1970s, twenty years before the Internet became popular, a great many smart people around the world were using Unix, a computer system that encouraged talking, working together and sharing with other smart people. Most of these people were researchers and students. They used computers because they loved the work, and because computers helped them solve problems that, to them, were fascinating.

In the introduction to this book, I discussed the idea of a Golden Age: a time when a particular type of technology is new, when the people who use that technology are still "innocent", and when there is a short-lived but significant outpouring of creativity. I talked about how, at one time, there was a Golden Age of the Internet.

Well, long before the Golden Age of the Internet, there was a Golden Age of Computing. It was centered upon the Unix community, and it gave rise to an amazing amount of invention and discovery, and shaped the culture of programming for years to come.

During this time, many computer users enjoyed a large amount of person-to-person contact. It was the first — and only — time in history when people could spend large amounts of time using a computer and still meet their basic biological need of being able to connect to other people in person. In those days, using a computer was, in large part, a social experience, not nearly as isolating as it is today.

Unfortunately, the Golden Age of Computing lasted less than a decade. The seeds for its demise were planted at the beginning of the 1980s, when a new technology unexpectedly burst forth. Within a short time, the world of computing had become addicted to this new technology, one that would change our culture irrevocably.

The new technology was a blessing because it gave people around the world access to computing power that the programmers of the 1970s could only dream of. It was also, however, a curse, because it separated computer users from one another, creating an uncomfortable sense of isolation that persists to this very day and is unlikely to go away.

Like all revolutions, this one started quietly. On September 6, 1980, while most of the programmers and computer users around the world were firmly entrenched in the technology of the 1970s, three people at IBM had a meeting. At that meeting, the leader of a small task force showed two IBM executives a small box. The executives looked at the box, liked what they saw, and made a decision that would change the world permanently.

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The Personal Computer

As the 1970s ended, the dominant computers were still the large, expensive IBM mainframes. To be sure, a smaller type of computer, called the MINICOMPUTER, had been developed and was used widely. In fact, Unix, the operating system I mentioned in the last section, ran on minicomputers. Despite their name, however, minicomputers were still (by today's standards) large, expensive and difficult to maintain. The prefix "mini" simply meant they were small compared to mainframes.

By 1980, a few companies had started to make MICROCOMPUTERS, smaller machines that were suitable for a single person. The two most popular microcomputers were the Apple II from Apple, and the Tandy TRS-80 from Radio Shack. These computers, however, were mainly used by hobbyists and had a limited audience.

At the time, IBM had a few small computers: the System/23 Datamaster (for business), the Displaywriter (a standalone word processor), and the IBM 5100 and 5110 (for programmers). Because sales of these machines were limited, they were seen as dead-ends that served a niche market.

A few people within IBM, however, looked at the new technology and started to wonder if maybe the company should develop a brand new microcomputer for the business market. The conventional wisdom was against such an undertaking. After all, the big money was still in mainframes and minicomputers. What would anyone ever do with a small computer that wasn't powerful enough to run standard IBM business software?

In May of 1980, the top two IBM executives, the chairman Frank Cary and the president John Opel, considered the matter and decided that such a computer might be a minor, but valuable, addition to IBM's product line. They established a task force consisting of eight engineers and five marketing people to look into the matter.

This task force, which came to be known as the Group of Thirteen, started work in July 1980. On September 6, 1980, Bill Lowe, the head of the Group of Thirteen, met with Cary and Opel and demonstrated a working prototype. It had no formal operating system, and it used the same processor as the System/23. However, Cary and Lowe liked what they saw and signed off on a project to design a brand new machine, the "IBM Personal Computer". It was thought that, perhaps, if the machine did extremely well, it might sell in the hundreds of thousands. In 1980, however, this was considered small potatoes at IBM.

On August 12, 1981, IBM formally announced the Personal Computer. Within a few years, the IBM PC, as it came to be known, had revolutionized the computing industry. For the first time, small businesses could afford to own their own computer. By the middle of the decade, PCs — which were now made by other companies beside IBM — were used widely in businesses, and by the early 1990s, they were common in homes.

There is no doubt whatsoever that the PC contributed significantly to the economy of the world. However, the enormous economic growth unleashed by the new, inexpensive, ubiquitous computers came at a price. That price was social isolation.

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The Reason for Networks

As I am sure you know, using computers can be a time-consuming activity. Just sit down at the keyboard and, before you know it, hours have passed. If you have ever waited for someone using a computer to come down to dinner, I am sure you are familiar with the plaintive refrain, "I'll be there in a minute. I'm almost finished." And you wait, and wait, and wait...

Before the 1980s, some people did spend a lot of time with computers but, as I have described, they did so in a social environment. They may have ignored their spouses and children but at least they were in the company of friends. Once people started to use PCs, however, computer time turned into alone time and people around the world began to spend countless hours in isolation.

As I explained at the beginning of the chapter, human beings have a biological urge to communicate. If we are to be mentally healthy, we must spend a significant amount of time interacting with other people in person. Some people, of course, are more social than others, but I have yet to meet any normal person who didn't need at least some time in the company of other people in order to be happy.

This need is so strong as to color our lives a lot more than most of us realize. Let me give you a subtle but important example.

In the olden days, when you used a terminal, you were sharing the computer with other people. This meant that the speed at which the computer would respond to your commands depended on how many people were currently logged in to the system. When a lot of people were logged in, the computer would slow down. When very few people were using the machine — say, in the middle of the night — it would respond a lot faster, and you could feel it. This led to an interesting phenomenon. As you used the terminal, you felt connected to other people. Even if you were working by yourself, all alone in an office, you knew you were part of a larger system that involved other people.

All of this changed when people started to use PCs. For the first time in history, it was possible for an ordinary person to have his own computer. This was good because it meant that people didn't have to wait for a terminal. They also didn't have to wait for a busy computer to get around to running their programs. A personal computer was dedicated to the person who was using it, no matter when he chose to work.

As a matter of economics, PCs were efficient and cost effective. However, when it came to meeting our social needs, the computers that were supposed to be personal were, in fact, dispiriting and impersonal. Using a PC might be convenient, but it was lonely. Not only did you work alone with no one to talk to while you waited (because there was nothing to wait for), but there was absolutely no feeling of being connected to other people or to something larger than yourself.

As strange as it seems, PCs were too efficient, which meant they were too cost effective to ignore. We had to use them, because mainframes and time-sharing systems cost too much and were too hard to manage.

As a result, by the mid-1980s, a great many people were spending a lot of time in the company of impersonal, disconnected machines. So what did we do? We began to connect them.

Computer networks had been around for some time, but it was only in the mid-1980s that the technology became available to connect PCs. Networks, of course, cost money and I remember, at the time, hearing people justify such expenditures. The argument was that putting in a network would allow users to share resources, such as expensive printers or file servers (computers with large, fast disks).

At the time, the arguments didn't make a lot of sense to me, and it is only now as I look back that I realize the real reason people worked so hard to connect their computers. It was because they were isolated and they wanted to feel connected. This was long before the Internet became popular. The technology wasn't nearly as good as it is now and networks were expensive and temperamental, but that didn't stop people from wanting them.

Even then, there was a big difference between working on an isolated computer and working on a computer that was part of a network. You felt connected, a feeling that was a lot more important than most people understood.

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Is the Net Enough?

Whenever you have an undeniable need that is not met, you will do whatever is necessary to meet that need. For example, if you are hungry, you will find food. If you are cold, you will look for warmth. If you need intellectual stimulation, you will read one of my books.

The same goes for your need to communicate with other people. Using a computer is an isolating experience, and if you feel too isolated for too long, you will do whatever you can to establish satisfying communication with other people.

In this context, I would like to raise the question, how good is the Internet at satisfying our need to communicate with other people? Can the communication facilities on the Net balance the large number of hours we spend alone in front of our computer screens? Can meeting people on the Net fill the gaps in an inadequate social life?

The Internet does not provide the type of social connections human beings need to thrive.

The Internet is a very powerful system that connects millions of people around the world. It allows us to send email, chat, participate in discussions, read Web pages created by other people, and create our own Web pages for other people to look at. In spite of these extraordinary communication facilities — unparalleled in the history of mankind — it is my contention that the Internet does not, and never will, provide the type of social connections human beings need to thrive. Moreover, I maintain that much of the awkward and irritating behavior that people demonstrate on the Net can be explained by the fact that they are fruitlessly looking for a social outlet that the Net cannot provide.

To understand why this is the case, let's start by observing that the specific need that I am describing is part of our nature. Like our other basic characteristics, this need developed over hundreds of thousands of years as modern man evolved from his ancestors. Throughout this time, there was no such thing as communication at a distance. If two people wanted to communicate, they had to do so in person. In evolutionary terms, modern communication facilities — email, television, radio, telegraphs, postal mail, newspapers and books — are recent inventions, far too new to have any effect on shaping our basic nature.

