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Chain Email

Summary: Chain e-mail messages can have technological, social, and legal ramifications. Chain e-mail is defined as any message sent to one or more people that asks the recipient to forward it to multiple others and contains some promise of reward for forwarding it or threat of punishment for not doing so. This article discusses the effects of chain mail and explains why you should neither forward nor initiate chain e-mail.

Break the Chain - Don't Send or Forward Chain E-Mail by Suzan Alexander, ITD

Faculty, staff, and students might start or continue an e-mail chain message just to amuse themselves and their friends or to see how far it could go. Although it may seem like a pretty innocuous thing to do, this is not the case. Chain messages can have technological, social, and legal ramifications. If you are thinking of sending or forwarding a chain message, take a few minutes to consider the consequences.

What Is a Chain Message?

Chain e-mail messages have the same content as chain letters but are sent through e-mail networks rather than the U.S. Mail. According to Laurie Burns, user advocate for the Information Technology Division (ITD) and associate director of ITD's User Services unit, "A chain message, or chain e-mail, is defined as any message sent to one or more people that asks the recipient to forward it to multiple others and contains some promise of reward for forwarding it or threat of punishment for not doing so."

Sending or forwarding chain e-mail violates the University's Policy: The Proper Use of Information Resources, Information Technology, and Networks at the University of Utah (Standard Practice Guide 601.7) because it interferes with the intended use of the University's information resources.

"The University's information resources are intended for purposes consistent with the mission of the University: education, research, public service, and administration," said Burns. When chain e-mail interferes with the ability of individuals to pursue legitimate work, it becomes a problem. Added Burns, "Some external networks to which the U of U maintains attachments specifically forbid chain e-mail. For us to maintain our links with them, we need to abide by their policies."

System Implications

One of the problems posed by chain messages is that the ever-expanding number of messages, with their ever-expanding headers, have the ability to clog a network, particularly one that is low-speed or has limited gateway ability. These types of networks can only accept a limited number of messages at a time. Heavy traffic due to chain mail messages can disrupt not only the e-mail service but other network activities as well.

These messages can also waste a large amount of disk storage space, especially in our new distributed computing environment where every copy of a message is saved, as opposed to a mainframe system where a single copy is saved with pointers to the various mailboxes involved. You should assume that your correspondents' mail systems will keep separate copies for each recipient. Also, chances of receiving multiple copies of a chain e-mail message are good because people often share a common circle of friends. You could find yourself in the unhappy position of having a suddenly full mailbox that won't accept any more incoming mail.

Another point to consider is that chain messages can be expensive. Chain messages can result in thousands of dollars of network charges and personnel work hours before they are stopped. "In general, these costs will tend to be fairly minimal from an end-user perspective," said Burns, "but looking at the system overall, these costs are real." Although it may cost you nothing to send or forward a message, your recipients may end up bearing the costs, depending upon where they are located, whether or not they use commercial networks, and how their accounts are funded. In some countries, for example, people pay for e-mail by the byte- and quite dearly.

Social Implications

"People tend to react to chain e-mail the way they react to any junk mail," explained Burns. "They're irritated by it and very often ask that something be done to stop it," she added. Although you may view a chain message as being entertaining, others might see it as an annoyance and quite possibly as an implied threat or a form of harassment, depending upon the content of the message. Messages such as "Pass this message on or bad luck will befall you" are particularly offensive. While you might be able to shrug off this form of intimidation, some people cannot. Even though someone might start a chain message with no intent to cause harm, that person does not have the right to impose on another individual's private space, whether the individual be a friend, a co-worker, or a stranger.


Regardless of what network you use, you can safely assume that it has regulations against sending chain messages. Both starting and forwarding chain messages violate these policies. External networks to which the U of U has access as well as local mail systems here on campus, exist to support research and education. Users who violate the conditions of use of external networks run the risk of having their access to those networks terminated. The U of U Guidelines for Implementing the Proper Use Policy of the University of Utah: Responsible Use of Technology Resources (R1103) describes some guidelines for using computing resources at the U of U. Those who violate the conditions of use run the risk of having their access to U of U computing resources terminated. Break the Chain! Break the chain! Help solve the problem by deleting any chain e-mail messages you receive. You might choose to respond to the sender, politely stating your displeasure at receiving this unsolicited mail and asking the person not to do it again.

Last Updated: 10/13/16