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Meme Machine

Whilst regular readers of my columns will know that I am a fierce proponent of online communication, there is, even for me, a point which I consider it to be... overused. Since the very day I took over management of an Email server I became plagued with a particular form of overuse -- and that usage was humour.

Now, I am not adverse to a laugh now and again and have been known to send the odd jocular Email at times. Cast your mind back to the dawn of Email within the generic workplace, this was primarily a text affair and even then people used it almost exclusively for business purposes. Granted, the odd joke was thrown around but the only time you would know any different was by hearing the subtle beep of the PC speaker and looking out for raised eyebrows over an acoustic partition or the Office Administrator blushing and giggling to herself after receiving one of the lads most flirtatious one liners. It was a work tool first and a social catalyst second, the thought of abusing it couldn’t be further from peoples minds, let alone they consider they may be monitored or even reprimanded for it. I can say without word of a lie that you’d need written authorisation in triplicate from the CEO to monitor someone else’s mail account back then. The main point however, is that we never had the need to -- the world lived in harmony.

"It was a work tool first and a social catalyst second, the thought of abusing it couldn’t be further from peoples minds, let alone they consider they may be monitored or even reprimanded for it."

As time went on and Web access was slowly introduced to the desktop, people had another outlet with which to waste more of their day. Suddenly the Jokes began to slow down and people began to browse the Internet in search of enlightenment. In place of lengthy mails, came lengthy URLs, the users began to simply point people to indexes of where they could find all the humour they’d ever need and because there was no form of monitoring or control, so they got away with it for years. The one or two jokes a day became hour after hour of ceaseless Internet addiction and, like discovering a rats nest harboring behind a kitchen cupboard, it was only a matter of time before this work-shyness gave itself away by eating through the digital woodwork and appeared at the feet of the MD.

Doing what any good MD would do in this situation, he hit the cyber-rodent with his shoe.

So, whether in the name of ‘acceptable business use’ or ‘malicious attachment control’, companies began to lock down Internet access and being able to view humorous websites or download games were suddenly not something the user was entitled to do on company time. As web blocking technology become more widespread and intelligent, the user was thrown into the technological dark ages and Email was the comedy distribution method of choice once again. But now we had the benefit of Microsoft Outlook, massive Email storage capabilities and bandwidth.

Both Memes (information made extensively popular generally by word of mouth, forums or Email – think ‘All your base are belong to us’) and Viral Marketing (usually comedic or attention grabbing images or videos from companies designed with the intent to be forwarded en masse) have been one of the biggest phenomenon to hit the Internet – granted as concepts they’re nothing new, however the over-the-back-fence Tupperware party circle has nothing on the ability to mass mail the latest talking point to all your friends within seconds, without having to leave your tea and biscuits. With everyone so intent on stamping down on illicit web access, they’d never spot the faithful old Emails, would they?

Normally there wouldn’t be a problem, what’s an image ten, twenty kilobytes? I would be GREAT if that’s all it was, but how much can you convey with an image? Not enough it seems; images become animated GIFs, GIFs become MPEGs and AVIs -- our harmless ten-kilobyte images are now ten-megabyte movie files and our users are now getting their daily dose of online laughs. Having watched the logs of an Email server for a regular size company, it’s almost as if there is no consideration whatsoever of the impact these files have on a corporate network. Server utilisation is like water flowing into a pond, finding every nook and cranny and filling it up until it overflows and the more you bail out with a bucket, the more there is to come to fill it.

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Chris Caines


But what about Email blocking I hear you cry? Well you know I use it after my opinion on virus protection; however it seems that the mentality of a Virus writer is alive and well in every office employee as they try tricks and dodges to get around the most voracious file blocking. Jokes come embedded in PowerPoint presentations, Excel files and Word Documents – in today’s world, all file formats which have a completely acceptable business use and boy, don’t they know it?

"Having watched the logs of an Email server for a regular size company, it’s almost as if there is no consideration whatsoever of the impact these files have on a corporate network."

Again, back in the early days people actually told each other jokes or humorous stories in the kitchen or on a lunch break, mailing old friends was something to do to encourage a social event and it was genuinely pleasant to get an email from someone I hadn’t spoken to in a while. Now, I find myself on joke distribution lists from guys I haven’t heard from in years and whilst they deem it fit to send me an image I saw over five years ago, they don’t actually suggest meeting up for a beer. Employers are calling on their staff to work longer hours and take fewer breaks, so people see these Emails as a brief release from the chains of corporate stress – however, I do wonder how much more work people would get done if they saved all the online games, funny videos and applications which turn your desktop upside down, for when they got home. It seems ludicrous that people would risk their jobs by sending around pornography and yet happily work into the night to get a document out on time.

Mass Emailing often triggers a short bout of Email tic-tac-toe as well, which is even more lost time and even more bandwidth. How may Emails have you received with a one word answer and yet twenty to thirty kilobytes worth of old replies and the favourite; Email disclaimers. In fact this is a point I find hilarious, people happily forward on inappropriate or pornographic material to all their friends, leaving on everyones corporate identity! If I’m near the end of a chain I can literally track hundreds of employees from all over the world, many working for major organisations and blue chips. It is the ultimate in lack of consideration of what people are doing, by leaving a sign on the fence which says “Yes, I forwarded it! And not only that, here’s who I sent it to and here’s who I got it from, and who they got it from!” Let’s say you get a more vindictive IT person than myself (unlikely, I know) who decides to not only shop you, but your friends, and their friends too? That’s a lot of people to get a lot of punishments.

Do yourself (and everyone) a favour; next time you get sent a five megabyte video of a cat swinging off a fan, quietly delete it and reply to the sender asking if they fancy a pint instead. You want something to make viral? Make it getting into work, getting your work done, getting the hell out and going out and enjoying yourself down the pub, where you can tell all your mates about a funny video you heard about.

Forward this advice onto twenty of your friends, if you do it with ten minutes you will have good luck. If you break the chain, the world will end… and you wouldn’t want that on your conscience, would you?