If you examine the quality of talking in person, it's easy to see that it is a much richer experience than anything that can happen on the Internet. When you communicate on the Net, all you can see is words. When you talk in person you get much more. You not only hear the words, you see the other person: his appearance, his body language, his gestures. You also hear the nuances of his voice: the tone, the volume, the rhythm. Moreover, you experience the environment: the location, the temperature, the ambient noise, and the presence or absence of other people. Once you begin to think in this way, it is easy to see why communicating over the Net is never going to meet our biological needs. There is just too much missing.

If we are to be mentally healthy, we need to talk to our friends and we need to do it in person. This is why, no matter how hard you try, you will never satisfy your deep need to communicate on the Internet.

On the Internet, most of the cues we depend upon to form judgments about other people are missing. This tricks us into feeling comfortable with other people more quickly and more deeply than we do in person. Moreover, the lack of physical presence creates a general feeling of security. After all, if you are sitting at home, alone in your pajamas, chatting with people in various places around the world, the worst that can happen to you is you might fall off your chair. Compare that to what might happen if you were to talk in person with a group of strangers, none of whom know each other.

Aside from comfort and safety, there is another important idea to consider. When we communicate on the Net, it is not possible to use our normal strategies for evaluating other people. For example, when you talk to someone in a Web chat room, you can't see that person's facial expressions. However, you also can't see the color of his or her skin. In fact, you don't even know for sure whether the person is a male or female.

Similarly, when you read an article someone has posted to a discussion group, it is true that you have no idea of what body language the person might use if he were to explain his ideas to you in person. However, you also can't see if he is short or tall, skinny or fat, attractive or plain.

For this reason, Internet communications tend to be free of so many of the prejudices that plague us in person. In this sense, the Internet is a pure communication medium, a meritocracy in which people are much less judgmental and prejudiced than normal. When all you can see is a person's words, all you have to judge him by are his ideas. This is why, from the very beginning, the Internet has always been able to bring out the best in people.

For over twenty years, scientists around the world have been using the Net to collaborate, to share information, and to solve problems collectively. As anyone who has ever worked in a university can tell you, these same scientists, in person, will often spend a significant amount of time pandering to their pride and competitiveness, and posturing like immature children. On the Net, they almost always get along and help one another.

The same thing is true in social interactions. Imagine a group of people talking in a Web chat room and one person asks for help. For example, a teenager might say, "Is there anyone here who understands algebra who might help me with a homework problem?" In such a situation, people are likely to respond kindly and generously. Imagine what response the teenager would get if he were to make the same request in person to a group of strangers on a bus.

The Net is important because, for the first time in history, it allows us to communicate with a great many other people in a way that encourages tolerance, friendliness and sharing. At the same time, however, the environment is devoid of the personal touches that mean so much to us. That is why, when it comes to communication, we must ask the question: "Is the Net enough?"

As I have explained — and as I am sure you know from your own life — personal computers have commandeered a large part of our time, forcing us to spend countless hours working in isolation in a way that is contrary to our basic nature. For this reason, if you use a computer long enough, you will become restless and dissatisfied.

In this sense, then, the Net, as a communication facility, is not enough and it never will be.

However, when it comes to allowing human beings to cooperate and share with one another, the Internet is wonderful. By providing an environment in which people can communicate and share without fear and prejudice, the Net has become mankind's greatest invention.

At the beginning of this section, I observed that if you feel too isolated for too long, you will have a strong desire to do something to establish a connection with other people. However, your actions will only feel satisfying and useful if they solve the real problem.

If we are to use the Net wisely and responsively, we must understand and respect our desires, and we must learn how to temper our needs, to connect with other people, with our obligations to be good citizens of the Net.

This is why, when someone emails you an inspirational essay explaining how angels touch our lives, or sends you a chain-letter detailing a sure-fire way to make a lot of money without working, it is not necessarily a good idea to immediately forward the message to a hundred of your closest friends. In such cases, the smart thing to do is to take a moment to think about why, on the Net, we are the way we are.

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Sharing by Email

At an early age, we are all taught to share. "If you want to eat pickled eggs in class," I remember my anatomy teacher telling me in medical school, "you must bring enough for everyone."

He had a point. Sharing is more than just good manners. When we share something that we enjoy, it enhances our pleasure. Going to a movie, watching a sunset, enjoying a fine meal — the simple pleasures of life are more fun when you share them with a good friend. Even pickled eggs, as I am sure you know, taste better when everyone has one.

So why is it a bad idea to email essays, jokes, political statements, and other interesting diversions to all our friends on the Internet? Surely it is not wrong to want to give our friends a chance to enjoy the ideas, humor and opinions we find so entertaining and inspiring. After all, if someone doesn't want to read a message, all he has to do is delete it.

It's not that sharing per se is troublesome. Sharing, as a general idea, is good and, as I explained in the last section, sharing on the Internet is especially important. What is more important, however, is to recognize that people's email boxes are not public receptacles. When someone gives you an email address, he or she expects you to use it with discretion, the same as you would do with a phone number or street address.

Consider this example. Let us suppose that, tomorrow morning, as you read your newspaper over breakfast, you find the Miss Manners column particularly interesting. Miss Manners is discussing the idea that one should never act as if one is expecting a gift. This means, for example, that your daughter is not allowed to announce to her wedding guests that, instead of buying her a bunch of impractical whatnots, it would make a whole lot more sense if they were to just give her the money.

Miss Manners, of course, is a fountain of sound advice, and as you read the column you can't help but ask yourself, wouldn't it be lovely to show this to all of my friends and acquaintances? The thought is indeed lovely, but would you consider sending a copy of the column to everyone you know? Would you, for example, make 100 copies of the newspaper column, and slip one under the front door of all your friends and acquaintances?

Of course not. Although there's nothing illegal about distributing interesting missives to the world at large, you would know, instinctively, that sending impersonal, unsolicited correspondence to your friends stretches the bounds of good behavior. The fact that the recipient can easily throw out the piece of paper changes nothing. Polite people just don't do it.

Well, it's the same on the Net. Just because email makes it easy to forward the latest piece of something-or-other to everyone you know doesn't mean you should do so.

Some people are incorrigible forwarders. Once you get on their list, you can count on being subjected to a never-ending series of bad jokes, motivational articles, false virus warnings, silly pictures, political diatribes, spiritual warnings, and fast ways to make money without working.

What makes it worse is that such people never take the time to edit out the extraneous junk from the countless messages they pass on to the world at large. For example, such people will carelessly include all the technical information (the mail headers) from all the previous times that the message has been forwarded. This means you get the treat of looking at the email addresses of the 200 other people who have been sent the same message.

Moreover, such people will also include your email address (which you may wish to keep private) in a list with everyone else's address, effectively broadcasting this information to a cast of thousands. (Remember, many of the recipients will also forward the same message without cleaning up the junk.)

This type of behavior seems to be especially common among AOL users, perhaps because they live their online lives within an artificial environment. Many AOL people have little knowledge about how the Net really works. As a result, such people truly do not understand how they are expected to behave on the Net. (To be fair, I must admit that AOL email tools are poor, and they do not make it easy to edit a forwarded message even if you want to.)

The important question is, why do such people feel such a strong urge to forward messages to everyone they know?

People who love to forward messages do so for the same reason that some people send out long, boring, inappropriate Christmas newsletters. They are merely exercising their need to connect to other people. Although such people mean well, they don't stop to consider whether or not all their recipients really want to receive all this junk.

I call it junk, fully aware that one person's junk is often another person's treasure (which is why so many people manage to get remarried after divorce). Still, email is different from postal mail. As you know, many people use email for business as well as social communication. As a result, a great many people have far more email than they can handle.

I know people who, literally, don't have enough time to even read, let alone answer, all the email they receive. This is one of the reasons why busy people dislike spam (unsolicited advertising). The all too common argument, that if one doesn't want to read the message, one can just delete it, is merely self-serving and inconsiderate. The perpetually overflowing mailbox is one of the banes of modern existence.

Moreover, some people feel that they must respond, at least briefly, to any act of kindness. To such people, any email message from a friend creates an obligation to reply. ("Madeleine, thanks ever so much for passing along the warning that a new computer virus can wipe out my hard disk if I turn on the lamp while I am reading my mail. The network administrator here at the office tells me that the warning is a hoax, but I do so appreciate your thinking of me.") Such people, it is fair to assume, do not need any more unnecessary social obligations.

Aside from inconvenience, we should consider the value of what we send to people. Just because you or I may feel that something is funny — or interesting or important or pithy — does not mean that every one of our acquaintances, especially those we don't know in person, will feel the same way. In fact, the older I get, the more astonished I am at how few people share my idea of what is funny, interesting, important and pithy.

When it comes to email, the personal touch is most important. Suppose you see an article on a Web site that you just know your Aunt Rose will appreciate (she always was a sucker for Germanic theatre). You copy the article to your email program, carefully delete all the junk, and send it with a short note explaining that you remember her talking about Brecht's play Trommeln in der Nacht.

