Wasting somebody else's time strikes me as the height of rudeness. We have only so many hours and none to waste.
That's what makes electronic junk mail and e-mail hoaxes so maddening. The "free" distribution of unwelcome or misleading messages to thousands of people is an annoying and sometimes destructive use of the Internet's unprecedented efficiency.
Few tools in history have been as powerful as the Internet. Although still in its infancy, the Internet is beginning to transform the world by making communication and publishing fantastically inexpensive and accessible. But like any powerful tool, it is subject to misuse and abuse.
The incremental cost of sending a message on the Internet is essentially zero. This has wonderful implications. Unfortunately, it has led to junk mail being sent to tens of thousands of people -- wasting an enormous amount of their collective time -- at almost no cost to the senders.
The burden is borne by the recipients, who must wade through unwanted commercial messages, and by the Internet companies that handle this "spam" -- the name the Internet community has attached to junk e-mail.
As you may know first-hand, it's not uncommon for people to get dozens of pieces of spam a day in their e-mail inboxes. Companies that carry Internet traffic pay the costs associated with handling the millions of unsolicited messages.
You can spot most of these messages easily because their topics contain inflated promises, uppercase letters or multiple exclamation marks. The identities of the senders are usually camouflaged or falsified, because people sending out garbage don't want to take responsibility for it.
For example, a message titled "You've GOT to see this!!!" comes from a sender who gives his or her name only as a number. It's junk mail pointing to a pornography site. Press the Delete key to kill the message.
A message titled "You Too Can Easily Earn $1000-$5000/Wk!" is from a nameless sender with something to sell. Press Delete.
Although it doesn't take long to detect and delete a single message, going through dozens a day is big waste of time. And millions of people are forced to do it.
Of course, a lot of e-mail of a commercial nature is perfectly legitimate. Mass mailings are appropriate if the recipients invite the communication by signing up for "news" on certain topics or for offers of a particular kind.
My company is among many that offer regular e-mailings to customers and potential customers. But we only send e-mail to people who have requested it, and we have easy ways for people to remove themselves from the mailing list.
Spam, on the other hand, often comes from mailboxes that people set up just long enough to get off one mass mailing and then shut down. There's no easy way to ask to be removed from a spammer's list or to complain. Sometimes spam includes a purported way for you to remove yourself from the mailing list, but it often doesn't work. In fact, making the request may do nothing more than prove to the spammer that your e-mail address is valid -- prompting more mailings.
I use software that does a pretty good job of filtering out junk e-mail, but the filters eliminate some messages I probably would like to read.
As I first described in my book "The Road Ahead" in 1995, I expect that eventually you'll be paid to read unsolicited e-mail. You'll tell your e-mail program to discard all unsolicited messages that don't offer an amount of money that you'll choose. If you open a paid message and discover it's from a long-lost friend or somebody else who has a legitimate reason to contact you, you'll be able to cancel the payment. Otherwise, you'll be paid for your time.
When this day comes, spam will cease to be a problem, because people will be able to decide what their time is worth, and advertisers will have to pay significant sums to reach people.
Legislative solutions to the spam problem have been suggested, too. For example, lawmakers have proposed that all advertisements be marked so that they can be easily deleted and that all e-mail include a legitimate return address. Advances in software also promise to make it easier for people to track down the real originators of e-mail, which should help discourage spam.
Even more annoying than spam, in some respects, are hoaxes. I'm acutely aware of this because my name was recently attached to a hoax e-mail message that was widely distributed.
People embellished the fraudulent e-mail over time, as it was forwarded from electronic mailbox to electronic mailbox, but an early version read this way:
"My name is Bill Gates. I have just written up an e-mail tracing program that traces everyone to whom this message is forwarded. I am experimenting with this, and I need your help. Forward this to everyone you know and if it reaches 1,000 people, everyone on the list will receive $1,000 at my expense. Enjoy. Your friend, Bill Gates."
The bogus message was widely forwarded, which surely led to some disappointment from people who hoped to receive $1,000 for passing along what was essentially a chain letter.
As people forwarded it to everybody they knew who had an e-mail address, they appended wishful commentary:
"I hope this is for real. It would be nice."
"Just read it and pass it on and collect $1,000 . . . I hope."
"I am sure this is a big bunch of hooey . . . but what if it isn't????"
Well, it is hooey. There's a lot of hooey on the Internet. But that doesn't mean the Internet isn't wonderful, that it won't change the world or that it won't get a lot better over time.
Note: For a list of sites describing spam and e-mail hoaxes, see the copy of this article on my home page: http://www.microsoft.com/billgates.
Questions may be sent to Bill Gates by electronic mail. The address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Or write to Gates care of the New York Times Syndication Sales Corp., 122 E. 42nd St., New York, N.Y. 10168. Questions of general interest will be answered in this column; Bill Gates regrets that unpublished questions cannot be answered individually.