Sunday, April 06, 2008

Email etiquette: The BCC field

Is the friend of my friend, also my friend? I don't know but it seems that most people think that when forwarding chain emails. What's worst, maybe now I'm also friends with the spammer of my friend!

We all receive chain emails, jokes and funny videos from friends. Nothing wrong with that except that they put our email address and all the addresses of their contacts list in the "To" field. Most people do this because they are unaware of the "BCC" field. This post will explore the problems and risks of the "To" field along with suggestions for proper etiquette for chain emails. I've been lecturing people (one by one) about this topic, and I've found that once they understand, they change their ways.

So if you (yes you) have ever forwarded a chain email to your list of contacts, please read the following:

Adding all the addresses to the "To" field makes them visible to all the people that receive the same email. This, while apparently innocuous, leads to some very nasty consequences:

1. Considering that once the chain starts, you don't know where it will end, there is a high probability that all those email addresses will end up on a spammer's "gold list" of addresses that have been confirmed active. What's more, I suspect that most chain emails are initiated by spammers trying to harvest addresses, specially the ones advising to "send it to all of your friends including the person that sent it to you"

2. Email addresses, like phone numbers, may not always be "public". Some people may have confided their address to you but not to others. Imagine the following scenarios:

You have two friends that are a couple, they break up and one decides to start using a different email address that doesn't want the ex to know. You forward a joke to her address and to some other close friends. Well, now one of those friends forwards it to their own list which includes the ex! not good eh?

Some people have different email address for different purposes, for example a friend or coworker provides you with his/her work's email address where he does not want/ should not receive jokes or chain emails. Now, after you've forwarded it to everyone, he'll start receiving jokes to the "wrong" address.

I'm sure you can imagine other situations where this may have quite undesirable consequences.

3. Frequently the address' list is longer than the message itself, making it difficult to read the actual message.

So, these are some of the reasons for not using "To" when forwarding chain emails

Keep the "To" field for occasions where you explicitly want every person to know who else received the same email.

It's my opinion that web email (hotmail, yahoo, gmail, etc) should have BCC as the default or at least make it more visible than what they do now.

As you can see, using the BCC field is as easy as using the "To" field but better in many ways helping you protect your friend's privacy, protect them from spam and make it easier to read the emails

Next time you receive a chain email, politely advise your friend about the problems and risks of using the "To" field. It may be as easy as pointing them to this blog's post.


Anonymous said...

Hi Raoul: Keep in mind that the BCC: field is poorly defined.
The only requirement
is that recipients in the BCC: field are hidden from the recipients in the To: field.

It is possible (and perfectly valid) for all recipients in the BCC: field to see each other. As you point out, this is definitely a privacy problem, and some even see it as a security consideration.

Some e-mail programs always show BCC: fields, some programs never do, and some let the user make the choice (Pegasus Mail, GroupWise).

So, it's far better to forward these chain messages one-at-a-time. Even better not to forward them at all.


Raul Suarez said...

Thanks for the clarification. I didn't know (or expect) the BCC field to work like that in other programs.

I Always thought that the apps would send one message per person on the BCC and not send the whole list in the header of each BCC message.

skihmemria said...

I am always concerned about the privacy of e-mail addresses, whosoever it belongs to. So, if I ever feel like forwarding such an e-mail, I delibrately click on reply, enter the e-mail address(s) I wish to forward the e-mail, delete all the e-mail address from the message window and then send the e-mail. I avoid forwarding e-mail address of others and share with everyone the people in my networking. Ofcourse it will decrease the message size too.