This is a personal message that is sure to be appreciated. Your aunt will be touched by your remembering her, and by the trouble you went to in order to send her something you knew she would like. Compare this to how she will feel if she opens a message addressed to her and 100 other people containing a selection of low-quality blond jokes.

Since it is easy to see that such messages are not personal, why do so many people forward them?

The obvious answer is that the sender thinks the recipients will want to read the message. To some extent, this may be true, but it is not the real reason. The real reason people forward impersonal messages is that doing so gives people the feeling that they are reinforcing social connections.

Unfortunately, forwarding email is a poor way to make new friends and to stay in touch with old ones. Most of the time, sending impersonal messages will only serve to annoy, irritate, or bore our loved ones.

The best way for us to maintain friendships is to make the effort to visit our friends in person and to write them real letters on paper. (Yes, I know you are busy. Everyone is busy.) Failing that, a friendly phone call is a much better way to show someone that he or she is in your thoughts than is sending them a list of "10 Ways In Which Beer Is Better Than Women".

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How to Share by Email

Having just told you not to forward impersonal email, I will now explain how to do it in as polite a manner as possible. After all, the urge to forward an interesting message is a strong one: even the best of us succumb to temptation now and again.

Being polite is simple. All you have to do is follow three simple rules.

1. Clean up the junk.

Before you send the message, take a moment to delete all the junk. This includes all the old addresses, as well as any spurious indentations and "<" characters. Cleaning up the junk will make it easy for your recipients to read and understand the message. It will also preserve the privacy of all the people whose email addresses would otherwise be forwarded to new recipients.

If your mail program does not let you edit messages adequately, copy the message to a file and edit it with Notepad or Wordpad. (I'll show you how to copy a message in a moment.)

Notepad and Wordpad are programs that allow you to create and change plain-text documents. Such programs are called TEXT EDITORS. Both Notepad and Wordpad are included free with Windows. The main difference is that Wordpad is designed to handle larger files. To start these programs, click on the Start button. Then select Programs and look in the Accessories folder.

If you like to use computer tools, you will probably find Notepad and Wordpad to be too basic. If so, it is worth your time to learn how to use a more powerful text editor. There are many choices. Two that I recommend are Textpad and Ultraedit.

Once you master a good text editor, you will find it to be a very useful tool and a lot more comfortable to use than a word processor. (For example, I used Textpad to write this book.) Here are the addresses of the Web sites where you can find these programs:

To copy a message from your mail program to your text editor, select the lines you want to include and press Ctrl-C. This copies those lines to the Windows CLIPBOARD, an invisible short-term storage area. To paste the selection from the clipboard into a file, open your text editor, create a new file, and then press Ctrl-V.

Once you have finished editing your message, you can use Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V to copy it from your text editor back to your mail program.

2. Choose your recipients thoughtfully.

It's inconceivable that a particular message would be of interest to everyone you know, even if it contains a computer virus warning, important religious information, or a plea to solve a terrible political problem. Send your message only to those who you think will enjoy it. Don't preach to people and don't scare people (as much as you think they may need it).

If someone asks you to take him off your mailing list, please honor the request gracefully. Some people will continue forwarding messages even after they are asked to stop. If you know one of these people, buy him or her a copy of this book. If that doesn't work, try a large polo mallet.

3. Put the list of recipients in the Bcc: line, not the To: line.

When you create or forward a message for mass mailing, don't put a long list of addresses in the To: line. Use the Bcc: line instead. This will send what are called "blind copies" and ensure the privacy of your recipients.

Actually, the idea of blind copies is so important, I would like to take the time to talk about it in detail.

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Emailing Blind Copies

A mail message consists of several parts: the header, the body and (optionally) one or more attachments.

The HEADER, which comes at the beginning of the message, contains technical information, such as the address, the subject, the date, and so on. We'll talk about headers in a moment. The BODY, which follows the header, is the text of the actual message. An ATTACHMENT is a separate file, such as a picture, that is sent along with the message. (We'll talk more about attachments in Chapter 10.)

The header of a message consists of various HEADER LINES, each of which contains specific information. Most of the header lines contain technical information for the mail program to use internally, and you can ignore them. However, there are six header lines I want you to understand.

The following example shows a header that contains all six of these lines. When you read a message, your email program may not show you the header lines in this format. In fact, some programs hide these lines completely unless you ask to display them. Still, they are always there, at the beginning of a message, so you should know that they exist.

From: George W. Bush <president@whitehouse.gov>
To: Harley Hahn <hhahn@the-little-nipper.com>
Date: Fri, 19 Apr 2001 15:42:01 -0400
Subject: I need your advice
Cc: Pope <holy-father@vatican.va>,
       Queen Elizabeth <queen@royal.gov.uk>
Bcc: Barbara Bush <mom@george-bush-family.com>

(I had to break the Cc: line into two parts to fit it on the page, but it is really one long line.)

The first four header lines are straightforward. The From: line shows the name and email address of the person who sent the message. The To: shows the name and email address of the recipient. The Date: line shows the time and date that the message was sent. The Subject: line shows the subject of the message (as typed by the person who sent the message).

The To: line can contain more than one address. If so, a copy of the message will be sent to each address. Thus, to send a message to, say, four people, you can put all four addresses in the To: line, separated by commas.

Alternatively, you can send copies by specifying addresses on the Cc: line. The effect is the same as putting the names in the To: line. Each person gets a copy of the message, and each person sees the names of the other people who received copies. The difference between using the To: line and the Cc: line is mostly psychological. For example, some people use the Cc: line to indicate that a copy of the message is being sent for information only, and the recipient is not expected to act upon the message in any way. (Take a look at the example above.) In addition, when you reply to a message, the reply will only go to the people in the To:, unless you specify that you also want to send it to the people in the Cc: line.

The final header line, the Bcc: line, is the one I want to make sure you understand. When you put someone's address on this line, he gets what is called a BLIND COPY. This means that no one else knows that this person was sent a copy of the message. For instance, in the example above, neither the Pope, Queen Elizabeth or I have any way of knowing that a copy of the message was sent to Barbara Bush.

If you examine the header of an incoming message, you will not see a Bcc: line, so you have no idea if anyone else got a copy of the same message. This is good to remember when working in a company in which corporate politics is important. For example, if you get a message asking your opinion of your boss, you can't necessarily assume that your boss didn't get a blind copy of the same message.

The reason I want you to understand how the Bcc: line works is that you can use it to hide people's addresses when you send a mass mailing. Instead of putting all the addresses in the To: or Cc: lines, put them in the Bcc: line. That way, no one will know who received copies. This not only keeps everyone's email address private, it makes your message look more personal because, at the other end, the recipient will not see a long list of names and addresses.

Here is an example:

From: Harley Hahn
Date: Fri, 19 Apr 2001 22:54:01 -0400
Subject: All about my cat
Bcc: Pope , Queen Elizabeth , George W. Bush

Here is a cute story about my cat,
The Little Nipper..."

In this example, three people will receive copies of this message. However, none of them will know that anyone else got a copy.

Notice that I did not put an address on the To: line. With some mail programs, this will work as long as you have one or more addresses on the Bcc: line. For example, with Eudora, if the To: line is empty, but you have specified addresses on the Bcc: line, Eudora will create a dummy To: line for you that looks like this:

To: (Recipient list suppressed)

If your mail program will not accept an empty To: line, use your own address on the To: line and everyone else's address on the Bcc: line. For example:

From: Harley Hahn <hhahn@the-little-nipper.com>
To: Harley Hahn <hhahn@the-little-nipper.com>
Date: Fri, 19 Apr 2001 22:54:01 -0400
Subject: All about my cat
Bcc: Pope <holy-father@vatican.va>,
       Queen Elizabeth <queen@royal.gov.uk>,
       George W. Bush <president@whitehouse.gov>

Here is a cute story about my cat,
The Little Nipper..."

Now that you know how to use the Bcc: line, please make sure that you never send out a mass mailing in which all the addresses are shown to the recipients.

Hint: If you are bored, you can always foment intrigue and dissension among your friends and co-workers by sending blind copies of provocative messages to carefully selected people.

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Embarrassment and Distress: A True Story

Maxine was a level-headed woman with good friends, a better-than-average boyfriend, and a pleasant disposition. People who knew Maxine considered her to be a sensible person with good judgment — a successful, up and coming woman, admired by everyone.

For her first thirty-six years, Maxine's life was uniformly smooth. She grew up in a large mid-Western city with a loving family and more than her share of pleasant memories. After college, Maxine moved to the West Coast where she established a career as an independent assistant director working on various feature films. Maxine was satisfied, happy and grateful to have such a good life.

What Maxine didn't know was that Fate was waiting around the corner, standing patiently with the iron hand in the velvet glove.

It was a lovely spring day when Maxine awoke to the typical sounds of a Southern California morning. Outside her window she could hear the rustle of jasmine leaves, swaying in the warm Southern California breeze and the soft chirping of brightly colored Southern California early birds gathering worms.

