The Unsubscribe Fee

When I first got online, it didn't take me long to find HumourNet, a mailing list featuring "Collages" of nicely filtered humor (er... humour) items compiled by Vince Sabio. Vince and I quickly became friends; alas, however, the mailing list is long gone, though the HumourNet Archive still exists. (I still keep in touch with Vince, though; this is reprinted with his permission.)

Wayyyyyyyyy back in August 1996, Vince ran the attached in his newsletter. It goes nicely with yesterday's How to Unsubscribe from a Mailing List item. It's long, but it's worth it.

It all started on 12 August, with this rather simple comment in an admin message:

Though subscriptions are free, unsubs cost US$5.00 to US$7.00, depending on your geographical location. The charge appears on your credit card as "HumourNet Communications, Inc." (Please remember this when you get your bill.)


(We suffered a rather catastrophic listproc crash during the preceding weekend, and I had sent out a message to announce that the list was back on line and was processing sub/unsub messages. I followed that up with instructions for unsubscribing; the comment above is excerpted from that message.)

Now, I don't think we need to discuss the obvious "joke alerts" that were in that passage: Namely, the "depending on your geographical location" comment, and the rather noticeable "wink" that followed the comment. (The wink was provided solely for those subscribers who fall into the "humor impaired" category.) Nor do I need to mention that I do not actually have anyone's credit card information.

Note that this was not intended to be uproariously hilarious -- and it wasn't. (Though many of you got quite a chuckle out of it.) The crash had simply derailed us for a few days (ended up being about a week), and I thought that a little bit of humor was in order.

Moreover, it was a test -- another one of my "Internet Experiments."

Of course, I knew that those people who proudly display their "Humor Impaired" blazer badges were going to take the "unsub fee" comment seriously. I knew that I would have to explain to some of the list members that, no, it was just a joke. I knew just what was in store for me. Or so I thought.

Heh. I had NO IDEA what was in store for me ...

Some of you tried to warn me -- Paul in Washington was the first:

... I have the sinking feeling that you are going to get tons of mail, all of it really smart. You realize, of course, that countless millions of those "barely literate enough to subscribe...but incapable of figuring out how to unsubscribe" will be up in arms over the "unsub fee" -- I'd be interested to know how many people took that seriously...

I, of course, assured Paul that everything was well under control.

Then the complaints started coming in. They were pretty much as expected -- except that I received four of them within a five minute period. That's bad news -- on a mailing list of 6000, the results could potentially bring Eudora (and me) to its knees.

I wasn't ready to end the experiment just yet -- we hadn't quite reached the point of critical mass in the responses. But I knew I had to bring the curtain down when I received this message from Ed in Denver, Colorado:

I just got your message regarding the [unsubscription] fees ... how can I unsubscribe if I don't have any credit cards?

Ed was serious, mind you. (Bless his soul.) And so was Nachman in New York:

I haven't really decided to unsubscribe yet (inasmuch as [I've] seen something like seven messages so far, with no jokes in them), but, if I do, could you please waive the unsubscribe fee (inasmuch as I've not really used the service yet)?

(Inasmuch as I was very entertained by Nachman's request, I do have to admit that we were on quite a streak with the admin messages at that time.)

It was at about this point that I sent out the "Darwin Was Right" message. Prior to writing the message, I decided that I could take one of two tacks: (1) Coddle the humor impaired, and try to avoid hurting any feelings, or (2) Go straight for the kill.

I opted for number 2 -- and for very good reason: Anyone who was offended by the "Darwin Was Right" message would unsubscribe. This mass exodus of the humor impaired would save both them and me a lot of headaches down the road. (This plan worked out well, BTW -- roughly 50 people (less than 1%, but still pretty decent) unsubbed as a result of the "Darwin Was Right" message. You might be surprised to know that this made me a very happy list owner -- I'd much rather have a small, smart list than a big, dumb one. ;-)

"Darwin Was Right" also generated a nearly endless stream of humorous replies; Viktor in Sweden kicked things off (the comments marked by a "V:" are Viktor's; those marked by a "VS:" are my replies):

V: ... Tell me: Are there really Americans that stupid that are loose in your society?

VS: Sadly, yes. Well, actually, no. We *remove* them from society by electing them to public office.

V: Is that the reason for the Ricky Lake show?

