You just received a let­ter from your cousin. It’s very inter­est­ing and con­tains sec­tions you’d like to dis­cuss with your broth­er, office mates, and neigh­bor. Do you pho­to­copy the let­ter and mail copies to those peo­ple? No! In fact, you don’t even think about it, do you? It’s too much of a has­sle, so the most you’re like­ly to do is say “I got a let­ter from Jan­ice today and just couldn’t stop laugh­ing. That tod­dler of hers is a pill!” the next time you talk to your broth­er.

Email, unfor­tu­nate­ly, is all too easy to share. If Jan­ice emailed you about the lat­est antics of lit­tle Atti­la, you might have imme­di­ate­ly for­ward­ed them to your broth­er, neigh­bor, depart­ment at work, and pos­si­bly all the rel­a­tives for who you have email address­es.

I already talked about mass-for­ward­ed emails, but for­ward­ing emails in gen­er­al (or post­ing them to news­groups or dis­cus­sion boards) sim­ply isn’t some­thing that needs to be done with­out a fair amount of con­sid­er­a­tion. With a very few excep­tions (described below), it is extreme­ly rude to for­ward email writ­ten to you per­son­al­ly or sent to a mail­ing list to which you sub­scribe with­out the express per­mis­sion of the per­son who wrote the email. It is a vio­la­tion of the sender’s pri­va­cy — much like secret­ly tape-record­ing your phone calls with some­one, then play­ing the tape for some­one else.

Some mail­ing lists explic­it­ly state that mes­sages from the list are not to be sent to or read by any­one who isn’t a list sub­scriber. It shouldn’t be nec­es­sary to make that kind of state­ment, but it is. On sup­port lists or oth­er forums to which mem­bers post very pri­vate, per­son­al infor­ma­tion, hav­ing mes­sages for­ward­ed off-list can destroy the sense of safe­ty which is vital to mak­ing the lists valu­able.

If you’re for­ward­ing infor­ma­tion from mail­ing lists which aren’t per­son­al, but infor­ma­tion­al — why? If you think the per­son or list­mem­bers to whom you’re for­ward­ing the infor­ma­tion would find that list valu­able, give them infor­ma­tion on how to sub­scribe to the list. Don’t for­ward every Cool-Word-of-the-Day, This Day in His­to­ry, and Dai­ly Quote mes­sage to oth­er lists or peo­ple! I’ve found that this ten­den­cy is espe­cial­ly com­mon on home­school­ing lists, but I have yet to fig­ure out why any­one does it. I have actu­al­ly set up fil­ters to auto­mat­i­cal­ly delete mes­sages from cer­tain list­mem­bers who are chron­ic offend­ers. Yes, I prob­a­bly miss real, per­son­al posts with inter­est­ing con­tent from those peo­ple at times, but their noise-to-sig­nal ratio is just too much for me to both­er going through most of their mes­sages.

Don’t for­ward mes­sages with attached files — screen savers, exe­cutable Christ­mas cards, Pow­er­Point slide shows of inspi­ra­tional quotes super­im­posed on nature scenes, etc. If you run across some­thing which is just too mar­velous to keep to your­self, let the oth­er peo­ple who you know would also appre­ci­ate it know where to find it. Those files can take a long time to down­load and clog up people’s mail­box­es, and might even con­tain virus­es.

Yes, I said there are excep­tions. They are:

  • Harass­ing or abu­sive mes­sages — any­one who writes that kind of thing auto­mat­i­cal­ly gives up any expec­ta­tion of cour­tesy. You owe the sender no con­sid­er­a­tion, no respect of his pri­va­cy, noth­ing — except com­plaints to any sys­tem used to send the mes­sage and, in extreme cas­es, a police report.
  • Mes­sages which the sender express­ly states that you have per­mis­sion to for­ward. Some­times the sender will request that you leave the mes­sage intact — includ­ing, for instance, copy­right infor­ma­tion, or instruc­tions on how to sub­scribe to the mail­ing list to which the mes­sage was sent.
  • Mes­sages from a com­mer­cial enter­prise that are not per­son­al in nature. For instance, it is com­mon for posters in news­groups to post respons­es con­tain­ing infor­ma­tion they’ve received from com­pa­nies about prod­ucts of spe­cial inter­est to the read­ers of that news­group. Shar­ing these mes­sages is very sim­i­lar to pass­ing an inter­est­ing cat­a­log around to your friends or office­mates.

Yes, I occa­sion­al­ly for­ward mes­sages to oth­er peo­ple. If one of the dai­ly news alerts I read con­tains notice of a recall on a prod­uct which I know that a friend or fam­i­ly mem­ber is like­ly to have, I will for­ward that notice to the per­son with a per­son­al note. I don’t post the notice to every news­group and mail­ing list I’m on, though. If the Word-of-the-Day mail­ing list mes­sage for the day is about a word that I know will amuse one of my friends, I for­ward that mes­sage to that par­tic­u­lar friend — but not every per­son I know.

Just think before you for­ward, please.

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished Jan­u­ary 2001

One thought on “The Netiquette of Forwarding Messages

  1. Hi, i must say fan­tas­tic blog you have, i stum­bled across it in Bing. Does you get much traf­fic?

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