Maxine had a lot to do that day, including an important interview for a new job, but she decided to take a minute to turn on her computer and check her mail. As the machine whirred into life, Maxine finished her makeup and chose a flattering outfit that showed off her slim, athletic figure and her clear, youthful skin.

As she was checking her mailbox, a new message arrived. She read it briefly. It was a political statement with a forceful point of view, and it ended by urging the reader to forward the message widely. Actually, Maxine did not care for politics, but the message made her think of a fellow she had met in college. She had received a note from him recently and he had enclosed his email address. "Perhaps," she thought, "he might be interested in this. I'll forward it to him."

Maxine glanced at the message. She noticed a lot of old header lines that no one had bothered to delete. "There must be over 200 names and email addresses here. I wonder if I should take a moment and edit the message before I forward it," she thought. Then she noticed the clock. It was getting late. "It'll be okay," she told herself, and she sent the message.

A few hours later, Maxine came home to get ready for her interview. She checked her computer and found over 100 messages. She started to read them and was shocked. Evidently, the fellow to whom she had forwarded the message had strongly disagreed with its premise. He had written an offensive, spirited rebuttal, and emailed it to every email address that was sent along with the message. Moreover, he had not bothered to delete Maxine's name and address from the message. As a result, Maxine found herself with a mailbox full of angry, abusive complaints, with more coming in every moment.

And that, my dear reader, was the turning point in Maxine's life. Overcome with remorse, she spent the better part of the afternoon writing personal notes to everyone who had received the offensive message. She apologized profusely, and most of the people seemed to forgive her, but the damage was done and her life began to unravel, one thread at a time.

First, she completely forgot about the interview. As a result, she was passed up for what would have been a significant opportunity to further her career.

Within a short time, her friends and acquaintances stopped calling her, and her boyfriend left town for a job in Fargo, North Dakota. Moreover, the film producers, who hitherto had been anxious to secure her services, stopped returning her phone calls.

Within days, Maxine was a broken woman, a mere shell of her former self.

A year later, one of Maxine's oldest friends was in a candy-colored BMW on her way to a luncheon for fashionable-women-in-the-film-business. As she paused at a stoplight, she noticed a shabby, overweight, pock-marked creature motioning to her from the sidewalk: a pathetic old lady, dressed in rags, with her hair and nails in complete disarray. The stooped figure was standing at the side of the road holding a battered hand-lettered sign that said "Will work on a film for food."

The friend looked closer and had the shock of her life: the broken-down hag was Maxine!

Fortunately, the light changed before Maxine could recognize her friend. The friend drove off, relieved at being able to avoid what promised to be a particularly unpleasant scene. She looked in the rear-view mirror, caught one last glance of Maxine and sighed.

"There, but for the grace of God," she told herself as her BMW slid effortlessly into the sunny Southern California traffic, "go I."

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Why Is There So Much Misinformation
on the Net?

The Internet is the largest information-sharing resource in history. However, the Internet is also a hotbed of misinformation, an environment in which hoaxes and rumors incubate quickly, burst into life, and die out only to be resurrected again and again.

Why should this be? There are three reasons.

First, we often have trouble distinguishing what is true from what is false or misleading. To some extent, this is because, in our culture, we are bombarded with untruthful and exaggerated information. Everyone, it seems, is trying to sell us something, whether it is the latest miracle diet aid, an overpriced car to boost our self-esteem, or a political idea that has been carefully crafted to pander to focus groups and the latest opinion polls. In such an environment, too many people accept anything that is presented with authority as being correct. We believe what we read in the newspapers, what we hear on TV, and on the radio. Thus, when we see something on the Web, or read information sent to us via email, we tend to believe what we see.

Another reason why there is so much misinformation on the Net is that it is easy for anyone to distribute information. It's easy to send and receive email, and it doesn't take much training to participate in a discussion, talk in a chat room, or create a simple Web site. However, there are no rules that govern the quality of the information that people send by email, discuss on the Net, or put on a Web site. As a result, the quality of much of what you see on the Net is governed, not by economics or a desire for accuracy, but by human nature.

To see what I mean, let me digress for a moment and talk about another form of creativity, cooking.

Imagine yourself preparing to cook a special meal. You take your time to consider various dishes. You then hunt up a recipe, shop for the ingredients, prepare the food, and cook it carefully. When the food is ready, you bring it to the table in an attractive serving dish.

Cooking well can be a rewarding experience, but it is time-consuming, and you can only do it when you are not in a hurry. For example, if you come home late one night, starving because you have worked long hours without a dinner break, you aren't going to take the time to plan a meal, find a recipe, shop for ingredients, prepare the food, cook it carefully, and serve it in a special dish. Indeed, you may simply open a can of soup, throw together a quick meal, and chow down as quickly as you can.

Do you see the irony? It is possible to be thoughtful about preparing food, but only when you are not hungry.

The same is true with our need to communicate, and this is the third reason why there is so much misinformation on the Net. When we have trouble communicating to other people in person, we tend to look for a fast way to reach out and feel a connection no matter how thoughtless — and, ultimately, how dissatisfying — that connection may be.

My feeling is that, when we have important information to communicate, we have an obligation to ensure that the information is correct. Otherwise, we run the risk of misleading or even hurting other people. Unfortunately, if we feel a strong urge to broadcast the information immediately, we will often not take the time to think before we act.

Gossip is a fundamental social activity.

To some extent, this is simply human nature. Gossip is, after all, a fundamental social activity, on and off the Net. Aside from gossip, however, there are other sources of deliberate misinformation on the Net. First, there are people who intentionally mislead others. They may do this to sell a product, scare other people, seduce another person, and so on. Second, there are writers and journalists who, for whatever reason, publish before checking all the facts, thus creating news articles that look authentic but are inaccurate. Fortunately, we all have experience with these types of misinformation, so we can sometimes recognize that a misleading sales pitch or a news story doesn't ring true.

What we have trouble recognizing — on a Web site or in our electronic mailbox — is objective misinformation that is passed from one person to another, often with the best of intentions. For example, when a friend sends you email describing how a young lad is dying of a brain tumor, and he wants everyone in the world to send him a postcard so he can get his name in the Guinness Book of Records, your friend means well. The request, however, is false.

Similarly, if you read on a Web site that it is dangerous for people with pacemakers to go near microwave ovens, the person who created the Web site thought he was being helpful. The information, however, is wrong.

Thus, we are left with the following equation:

Sharing Information is Easy

+ We Have a Strong Need to Communicate

+ People Believe What They Read


= A Lot of Hoaxes and Rumors on the Net

The result, as you might expect, is an environment in which it is common for well-meaning people to mislead others. As a result, the Net abounds with a great deal of information of dubious quality, usefulness and parentage.

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8 Sure-fire Ways to Spot an Email Hoax

Figure 8-1 contains an example of a typical Internet hoax. This particular hoax urges people to boycott certain oil companies in order to bring down the price of gasoline. The hoax is in the form of an email message and was actually sent to a friend of mine.

When you receive such email, how can you tell it is a hoax? There are 8 telltale signs you can look for. Let's go over these signs using the letter in Figure 8-1 as an example.

1. The message is sent to you as part of a mass mailing.

If you look at the header, you can see that the person who sent the message has mailed it to himself. This means that he has specified a group of addresses in the Bcc: line (see the discussion on blind copies earlier in the chapter), which means that the message was sent to a group of people.

2. The message purports to be of special importance.

The writer says that he usually doesn't forward such mail, but this message is so important he will make an exception.

3. The message quotes unnamed authorities.

Notice that the message begins by appealing to the authority of people who should know what they are talking about: in this case, an economist and an economics professor. However, there are no actual names. This is typical of such a letter. (The nickname "Cal", by the way, refers to the University of California at Berkeley.)

If you read the message carefully, you will see that it was supposed to have been written by these two unnamed authorities ("We heard from...")

4. The message falsely quotes a real authority.

In this case, the message refers to a real authority who is a well-known consumer activist (I have deleted his name) as well as a real Web site address. The person who forwarded the message didn't take the time to check out the Web site, but I did. The consumer activist was aware of the email hoax. One of his staff members wrote: "...The email is not accurate. Xxxxx did not write the email message, nor does he favor boycotts...."

Notice that the message is worded carefully to look as if the consumer activist is telling us to take action, even though this is not the case.

5. The message makes unsubstantiated claims and uses faulty reasoning.

This particular hoax predicts gasoline prices will be going up soon. The blame is placed on oil companies and OPEC.

To many people, such a statement will sound true. Oil companies, like all companies, want to maximize their profits, and they do make more money when prices go up. Exxon Mobil, for example, earned $5 billion in the first quarter of 2001, up 44 percent from 2000 (mostly due to high oil and natural gas prices). Similarly, the purpose of OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) is to control crude oil prices in a way that benefits their members. Still, this is a long way from saying that the only reason current prices are palatable is because we, as consumers, have been brainwashed (an unsubstantiated claim).