But Viktor had made a judgment error when he assumed that all of the "Unsubscription Fee" mail must necessarily be coming from Americans. For example, Mike in Vancouver, British Columbia (Canada), did his country proud with this one:

You've got to be kidding. There is no subscription fee but there is an unsubscription fee? Gimme a break, that is so ridiculously bogus it could only come from a humour oriented subscription. Well I guess I could pay the money or maybe I'll just filter this [most entertaining mail] to /dev/null. I think I'll go for the latter and save the displeasure of giving some moron my money that I actually work to earn and not run some pathetic cash grab scam.

So whether or not you unsubscribe me is irrelevant as after I send this mail I won't ever see it again anyways. See ya' losers and keep up the mail!

Thanks for the pep talk, Mike! And don't worry, we're keeping up the mail for you, buddy. <g> (BTW, I fully expect to be hearing back from Mike when this Collage goes out. :-)

It's also worth noting that there are Americans whose senses of humor are fully intact. Bob in Tempe, Arizona, contributed this thought ...

Never underestimate the stupidity, ignorance, and gullibility of a large number of people. (A large number like 2, or maybe 1.)

...and Scott in Maine sent me another amusing one:

Here is my impression of the typical AOL user:

Mr. Sabio:
what do you mean five dollars to unscribe. no body told me about this charge when i signed up for your joke service. i wish to not get your jokes as I previously did not get them. i do not want to pay this charge either, but as i am in kentucky is it $5 or 7? thank you.

(Note that I did not coach Scott on his selection of state. :-)

And then there were those who opted to respond to humor with more (intentional) humor; for example, there was this gem from Charlie in San Francisco, California ...

I don't see what they are so concerned about. I think that a $5 to $7 unsubscribing fee is very reasonable.

...and this one from Brett in New Jersey:

I REALLY wish you would not use such big WORDS. I am having trouble with them, could you include a link to Webster's Dictionary?

Illiterate in NJ!

(This particular "Brett in New Jersey" happens to be my brother. He also happens to be serious about that signature there. ;-)

...and this one from Bob in Seattle:

If I unsubscribe for 3 years, do I get a pretty good price break?

(Yes, in fact, you do. Though the unsub fee is an annual charge, we will only charge your credit card once for each block of 3 years for which you elect to unsubscribe.)

...and this one from Pat in Minnesota:

I will need to unsubscribe soon as I am moving. I would really prefer that you don't charge my credit card for this. So please take the money out of the attached file. I was able to feed the money into the scanner thing; at first it kept coming out but I finally got it to stay. It is making a funny noise now so I am going to send it right away.

(Note that HumourNet Communications, Ltd., assumes no liability for legitimate -- or illegitimate -- failed attempts to pay the unsub fee.)

...and this one from Ben in San Francisco, California:

Dear Mr. Sabio;

Thank you for explaining the unsubscribing process. I now understand that unsubscribing is free, and I thank you.

However, I wish to support your efforts, so I am willing to pay a subscription fee. However, my wife won't let me have a credit card (not after that bridge buying incident), so enclosed please find US$5.00. I am sure I am in a good geographical location.

P.S. I know you got the US$5.00, because I put it on my keyboard, sent the e-mail, and walked away (to get lunch). When I came back, it was gone.

(Can you see why I like this job so much -- despite the problems with the listproc?)

My all-time-favorite in this category, however, came from Benedikt in Bern, Switzerland. The first part of his e-mail is simply quoting an excerpt from my "Darwin Was Right" message; the statement following is Benedikt's:


Three words on that: 'International HumourNet Conspiracy'

Very funny, Benedikt; and now that you know the truth, we're going to have to kill you. ;-)

And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the two-dozen-or-so subscribers who sent me messages like this one, from Eric in Cleveland, Ohio:

Just in case you need it, Vince, here's my VISA number: 2222 1487 3286 9905

Finally, many people found that they learned from this experience, that they "expanded their humor horizons." Pete in Chicago volunteered his personal apocalypse for this opener:

Hey, I thought your "$5 to Unsubscribe" was a RIOT. I'll even admit that, for about 10 seconds, I was really taken back with the thought that I'd have to pay to unsubscribe (not that I'd ever want to do that anyway). Then I had the same thought that every other normal human being reading the message had, "hey, I NEVER give out my credit card number over the 'net, so I'd like to SEE this guy try and charge me $5!!!" Then, it occurred to me that this is HUMOR NET and the joke WAS on me.

