Don't send this message to all your friends!

The latest chain letters circling the Net aren't inspiring action -- unless you count the frequent delete-key tapping.

Published April 28, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Did you turn on your lights for Littleton this weekend? No? Then you must have missed the latest would-be meme: An e-mail chain letter started by an inspired mourner asked Americans to light up their porches and flick on their car headlights to show support for those mourning the victims of last week's massacre in Colorado.

"What can I do to show others that I, too, am deeply affected by this tragedy?" the anonymous e-mailer mused. After choosing the lights-on gesture -- as a way to metaphorically "turn on the light in your heart and soul" -- the letter's author decided to "use the Internet" to get the message out: "I'm sending this message to everyone on my e-mail list and am asking that you do the same."

Such attempts to "use the Internet" to spur real-world activism are hardly new. Chain letters have been circling the Net as long as there has been a Net. But in the last few weeks such earnestly infectious e-mails have been cropping up with increasing frequency.

Take, for example, the "Great American Gas-Out." This plea has been replicating like a virus in e-mail inboxes for well over a month. Forwarded by embittered drivers and environmentalists alike, the e-mail begs car owners to refrain from buying gas on April 30, in hopes that a day-long boycott will inspire oil companies to drop gas prices. As the anonymous e-mail explains: "It's time we did something about the price of gasoline in America! We are all sick and tired of high prices when there are literally millions of gallons in storage. If there was just one day when no one purchased any gasoline, maybe prices would drop drastically."

And how many people participated in the annual "Call In Sick" day? Judging from the utter lack of news stories about employees failing to turn up on April 6, I'd guess not many followed the instructions that made the rounds via pervasive e-mail last month. It probably was about as successful as, say, the "Save the National Endowment for the Arts" or "End Homosexual Discrimination" petitions that everyone who has ever had an e-mail account has probably seen at least a dozen times.

These memes may have the right sort of "go get 'em" spirit, but seem to lack either logic or real-world momentum. Though some online campaigns (like Censure and Move On) are well organized, most of the ceaselessly circulated chain letters are merely irritating reminders of the imperishability of half-thought-out e-mail activism.

So, in the interest of uncluttering my inbox, I'm proposing we make a deal: I'll avoid buying gas on Friday -- if you'll refrain from hitting that "send" button.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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