The letter goes on to assert that gasoline prices are rising every day (an exaggeration), and that the only way the prices will ever come down is if we stop buying gas completely (faulty reasoning). Such claims are typical of this type of hoax.

6. The message makes false promises.

In our example, the message proposes that consumers boycott the largest oil company (Exxon Mobil) by refusing to buy gasoline from their service stations. This action will force the company to lower prices, which will then force the other oil companies to lower their prices. A second promise is also made, that the boycott will be effective. ("Acting together, we can make a difference".)

Both of these promises are false. The oil/gasoline market is complex, and gasoline prices cannot be controlled in this way.

7. The message rallies the troops with a call to action.

An email hoax will often tell you to perform a particular task, for example, participate in a boycott, complain to your political representative, or sign a petition.

8. The message tells you to send copies to everyone you know.

Perhaps the most suggestive sign that a message is a hoax is that it ends by asking your help to spread the word. This, in itself, is always a tipoff that what you are reading is not true.


From: Michael XXXXXXXXXX
Subject: Gas Prices
I usually abhor activist-style emails, and
delete rather than forward them. But I found
some merit in this one, and figured it was worth
Read on if you dare...
-- Mike
Gasoline Prices
We heard from the well-known consumer activist
Xxxxx Xxxxxx, who is very savvy about the
economy, (visit his website at http://
www.xxxxxxxxxxx.com for lots of good
information). He says that the gas prices are
going to start going up again and will be high
this summer — $2 and up. We need to do whatever
we can, and do it NOW!
This sounds doable. This makes more sense than
the "don't buy gas on a certain day" routine
that was going around last year. Whoever started
this has a good point. By now, you're probably
thinking gasoline priced at about $1.49 is
cheap. Me too, as it is now $1.58 for regular
Now that the oil companies and the OPEC nations
have conditioned us to think that the cost of a
gallon of gas is CHEAP at less than $1.50, we
need to try an aggressive response. With the
price of gasoline going up more each day, we
consumers need to take ACTION!
The only way we are going to see the price of gas
come down is if we don't buy it. But (as the gas
companies know full well, and are counting on),
that's not really a practical option since we
all have come to rely on our cars. But we CAN
have an impact on gas prices if we all act
Here's the idea: For the rest of this year,
don't purchase gasoline from the two biggest
companies (which now are one), namely EXXON and
MOBIL. You see, if they are not selling, they
should be inclined (i.e., "forced") to reduce
their prices. And, because of their size, and
hence market share, if they reduce their prices,
the other companies will too. (They would HAVE
no choice!). Isn't that a "juicy" prospect? But
to have an impact, we need to reach literally
millions of users. But it's doable! I am sending
this note to 10+ people. If each of you send it
to at least 10 more... and those 10 send it to at
least 10 more and so on, by the time the message
reaches the sixth iteration, we will have
reached over one million consumers.
Acting together, we can make a difference. If
this idea makes sense to you, please pass this
message on, or one you compose, to at least 10
more E-mail pals.
REALLY WORK! If you're not outraged, you're not
paying attention.

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Hoaxes and Urban Legends

People whose jobs require them to create information that will be published in a respectable venue — journalists, for example — are trained to take the time to check their facts, even under the pressure of a deadline. The rest of us, alas, are not always as diligent. When we are presented with a tidbit that sounds interesting, important or intriguing, it is always tempting to repeat it as quickly as possible to as many people as possible. ("Guess what? I just found out the secret Masonic handshake. Give me your hand and I'll show you.")

On the Internet, a great many hoaxes and rumors abound. Whenever you receive email you suspect might be a hoax, take a moment to check it out before you forward it to anyone. To help you, at the end of this section, I have included some Web sites where you will find descriptions of common hoaxes, including the ones that are currently making the rounds on the Net. Before you forward a suspicious message, check it out on one of these sites.

Of the large number of Internet hoaxes, there are two specific types I want to mention: virus hoaxes, because they are especially harmful, and urban legends, because they are especially interesting.

A VIRUS HOAX is a message containing a false warning about a specific computer virus. Computer viruses are important, and we will discuss them in detail in Chapters 9 and 10. (For now, I'll just say that a computer virus is a program that, if you run it, might cause harm to the files on your computer.) If there were a chance that a computer virus might end up on your computer, you would, of course, want to be warned. So it does make sense that people might want to forward messages warning against a particular virus.

However, you must be careful about such messages. Virtually, every virus warning circulating on the Internet is false. As you will see in Chapter 9, virus hoaxes are harmful because (1) they scare people unnecessarily, and (2) they obscure the reality of how viruses spread and what you can do about them. I'll discuss the details in Chapter 9. For now, all I want you to remember is that, if you receive a virus warning, you'll be able to tell it's a hoax by looking for the 8 telltale signs we discussed in the previous section.

Far more interesting than virus hoaxes are the urban legends. An URBAN LEGEND is a story that has been repeated so often that it has become a myth. It is a hallmark of an urban legend that it is just plausible enough to make you wonder if it is true, and intriguing enough so that people will spread it quickly and widely. Although some urban legends spread via email, Usenet and Web sites, many of them are well-known enough to thrive without the Internet. Indeed, some urban legends are so enduring that they have, literally, been around for many years.

In one way, urban legends are like fairy tales, in that they are told in the form of a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In addition, there is usually a point to the story, with a moral or a warning.

Fairy tales, however, take place "once upon a time" and are not literally true. Urban legends are supposed to have happened recently and are told as if they are true. A typical urban legend will take place in a contemporary setting and will begin with the assertion that the story actually happened to a real person, often described as a "friend of a friend". Indeed, in the world of urban legends, this idea is so common that it has its own abbreviation: FOAF.

The idea of something happening to a FOAF is one that is so common that we take it for granted. Perhaps you have even told such stories yourself. "My wife's cousin had a landlord who wouldn't give back her deposit, so to get even, she stuffed a dead fish into the heating vent when she moved out." Or, "I knew a guy who had a friend who worked in a pizza place where the people in the kitchen would spit on the pizza before they put it in the oven."

As you can imagine, it is possible to spend a lot of time analyzing urban legends. Indeed, people write books about them. I like to just read them and chuckle. Here are a few well-known urban legends for you to enjoy. Do they look familiar? (Needless to say, all these stories are false.)

  • A woman is having lunch in the cafe at Neiman-Marcus [a very expensive department store]. She likes the cookies so much that she asks for the recipe. The waitress says that the recipe is too valuable to give away, but offers to sell it. The woman asks "How much," and the waitress says "Two-fifty." The woman agrees and is given a copy of the recipe. Later, the woman receives a bill for $250.00. Neiman-Marcus refuses to give her a refund so, to get even, she decides to share the recipe with everyone in the world. [The recipe is included with the story.]
  • In the U.S., most states will put demerit points on your driving record if you are caught speeding. However, there is a foolproof way to avoid getting such points. When you receive a speeding ticket, pay the fine with a check that is a bit more than the fine. For example, if the fine is $75, send in a $78 check. The computer system will send you a refund, but don't cash the refund check. Because of a bug in the computer system, you cannot be assigned demerit points until all the financial transactions have been completed.
  • The scene is a large expensive wedding. It is time for the speeches, and the groom stands up. He announces that he has a special gift for each guest. Each guest has a large envelope taped to the bottom of his chair. He asks each person to open his envelope and look inside. As the envelopes are being opened, the groom explains that he recently became suspicious of his fiancee, so he hired a private detective to follow her for over the last few weeks. Inside each envelope is a copy of a photograph showing the fiancee (who is now his wife) having sex with the best man. The groom then turns to the bride and the best man and issues a rude remark. He then leaves and, the next morning, has the marriage annulled. In this way, he has taken his revenge by embarrassing the bride and best man in front of their friends and relations, and by forcing the bride's parents to pay over $32,000 for a 300-guest wedding.

If you are interested in urban legends, here are some Web sites where you can read about them:

For more general information, the following Web sites contain information about all types of Internet hoaxes:

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The 5 Biggest Email Mistakes

Email is fast and easy. However, whenever you deal with anything (or anybody) that is fast and easy, you need to be careful. One wrong move and, before you know it, you're in deep trouble with no way out.

The best way to protect yourself against email problems is to understand the most important pitfalls and take steps to avoid them. There are 5 common mistakes that can lead to disaster. Avoid these mistakes and you will go a long way to ensuring that you and Mr. Remorse never get to know one another on a personal basis.

1. Sending mail when you are upset.

By far, the worst email mistake you can make is to send a message when you are upset. This is as sure a recipe for disaster as exists on the Net.

When you are in a bad mood and you receive an irritating message from someone, it is all too easy to fire off an emotional reply. Don't do it! I guarantee that, if you do, you will be sorry later. At best, you will feel awful. At the worst, you may ruin a business or personal relationship without even realizing what has happened.

