Friday, September 19, 2008

Chain Letters

Does anybody remember when chain letters were actually letters that came in the mail? They used to arrive claiming either some good fortune if I made a dozen copies and sent them off or dire circumstance if I dared ignore it and toss it in the trash. Sometimes they would include a list of names and the promise that if I sent $1 to the top name on the list, I would receive 1000's of dollars by mail in a few weeks. (I was always tempted to send a dollar to the bottom name on the list with the message: "Here is the only dollar you are going to receive. Consider it payment for Not Sending Me Any More Chain Letters.)

Today, chain letters arrive by email and always include the demand to "Forward this to everyone you know"! I always delete them and usually ignore them, although I have been known to reply with a link debunking whatever the claim happened to be.

< rant>
Recently, I saw an email petition against providing social security benefits to non-citizens. I don't know about the right or wrongness of the issue, but an emailed petition is a pointless way to address it.

First, a true petition contains names, addresses, and actual signatures of the petitioners. The email is just a list of unverifiable names, sometimes with an associated state. It's not likely to have much influence on the government official who receives it. And 1 list of 1000 names doesn't carry much impact on a national issue.

But the petition is being forwarded to multiples of people all over the country right? There will be hundreds if not thousands of email petitions that will arrive in Washington right? Well lets look at some numbers.

The petition I received already had over 900 names on it, presumably because it had been forwarded over 900 times with a new person adding their name each time. I received my copy along with about 5 other recipients in the To: list, and it appeared to me that the sender received their copy along with about 5 others as well. So if we assume that the average person forwards the petition to about 5 other people, then the number of recipents is 5 raised to the power of the number of forwards. That means by the time the 13th person signed the petition, it would have been forwarded to (5)^13 or 1,220,703,125 recipients. That's more than the current population of the United States. Even if most recipients clicked the delete button when they received it, we would all have seen this email in our inboxes thousands of times for it to ever have gotten to over 900 names.

So what does the petition really represent? My guess is that someone with an opinion about the social security issue generated a bogus list of over 900 names from a mail merge or some other name database, and then sent the list out with instructions to send it to Washington when the name count gets to 1000. Even if several hundred copies of the list survive until they have 1000 names, many identical lists arriving in Washington would have no more impact than 1 unique list.

If you really want to impact legislation through email, then the right approach is to forward a message to your recipients asking them to send an email directly to their individual representatives in Washington. Messages from verifiable, voting constituents will have much more influence than a cobbled up list of fictional names.

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