Great work.

Thanks, Pete! Though it was touch-n-go there for a moment, I'm glad that we can count you among the "comedy capable." For others, the Road to Comedic Enlightenment was a little rockier. Chris in California, for example, sent me a slightly-heated-but-still-pretty-decent flame in response to the "Unsub Fee." I pointed him toward the follow-up message, and mentioned that I wouldn't use his flame in the opener since he was, at least, "borderline decent" about it. After reading the follow-up message, Chris had this to say:

...Oops... I guess the "depending on your geographical location" should have clued me in. Sorry for wasting your time, and thank you for not publicly humiliating me.

I found his response to be so hysterical that I had to use it; I hope that this doesn't fall under "public humiliation." After all, we're now counting Chris among The Enlightened. Which is more than I can say for some of the respondents.

The first entrant in the Ones Who Never Quite Figured It Out category is Andrew in Connecticut:

A: I never heard of an "unsubscribe charge", and I do not even understand how they would bill me since I have subscribed through work. Does one really have to get billed for unsubscribing?

VS: Yes -- but we'll forward the bill to your purchasing department for you.

A: Does that mean I may need to just keep trashing the e-mail rather than unsubscribing???

VS: You can try trashing it for a while, but we have software that detects that (it uses the "X-Receipt-To" protocol). Eventually, you will be automatically unsubscribed and billed.

Andrew unsubbed shortly after that; I haven't had a chance to get a bill out to him, yet. ;-)

But my favorite example from the Ones Who Never Quite Figured It Out category is Emily, hailing from San Mateo, California. Emily is the kind of subscriber to whom I send subscription instructions for other humor mailing lists, hoping that she'll like them more, and unsubscribe from HumourNet. (Sorry, Shawn/Randy/Steve/Jon/etc., but I really try to keep the average I.Q. on HumourNet relatively high; this substantially reduces my aggravation. Thanks. I knew you'd all understand.) Anyway, in response to my "Darwin Was Right" admin message, Emily had this to say:

::snip nearly a full paragraph of introductory whining::

I have been a subscriber for about two weeks and I've found LESS THAN FIVE JOKES in the multitudes of mindless, time-wasting text I get. I am not a complainer, but really - do you think people with jobs? with families? with school work to do.. have time to sift through so much text day after day and try to find one lousy joke?

I guess people [do]. It absolutely AMAZES me that people do. I'm not usually a complainer and I'm not tring (sic) to preach. I am the FIRST ONE who likes good humor; humor from the news, true stories, jokes, top ten lists, ...

::snip three-and-a-half more *paragraphs* of whining::

Well, thanks for reading (if you're still reading) and I'm going to go back and figure out HOW TO UNSUBSCRIBE.

Remember, Emily caught me at a bad time -- right after a weekend with the listproc, and a full day of "Unsubscription Fee" messages from the Humor Impaired. Nonetheless, I cordially explained that (1) the admin messages are a fact of life when things go bad at the listproc, (2) if she'd actually read the previous message, she'd have seen the instructions for unsubscribing, and (3) she really is, in fact, quite a complainer.

That last one was a big mistake. I should have told her that she was right, right, right, right, right, and that I was egregiously wrong, and that I'd never do ANYTHING like that again -- despite the fact that she was unsubscribing, and therefore wouldn't be around to be bothered by it. (Much less whine at me.)

Too late. Emily, who quite probably whines professionally, sent me no fewer than four more e-mails, trying to convince me that (1) I was wrong for having sent out all those admin messages, and (2) she really wasn't a complainer. Which, of course, is akin to posting an ad-hominem-style message to a discussion list, complaining about extraneous and unnecessary posts. (You know who you are. :-)

Emily's final message actually put me over the edge. Mind you, this is not easy to do -- I've been called everything from "just another damned stupid Republican" to a "pabulum puking liberal," and I have never responded to anyone in a less-than cordial manner. (In fact both subscribers who referred to me by the aforementioned epithets are still on the list, last time I checked.) Emily, however, managed to do what no one before her had ever accomplished ...

Her final e-mail to me quoted the entire "Darwin Was Right" message, with three paragraphs of Complainer Prose(tm) at the top. I don't know what the whole message said; I never made it past the first 15 words:

Here is an example of something that could be said in 100 words or less....