Here is an example. I once had someone working for me who became angry and sent me a nasty email message. Of course, we all get angry from time to time, but when I read this particular message, I realized this was not the type of person I wanted working for me. However, we were in the middle of a project and it would have been foolish to fire him right away, so I didn't say anything. Instead, I waited and fired him later when it was convenient for me.

Writing email in the heat of anger (or disappointment or passion) is always a mistake. To see why this is so, think back to our discussion, earlier in the chapter, in which we examined the nature of human communication. When you talk to someone in person, there is a lot of context: the tone and rhythm of your voice, your body language, and so on. Because the other person is near you, he or she can react immediately to what you are saying. This tends to act as a damper, forcing you to keep your harshest emotions in check. What's more, in the course of the conversation, you may even find out you were wrong.

This is not the case with email. If you are angry and you compose an angry message, you are — because of your state of mind — thinking poorly, and because there is no one to react to what you are saying, you will temporarily disconnect your actions from the possible consequences. Moreover, the person who receives your message will not know your state of mind and is sure to be insulted.

For this reason, it is imperative that you remember the following rule:

Whenever you find yourself writing an email message that may make someone feel bad, force yourself to wait 24 hours before you send it.

The trick to abiding by this rule is that you must decide to follow it ahead of time; otherwise, when something bad happens, you'll find yourself losing your composure. I promise you that when your boss sends a boneheaded memo blaming you for someone else's mistake, or your best friend cancels a big trip at the last minute, you are going to want the instant satisfaction of firing off a real stinker.

So please, decide now that, when the time comes, you will force yourself to wait 24 hours before sending such a letter. Believe me, if you follow this advice you will thank me over and over.

2. Using your work computer for personal email.

Everything you do at work is under the control of your employer. This may not seem to be the case if you work at a company that seems to be relaxed and informal. However, when the company wants to get tough and check up on what you have been doing on your computer, they will, and there's nothing you can do about it. In particular, if you use your work computer to send and receive email, your boss or your manager is allowed to read your email, even if it is private and even if you use your personal AOL or Hotmail account.

In Chapter 2, I discussed this issue in detail. At the time, I pointed out that many companies monitor email and Web activity. Even if your company doesn't seem to be checking up on you overtly, your computer will retain traces of what you do, and these traces can be used against you should your interests ever diverge from those of the company (for example, when you leave your job). Moreover, it is not uncommon for employees who are fired to be denied access to their computers to retrieve or delete personal information.

As a general rule, it is a big mistake to use your work computer for personal activities, including email.

3. Sending mail to the wrong address.

When you reply to a message, your mail program automatically inserts the return address for you. But when you create or forward a message, you must specify the address yourself. In most cases, this means using your mouse to click on one or more names in your address book. However, once you get used to using your email program, your fingers will move quickly and it is easy to make mistakes, especially if you have an emotional reaction to what you are reading.

When Aunt Nancy sends you a long letter of complaint about Sylvia's behavior at the recent family wedding, it is human nature to want to forward the message to other family members. Just be sure that, in your haste, you don't send a copy of the note to Sylvia.

Before you forward anything, force yourself to take three deep breaths and then check the address. The life you save may be your own.

4. Attaching the wrong file to a message.

As I mentioned earlier in this chapter (and as we will discuss in Chapter 10), it is possible to send one or more files — called attachments — along with an email message. To send an attachment, you must specify the name of the file. Typically, you do so by navigating to the folder that contains the file and then clicking on the name of the file. But what happens if you make a mistake? Since your email program doesn't know any better, it will happily send whichever file you specified, and the person at the other end will get the wrong file.

Here is a true story. A young lady I know once registered for an online dating service. She received a number of replies, one of which was from a young man who attached a photo of himself. The young lady took one look at the photo and decided she was not interested.

The man, however, was persistent and, finally, the young lady agreed to talk to him (over the Net) using a chat facility. When he asked her why she wasn't interested in him, she replied frankly that it was because of his picture. He looked too "feminine" for her taste.

The young man was puzzled until he checked the original message and found that he hadn't, as he thought, attached a photo of himself. He had accidentally sent the wrong file, one that contained a picture of a female friend. Would you want to date someone so careless? I think not.

(Fortunately, the story has a happy ending. After an extensive search, the young lady found a man who was better in every way.)

Such mistakes are not confined to personal matters. An editor I know at a well-known publishing house tells me that, every week, he receives one or two incorrect attachments. He told me that, one time, his company had been editing the chapters of a new book for two weeks when the author suddenly discovered that he had inadvertently sent the old version of the files.

There are three ways to guard against such a mistake. First, slow down. Before you send the message, look at the name of the file and confirm that it is correct.

Second, before you send a file, look at the contents for yourself. Don't assume you know what it contains. This is especially important if the file name is not descriptive.

Finally, when you are creating files that hold different versions of the same material, use file names that include the time and date the file was last changed. For example, let's say I am working on Chapter 8 of a book, and I want to send a copy to my editor. It happens to be 11:33 A.M. on April 25, 2001, so I save the file under the name:


When the editor receives the file, he knows exactly when I sent it. (010425 shows the date; 1133am shows the time.)

Suppose that, later, I send him another file:


Although the date is the same, the editor knows that this file is newer than the previous one because the time has been changed (to 4:01 P.M.).

When you use Windows Explorer to look at a list of files, you will see a time and a date. However, don't depend on this information. When you send a file to someone, the Windows time and date is not sent with the file. The only way to preserve this information is to put the time and date right in the file name (or inside the file).

5. Using email to send highly personal messages.

There are certain occasions that require either a person-to-person conversation or a formal letter on paper. At such times, you may not use email, no matter how convenient or easy it may be. Why? Because these occasions require a personal touch, and email is not personal or formal enough.

For this reason, I hereby declare that an email message, no matter how carefully crafted, may not take the place of a:

  • Thank-you note.
  • Birthday greeting to a relative or close friend.
  • Wedding invitation.
  • Sympathy note.

Such notes must be written on paper and sent by regular mail.

Objection #1: Why should I write a real letter when email is easier, cheaper, quicker and more efficient?

We don't send thank-you notes, birthday greetings, wedding invitations or sympathy notes to be efficient. We send them to fulfill a social obligation and to show other people that we care for them.

Objection #2: Paper, envelopes and stamps cost money. Moreover, it is a bother to mail something.

Your recipient knows this, which is why he will appreciate your making the effort to show how important he is to you.

Objection #3: But I am busy.

Who do you know that is not busy?

These rules are a matter of etiquette and, as such, are not open to discussion. The Mistress of Etiquette does not care about efficiency, nor does she strive to be logical or trendy. "This is how well-mannered gentlemen and ladies behave," she decrees, "and you must do the same."

"What," she hears you say, "you don't write thank-you notes? My goodness. I have never heard of such a thing. You must stop what you are doing right now and read the essay on the following Web page."


To finish this discussion, I will remind you that you may not use email to:

  • Inform someone of a death.
  • Break off a romantic relationship.
  • Fire someone.

In such cases, email is completely unacceptable. You must talk to the person face to face. (If that is not possible, you may send a written note.) If you are worried about the person's reaction, ask a friend or colleague to accompany you.

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Protecting Your Email Address

There are three ways in which your email privacy can be violated. First, if someone has access to your computer, he or she can read your email when you are not around.

In Chapter 4, I discussed this situation and described various steps you can take to help keep your mail private. However, you should realize that as long as anyone has access to your computer, your email will never be completely private. Thus, if a family member, your employer, or a co-worker has access to your computer, you should assume that your email is not private and act accordingly.

Even if your computer is completely isolated, your email privacy can be invaded if someone forwards your messages to another person. The next time you are tempted to use email to pour your heart out to a prospective significant other, remember that your message is only one mouse click away from being shared with that person's best friend. Moreover, the best friend may decide to share your plaintive cry for affection with even more people. ("Patty, take a look at this letter Margo sent me. It's from a guy she met at a conference last week. What a dweeb he must be! How does she ever find these guys?")

The third way in which your email privacy can be invaded is completely different, but in some ways, it can be the most annoying. If the wrong people get your email address, you will receive ever-increasing amounts of unsolicited mail, including a lot of advertising.

Unsolicited mail is called SPAM, and a person or company that sends such mail is called a SPAMMER. The name comes from a Monty Python skit in which a person ordering food in a restaurant finds that all the dishes come with spam (a particularly gruesome type of canned meat).

How you feel about the spam in your email depends on your personality. Some people, who are particularly sanguine, don't seem to mind spam in the least. "If you don't like an advertisement in your mailbox," such people say, "just delete it. What's all the fuss?" Other people look at spam as an invasion of their privacy. They resent being sent unsolicited email, and they become irate when they can't do anything about it.

The plain truth is that spammers don't care about the inconvenience, and they have no motivation to take you off their mailing lists. Here is why.

