In the old days, when the primary form of mass communication was TV and radio, one of my favorite programs was news and commentary from Paul Harvey, including a segment called "The Rest of the Story." What he would read would inspire and enlighten his listeners.
I often think of Paul Harvey when I am e-mailed an inspiring story. I think we have all been forwarded something similar from friends. E-mail has expanded the library of inspirational stories and has dramatically expanded their reach through the "chain mail" phenomenon. Some messages explicitly advise that you send it forward to people who need to read it. Other messages don't advise anything, but the sudden rush of emotion from reading the account - whether tears or laughter - will often cause folks to forward the message to all their friends.
Believe it or not, this sort of e-mail is actually classified as a form of spam. This is especially true if the message contains photos and graphic images, which can expand a simple message of a few thousand bytes into an elephantine deposit of a megabyte. Multiply a message of that scale by thousands, and you can readily see how such a message could be considered spam - if not viral - especially in the corporate environment. Corporations simply do not want to service bulky mass mailings of material that is clearly personal. For that reason, many corporations have educational programs in place informing their employees that chain mail is considered an "unethical" use of computer technology.
How is it that something inspiring could be considered unethical, viral or spammish? Simple - because often these stories aren't true. It is sad and embarrassing. Many of these messages play on emotions such as faith, heroism and patriotism. How could you not believe them? It can be embarrassing when someone "breaks the chain" by noting that a story is untrue.
How can you find out if a message is true or not? With Paul Harvey, we trusted in the journalistic professionalism of this radio icon. But our aunts, mothers, siblings and friends are rarely journalists. They read, but never check. You can check by visiting a pair of Web sites: Snopes (www.snopes.com) and Break the Chain (www.breakthechain.org). Snopes evolved from a Web site devoted to urban legends. It was more fun back in the 90s when the contributors had a tongue-in-cheek approach. Both sites, however, have an efficient layout and focus on delivering information.
The next time you receive something inspiring, check it out. The hard part is next: How do you gently inform the sender that they have been made a fool? Simply explain to them the truth, but share it like it was a discovery. "I have discovered two websites that I have used to check out stories. Don't be embarrassed. It has happened to all of us."
Over time I have discovered that more of my correspondents note in their messages that a particular story has been checked.
Eric M. Niewoehner can be reached at email@example.com.