At that point, I still hadn't seen an unsubscribe come through for her, and I was growing rather impatient. My response to Emily was a bit uncharacteristic -- though very rewarding:


A short time later, her unsub message miraculously appeared in my ListMom's "Unsubscribe Requests" box. The rest of my evening went very nicely, thanks to Emily.

Now, while I know that admin messages aren't the point of this list, we do have to put up with the occasional list-server misbehaviors. And, trust me, you're better off deleting a few admin messages than spending a summer weekend trying to get a miscreant listproc back on its feet. Also, I try to make the admin messages at least somewhat amusing, given (1) the need to convey some important information, and (2) my state of mind during these wondrous events. And at least some of you do value those modest attempts at humor -- for example, Rob in Iowa sent this:

BTW, we appreciate your efforts in bringing HumourNet to us, and even when things go screwy, I almost enjoy the admin msgs as much as the Collages! Am I warped?

Yes, Rob, you're warped -- but you've found the right place. :-)

I also appreciated the countless messages from those of you who wrote to tell me that this entire event was utterly hysterical; this example comes to us from Wade in Jacksonville, Florida:

I think one of the funniest things I've seen on the net lately was the need to post this message....

Also, there was Dave in Idaho Falls, Idaho, who understood the situation firsthand:

Several years ago I posted an April Fools announcement derived from some software I had written earlier. I assigned this new product a way-high version number, included a future date for release (late 1990's) and a download machine of or somesuch.

... I received a number of "not very amused" messages about the machine address not existing, mostly from college students.

To hell with Darwin; P.T. Barnum was right.

But I still owe the single biggest thanks to Susan Wallace in Texas, who put together a very concise, creative, and extremely amusing Web page, just for the occasion. It even comes complete with a short (but very appropriate) audio clip. It's dedicated to everyone who fell for the "unsubscription fee" joke; I highly recommend checking it out*:

[astoundingly, that page was still there when I originally posted this in 2005! But it's gone now. -rc]

It's also worth mentioning several very good suggestions that were made in the course of all the fun; Rob in Iowa volunteered this one:

Maybe you should consider those without a sense of humor, (i.e. unable to distinguish a joke unless it's delimited by your HumourNet ='s), to be Students of Humor, and once they can pick out the "joke" in an otherwise normal (?) admin message, you could kind of graduate them, award them with a Humor Degree, send them a certificate of completion. They then could let their Family and Colleagues know they now have a sense of humor, and will now pick up on the humor [previously] being wasted on them.

I LIKE IT! "HumourNet University." A continuing-education experience for the humor impaired. No -- for the "comedically challenged"! After all, who has less of a sense of humor than those who espouse the "political correctness" movement? (I'd like to extend a big thanks to Jeff in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for sending along the term "comedically challenged" to describe those who took the "Unsub Fee" seriously.)

Another good suggestion (plus a question that we should all be asking right about now) comes to us from Arthur in the UK:

How many people **would** have sent you their credit card number if you had asked?

However, your time must be/is worth something. Why not invite people ... to subscribe to a nominated charity in the name of HumourNet to give you some form of both thanks and recognition?

Why, Arthur, that's a *great* idea!


Okay, here's how we carry this one off; it's really quite simple: If you like HumourNet, and you appreciate the time that I put in on this list, then please consider sending a contribution in the name of "HumourNet Communications, Ltd." to The Seeing Eye in Morristown, New Jersey:

The Seeing Eye, Inc.
Washington Valley Road
Morristown NJ USA 07960

You can also visit their home page:

For those of you who are not already familiar with them, The Seeing Eye is a guide dog school -- that is, they train guide dogs for the blind. This is a rather non-controversial charitable organization, and one that is of great personal interest and importance to me (for reasons that aren't worth getting into here). Please note that I have no direct association with The Seeing Eye, except that I make regular contributions to them. However, if you prefer to make a contribution in the name of HumourNet to a different guide dog school, please feel free to do so; you can find a more-or-less complete list of them on the Web:

Either way, I'd appreciate your letting me know if you send a contribution. (Note that this is strictly voluntary, and I'm not interested in the amount.) You can just send me an e-mail here at HQ HumourNet to let me know.

As for Arthur's other question -- namely, how many people would have sent me their credit card numbers, had I only asked -- well, that's a topic for another "Internet Experiment."


- Vince Sabio

HumourNet Moderator

Posted February 15, 2005

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