Regular paper junk mail costs real money. The junk mailer has to pay for paper, envelopes, printing, postage and the cost of buying the addresses. For this reason, most junk mailers (or "direct mail companies" as they prefer to call themselves) will be glad to take you off their lists if you ask them to. Why should they spend money sending advertisements to people who don't care about their products?

Email is different. A spammer may have to pay for an address list, but everything else costs next to nothing. This is why spammers don't care if they send email to people who don't want it. Moreover, all serious spammers set up their businesses to make it hard for you to reach them in person, so they don't have to worry about fielding complaints. They don't care, and there's nothing you can do to make them care. Spammers are dishonest, ill-mannered people who will be glad to deceive you if they think it will make them more money.

Once your address gets on spam lists, it will spread and spread. When this happens, don't waste your time trying to fix the problem, because you can't. The only thing you can do is change your address.

There is only one way to avoid spam: keep your address private in the first place.

There is only one way to avoid spam: keep your address private in the first place. Here are some hints to help you.

First, be careful about giving out your email address, just as you would with an unlisted phone number. Give your address only to those people you really want to have it. When you do, ask them never to give it out to anyone else without your permission.

Second, never type your email address into a form on a Web page. The same rule holds when you are installing software and the installation program asks you to "register". Marketing companies have all kinds of tricks to get your address, but you don't have to give it to them.

If you are ever faced with a situation in which you must come up with some type of address, you have two choices. First, you can give a fake address. (This is morally ethical, so don't worry about it.) When you make up a fake address, make sure you don't use one that might inadvertently be real. For example, the address iamcool@aol.com probably belongs to somebody. The address fake@xxlvy.com would be okay.

The second choice is to use a disposable address. Here's how to get one.

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How to Get a Disposable Email Address

It's irritating when you get so much spam that you need to throw away your email address and start again with a new one. For one thing, you will have to send messages to all your friends and business associates telling them of the change. Similarly, you will have to change your address for any electronic mailing lists or automated services for which you have registered.

You can avoid these problems by having two addresses: a permanent one that you give out to selected people (who will keep it private), and a temporary, disposable one that you are willing to throw away if necessary.

Getting a temporary email address is easy. There are many different Web sites that offer free Web-based email service. All you have to do is register. To get you started, here are some sites that offer this service:

If you want more of a choice, the following Web sites have information about a large number of free email services:

Of course, no one ever made a profit giving valuable services away for free. These companies need to make money and they do so in several ways. First, to send and receive mail, you will have to visit their Web site where you will see advertisements. Second, the company may add a short advertisement to each message you send (to the delight of your recipients). At the very least, they will add a couple of lines advertising their service. Third, the company may sell your address to spammers, and they may send you advertisements of their own.

Over a year ago, I registered with Hotmail (which is owned by Microsoft) to get a free email account. I have never given that address to anyone (I use it only for testing) and yet, every month, I receive hundreds of messages of spam, all sent to that exact address.

How did the spammers get the address? I'm not sure. At one time, there was a breach in the Hotmail security system and spammers were able to get a lot of addresses. To be fair, I should mention that I have a friend who registered for a Hotmail account more recently, and she never gets spam. The point is, once the spammers get your address, you can say good-bye to your privacy.

Spam is a big problem for ISPs (Internet service providers), because it makes up a large portion of the mail they must process. Most ISPs do their best to block spam. Microsoft, for example, puts a great deal of effort into trying to block spam from reaching their Hotmail users.

Many ISPs use special programs that filter out incoming spam. The spammers, however, work hard to design their messages to avoid the filters. Overall, a great deal of spam still gets through, so you can't count on the filters.

When you register for a free email service, you will need to provide some personal information. For example, you may be asked to specify your full name, street address, age, gender, marital status, income range, and so on. You may also be asked to give information about your work and your interests and hobbies.

Do you need to answer these questions? Well, you probably need to type something or the sign-up form won't be processed properly. However, you are under no obligation to tell the truth. My advice is to make up something reasonable, but don't give out any personal information, especially your name and address.

Before you complete the sign-up form, look carefully. Some services ask if you want your email address to be listed in a directory. (Say no.) They may also ask if you want to receive email notification of "special offers", that is, advertising. (Again, say no.)

If you are serious about privacy, you should always have one or two disposable email addresses. For example, you will, from time to time, find yourself visiting a Web site that requires you to register. The only reason they want your address is to send you mail, so never give them your permanent address, just use a disposable address.

Disposable addresses are also good when you want to give your email address to someone you don't know well. For example, if you register for an online dating service, use a disposable address for your correspondence. (There are a lot of nuts out there.)

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Protecting Other People's Email Privacy

Because of our strong desire to communicate and share, it is possible to invade other people's email privacy by accident. Here are a few guidelines to help you avoid doing so.

1. Never type someone else's email address into a form on a Web site.

When someone gives you his or her email address, treat it as you would an unlisted phone number.

Spammers (as well as legitimate companies) want all the email addresses they can get, and they will consciously design Web sites to lure you into giving them other people's addresses.

Although many Web sites have a privacy policy claiming that they will not misuse the information you give them, as we discussed in Chapter 7, such policies mean nothing. When an Internet business finds itself under pressure to generate revenue (which is inevitable, see Chapter 4), they will throw their privacy policy out the window and do whatever they want with the information they have collected.

I'll tell you something interesting. Many Web pages are created only for the purpose of gathering email addresses. Such pages — and there are a lot of them — are carefully designed to entice you into typing an email address into a form.

For example, a lot of Web pages have a link that will help you tell a friend about that page. If you click on the link, you will be asked to enter your name and email address, as well as the names and addresses of any friends you think might enjoy the page. "Isn't that nice?" you think to yourself. "Some nice person has gone to a lot of trouble to make it easy for me to tell my friends about this page."

The truth is that TELL-A-FRIEND referrals are actually a well-known Web-based business based on misinformation and kickbacks. The information you enter does not go to the company whose Web site you are visiting. It goes to a marketing company whose business is to collect email addresses. When you give away a friend's name and address in this manner, he will be sent a message telling him about the Web site, but the message will contain an ad.

Moreover, you have inadvertently put his address in the database of a marketing company that can send out more ads as well as sell his address to spammers. As a result, your friend will start to get a lot of spam and he won't even know why.

Why do Web sites offer tell-a-friend services? It's not for the convenience of their visitors. It's because the tell-a-friend marketing companies pay the Web site owners to put the service on their sites. They do this by paying a kickback for each referral. In fact, there are many sites on the Web that have been designed solely to generate tell-a-friend kickbacks.

This is only one example of how email addresses are bought and sold on the Net, but there are many others. So, to be polite, never type someone's email address into a form on a Web site, unless the person has given you their permission to do so. (Yes, this rule also applies to sending electronic greeting cards.) Here is a typical dialog to show you how it works:

YOUNG MAN (addressing a young lady): You seem like a fine person. May I please have your email address?

YOUNG LADY: Yes, you may. Here it is.

YOUNG MAN: Thank you. By the way, would it be okay with you if I type this address into a form on a Web site?

YOUNG LADY: What a polite young man you are. Actually, I'd prefer you keep this address private. However, in case you want to send me something from a Web site, here is my disposable Hotmail address. You may use that.

The next rule, which has two parts, involves forwarding messages.

2a. When you forward a message to a group of friends, put the addresses on the Bcc: line.

2b. Before you forward a message, take a moment to clean up the message and delete all the old message headers.

We discussed these ideas in detail earlier in the chapter, so I know you understand how important it is to not give out other people's addresses inadvertently. Interestingly enough, as I was writing this chapter, I received an email message that a friend had sent to many other people. The message claimed that anyone could make money just by forwarding the message to as many people as possible. (This, of course, was a hoax.)

When my friend sent the message, she did not clean up all the junk from the previous forwardings. As a result, the message I received had old header lines containing a great many email addresses. As an experiment, I saved the message and used a text editor to edit the file. Within five minutes, I had a list of 201 valid email addresses. If I were a spammer I could have sent email to all those people. (In fact, I was tempted to send them mail telling them to buy this book in order to find out how to safeguard their email privacy.)

3. Before you give someone's email address to another person, ask permission.

It only takes a moment to send a message such as:

Dick, I was just talking to someone who is interested in model railroads. I told him you are a model railroad expert, and he is interested in talking to you. Do you mind if I give him your email address so he can contact you directly?


Lois, I ran into a neighbor who is learning about stained glass. I told her that you have been working with stained glass for years, and she is interested in talking to you. Here is her email address in case you would like to contact her.

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Talk is Cheap (and Not Very Private)

On the Internet, we use the words TALK and CHAT to refer to having a conversation with another person. There are a number of different ways you can talk to someone on the Net: Web chat rooms, instant messaging, IRC (a large, worldwide talk system), muds (virtual environments), and so on. Most of the time, talking is done by typing. However, there are systems that allow you to use voice. (To do so, you need either a headset, or a microphone and speakers.)

