Mom spam

The cyber-scourge of families everywhere.

Published December 20, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

E-mail seemed like a good idea at the time.

For years, the members of my extended family have been relentless in their attempts to stay in touch with me. Theyve tried calling, writing, passing messages to me through each other; but its a losing proposition. When my workday ends and the kids in bed, Im exhausted. What I really want to do is sit and breathe in front of my television, not string together cogent thoughts for a phone call or letter.

At the office, however, when Ive had enough coffee and the days problems are keeping me alert, I can zip off half a dozen quick e-mails while I bolt my lunch. Not only is e-mail cheaper than long-distance calls, but Im a writer, after all. Im happier talking with my fingers than with my mouth.

Clearly, its the best way to reach me, which is why I get over 300 e-mail messages a day. Adding a few more from my family wouldnt be so tough, I thought. So I patiently explained to them the mysteries of ISPs and POPs, addresses and attachments, killfiles and sig files. "Trust me," I promised. "Its easy."

Apparently, e-mail is too easy. When they got wired, my family members started forwarding me every single e-mail they saw, swamping my system. You know what Im talking about -- an in-box overflowing with forwarded jokes, gentle paeans to motherhood, fake virus alerts, and that damned Neiman-Marcus cookie recipe. My family got online and I couldnt get rid of them. But what can you do when its your own mother spamming you?

Mom certainly is not the only offender, but shes the most prolific. She started out tentatively, sending a message every few weeks, most of them personal, actually written by herself. Then she started forwarding a few inspirational homilies, the happy little message buried beneath a long list of previous addresses and routing directions.

As the volume grew, my sister got online too, forwarding me lots of urban legends about how to keep from being kidnapped or drugged. They quickly ganged up on me, working a sophisticated spam triangulation system in which Mom would e-mail me (and a dozen other people), then five minutes later my sister would send me the same message. Several times a day.

I finally snapped when somebody in my family -- Ive blocked out who -- sent me the infamous kidney-harvest-gang warning. That thing has been chasing me around the Internet for years, relentlessly haunting my newsgroups and listservs. Its a great story: The lone, hungover traveler waking up aching in the hotel bathtub full of ice, tubes snaking mysteriously out of his back. But really, you dont have to be a doctor to realize just how unlikely the whole prospect is. When that arrived in my in-box, I decided that my delete key just wasnt solving my problem.

Its not enough that I already get spammed by dozens of public relations flacks and industry gurus with vanity newsletters. My favorite Web sites spam me too. In an in-box cluttered with messages from editors, co-workers and professional contacts, my mothers name naturally leaps out at me, holding the promise of something truly personal. Im drawn to it, compelled to open that message first to find out what family gossip or emergency shes got on her mind. And then what happens? Im rewarded with some generic plea to send copies of this message to 10 friends for good luck.

I ranted to my pals. They were unanimously sympathetic, sighing, "Oh yeah, Ive got one of those." Their stories rang familiar. "When they first got an e-mail account, the notes were reasonable enough," a woman on one of my mailing lists commiserated. "An update on family happenings, a new grandchild. But then the inspirational messages started, the 'funny' jokes, and the warnings for nonexistent viruses. Ugh."

Some stories were scarier than mine. One womans mom teaches at a university and gave a lecture about using the Internet for research, pointing out the necessity of checking out urban legends before passing along inaccurate information. A few days later, she sent her daughter a well-worn warning about women being abducted in mall parking lots. Another got Bill Gates' money chain letter from a cousin who is a financial advisor. These are grown-ups! Sophisticated professionals, people who should know better!

"Mine does mass e-mailings, so if you send her a note and ask something, she doesn't just answer you, she answers everyone on her list," one friend complained about her mom. "So I get these notes that say 'Karen, I think you should just go.' Who the hell Karen is, or where she's going -- I have no idea. I know some rather personal things about people I have never met."

So what's a beleaguered spamee to do? Automatically delete everything from the annoying relative? That's what one e-mail buddy of mine says her over-spammed mom started doing to her sister, after receiving 40 messages in two days. Another woman who works at a big company disarmed her sister-in-law by telling her that the company e-mail wouldnt accept attachments because of virus security.

With my own mom, I started off tactfully, pointing her to to check out the urban legends before forwarding them. When that didnt work, I tried little jokes, "Oh Mom, that Congress tax thing is so not true." I tried explaining how to strip those maddeningly long headers from forwarded messages. The spam kept coming, and then I got pissed. What finally dammed it was this:

"Dear Mom, here's your checklist for sending e-mail to me:

1) Did someone else write this message?
2) Am I sending it to a long list of people?
3) Is it a joke, warning, call to action, homily or chicken-soup-for-the-soul message?

If you answer YES to any of these, I beg you, don't send it!"

At first she was insulted, explaining that spam was just an affectionate way of staying in touch. But after a little cooling-off period, my mom and I managed to link up again, exchanging some truly personal messages about vacations and her grandchild. Then, the day after my beloved Red Sox fell completely apart in Game 5 of the American League playoffs, a friend forwarded a baseball joke to me and I found that I just couldnt resist indulging in a little spam fun.

I sent it to my mom.

By Phaedra Hise

Phaedra Hise is a freelance journalist, author and pilot living in Richmond, Va. She writes about aviation frequently for Salon, and covers business and technology for national magazines and newspapers.

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