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

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