In this section, I'm going to discuss the privacy and security aspects of talking on the Net. In Chapter 14, we'll talk about the social implications.

To start, never give out any personal information, especially your real name and where you live. It is perfectly acceptable to use a fake name when you talk on the Net.

There are two reasons for this. First, you don't want to put yourself in danger or take the chance of being harassed. There are a lot of strange people on the Net, some of whom are very good at acting normal, even to the point of being charming. Unless you know someone in person, you don't really know him, so don't take chances.

The second reason is more subtle. As we discussed earlier in the chapter, human beings evolved to communicate with other people in person. When you talk to someone on the Net, without the face-to-face context, your mind will unconsciously fill in the blanks in a way that is not realistic.

For this reason, if you spend a lot of time talking on the Net, you will find yourself becoming personal with people you don't really know, even to the point of being intimate. The closeness you feel, however, is an illusion. It is created by your need to connect to other people (which is normal) and by your mind's inability to properly process communication that does not have a proper context (which is also normal).

The real risk of false intimacy is not that someone is going to track you down and murder you in your bed. This is possible, but not likely. The real risk in getting too close is that you will become involved in unrealistic friendships and relationships that will end up disappointing you and hurting your feelings.

This type of problem sneaks up on you, so you must be on your guard. Once you tell someone your secrets, you will feel closer to him. This is just human nature. If you share too much with a stranger on the Net, you will end up creating a false sense of closeness that will rebound to hurt you. Trust me. No matter how much you may want to believe to the contrary, Internet friends are not friends; they are acquaintances.

Aside from not giving out private information, there are several other precautions you must take when you talk on the Net.

First, be careful what you do and who you do it with. No matter how private a conversation may seem, you are still in a public arena. Even if no one else is listening at the time, it is easy for the other person to keep a log of what the two of you are saying and show it to other people later. Some people do this just for fun.

Be aware that most talk services have a way for you to block someone from contacting you. Don't hesitate to do this if someone is harassing you in any way.

If you want to exchange email with someone you don't know in person, don't give out your permanent address. Give the person a disposable address. (I discussed disposable addresses earlier in the chapter.)

The final hint has to do with receiving files. Some talk services allow people to send files to one another as they are talking. This facility comes in handy, when you want to share photographs or music. For example, I was recently having a phone conversation with a friend who was bringing me up to date on the remodeling of her bathroom. Because we were both connected to the Net at the time, she was able to use a talk program to send me a photograph that showed exactly how far the work had progressed. (The floor tile was laid, but the new toilet had not yet been installed.)

If someone tries to send you a file, you will see a message asking if you agree to accept the file. Be careful about which files you accept, because it is possible for someone to send you a file that can cause a problem on your system. For example, someone might send you a computer virus.

In Chapter 10, we'll discuss the details of how to protect your computer from viruses. At the time, we'll talk about how to tell if an email attachment is safe. The same advice also applies to files that someone sends you as you are talking. To be safe, don't accept any files until you have read Chapter 10.

Once you have read Chapter 10, all you need to do is follow these two simple rules:

  • Don't accept any files unless you know the person well.
  • Even if you know the person well, only accept files that contain pictures or sounds.

As you will see in Chapter 10, it is possible to tell if a file is safe by looking at its name. Unfortunately, some talk systems won't show you the name in advance. They just announce that so-and-so wants to send you a file, and will you accept it? When this happens, say no, and tell the person to send you the file by email. (Use a disposable address.) When the file arrives, you can look at the name and see if the file is safe to open.

This is especially true if you use IRC (Internet Relay Chat), a huge global talk system that allows people all over the Net to engage in conversations. IRC is a wonderful facility that allows you to have interesting conversations with people from all over the world. However, you should be aware that some people on IRC are troublemakers, who try to trick other people into accepting certain files that can cause trouble. For example, a file might contain a program that would erase the data on your hard disk or crash your computer.

Another common IRC trick is to tell someone to type a particular command that will allow the first person to control the IRC program on the other person's computer. If you are using IRC and someone tells you to type a command you don't understand, don't do it.

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Abbreviations and Acronyms

There are a great many abbreviations that people use while talking on the Net. For example, you might see someone say:

It's hard to have a LDR with a possible SO. IMHO, I think you should ask him to meet you F2F.

Translation: It's hard to have a long distance relationship with a possible significant other. In my humble opinion, I think you should ask him to meet you face to face.

We use such abbreviations for two reasons. First, typing is slow, and not everyone can type well. Moreover, even when two people are typing quickly, there may be a delay (called a LAG) between the time one person types a message and when the other person sees it. Because your brain processes words quickly, it can be irritating to spend a lot of time waiting for the next line in a conversation.

Thus, we use abbreviations to keep things moving as fast as possible. In the example above, for instance, four abbreviations (LDR, SO, IMHO, F2F) replaced twelve words.

The second reason we use abbreviations is to create, as closely as possible, the ambiance of a real conversation. As we discussed earlier in the chapter, human beings require person-to-person contact, and talking on the Internet will never really fill this need. However, over the years, people on the Net have developed certain abbreviations and other conventions that attempt to simulate delight, anger, frustration, gentleness, excitement, and so on.

The most straightforward way to express a feeling or an emotion is by typing it in words. We do this by using angled brackets (< and > ) or asterisks (*) to enclose the words. For example:

PERSON 1: I just bought some ice cream .

PERSON 2: *Sigh* I wish I had some.

Although we may not always be aware of it, when we talk in person, we depend a great deal upon tone of voice, rhythm, volume and body language. When we talk on the Net, it is natural to want to show the emotional nuances we take for granted in face-to-face conversation. As a result, people who talk on the Net tend to exaggerate their emotions and feelings similar to what actors do on the radio.

If you have ever listened to an old radio show, especially a dramatic show, you will notice that the actors exaggerate their emotions. This is because, over the radio, there is no way to show body language or facial expressions. As a result, radio dramas are far more histrionic (and unrealistic) than television shows and movies.

On the Net, we follow certain conventions that allow us to do the same thing. For example, when we type, it's hard to show excitement because we can't raise our voices or talk more quickly. Instead, we type in uppercase (capital letters) to indicate shouting. Many people also make liberal use of exclamation marks and question marks:


Another problem that constantly arises on the Net is how to express irony, that is, how to indicate that what we are typing is not what we mean. Irony is extremely difficult to express with written words (which is why so many writers have gray hair). In person, you can indicate irony by using a particular tone of voice, by smiling, or even by winking. On the Net, however, a comment with a double meaning is often perceived as being sarcastic or mean. For this reason, there are several ways to indicate that what you are saying is not offensive.

One way is to be excessively polite. For instance, in the example above you will see the abbreviation IMHO, which means "in my humble opinion". This abbreviation is used a lot on the Net to indicate that the speaker is about to express a specific point of view and does not wish to offend the other person.

Another way to express irony is to use what is called a SMILEY, a short sequence of characters that resembles a face. Here is the basic smiley. To see the face, tilt your head to the left.


Here's another smiley; this one is winking:


Here's a third smiley, one without a nose:


A smiley is used as a synonym for "don't be offended". For example:

Of course, not all Canadians want to live in the U.S. :-)

Smileys are often used, preemptively, in self-defense. As a general rule, if you put a smiley at the end of a statement, the other person is not supposed to be offended, no matter how rude the statement may be:

I can see why you love your dog so much :-)

The most common situations in which people exaggerate their emotions are when they are expressing a feeling of happiness. In such cases, you will often see people pretend to be far more amused than they really are. For example, here are a number of abbreviations that are used to indicate laughing:

FOFLMAO falling on the floor laughing my ass off
LMAO laughing my ass off
LOL laughing out loud
ROFL rolling on the floor laughing
ROTF rolling on the floor laughing
ROTFL rolling on the floor laughing
ROTFLMAO   rolling on the floor laughing my ass off

It is true that, in normal conversation, people do laugh out loud (although they rarely fall on the floor). However, on the Net, you will often see people type LOL, even when common sense tells you that they could not possibly be laughing out loud. For example:

PERSON 1: My mother read my diary and found out about the party!!!!


Interestingly, such exaggerations are used, almost exclusively, by newcomers and non-technical people who have not yet figured out the nuances of online communication. For some reason, the worst offenders seem to be teenage girls who use AOL. For such people, LOL doesn't indicate real laughter. It's actually a filled pause devoid of specific meaning.

Two teenagers talking on the Net:

TEENAGER 1: What are you going to get your Mom for Mother's Day?

TEENAGER 2: A gift certificate to an ice cream store.


This is similar to how, in regular conversation, people will often use meaningless expressions just to fill space.

For example, here are the same two teenagers talking in person:

TEENAGER 1: What are you going to get your Mom for Mother's Day?

TEENAGER 2: A gift certificate to an ice cream store.


Compare this to two adults talking in person:

ADULT 1: What are you going to get your Mom for Mother's Day?

ADULT 2: A gift certificate to an ice cream store.

ADULT 1: There you go!

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