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Forward this or you’ll die in seven days: On the persistence of chain letters

Forward this or you’ll die in seven days: On the persistence of chain letters


They’ve been around forever, and we’ll never get rid of them

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If you have an email inbox, you’ve probably received a message that promises money or luck if you share it and unspecified misfortune if you don’t. “Please do not throw this letter away until you have carefully considered what I am about to tell you,” it might begin. “This can be the most important communication you will ever receive if you can understand and act upon this incredible opportunity.” (Emphasis theirs.) But if you’ve received one of these messages more recently, it probably arrived on a smartphone and read a little differently. Say, like this: “😂It’s moday👏✌️the start↗️of a new✅🚩week📅📆📅📆mondays✏️are✏️HARD👎👏‼️send this↗️▶️▶️to😂6😂HOMIES🙏to make them💁👶have a 💥GOOD💥 Monday. 🙅🙅DON’T BREAK🌐🌐THE CHAIN🙅🙅or else 😝😝you’ll have🔶🔷a BAD💭monday.⏩⏩⏩GO⏪⏪⏪”

Or perhaps like this: “Gay 👫 👬 marriage 💍 is now legal in all 5⃣0⃣ states 🇺🇸. Send this 👉🏼✉️ to 1⃣0⃣republicans 👨🏼👩🏼 who are crying 😪 right now 👇🏼”

Or, more smuttily, like this: “IM DELETING YOU, DADDY!😭👋 ██]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]  10% complete..... ████]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]] 35% complete…. ███████]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]] 60% complete….. ███████████] 99% complete..... 🚫ERROR!🚫 💯True💯 Daddies are irreplaceable 💖I could never delete you Daddy!💖 Send this to ten other 👪Daddies👪 who give you 💦cummies💦  Or never get called ☁️squishy☁️ again❌❌😬😬❌❌ If you get 0 Back: no cummies for you 🚫🚫👿 3 back: you’re squishy☁️💦 5 back: you’re daddy’s kitten😽👼💦 10+ back: Daddy😛😛💕💕💦👅👅”

These three examples are only the most recent update to the chain letter formula, which has been around since at least 1888. Over the last two decades, they’ve been given new life and ubiquity through the internet’s reach and and people’s propensity for connection. “If you have always dreamed of getting that lucky break, you just got it!” that first letter continues. It’s from a sender who called themselves “David Rhode,” and it was distributed via email mailing list in 1999. “God helps those that help themselves, is more than a quaint saying, it’s a proven fact. So, now it is up to you. If you follow these instructions exactly, in good faith, your dreams will come true.”

In his letter, “David Rhode” was talking about money. The whole idea was, in essence, a pyramid scheme: You’d attach some amount of money to the letter, replace one of the last addresses with your own, and then send out a bunch of copies. Rhode has an explanation for why it works:

Most people sent 100 letters, and seem to get 9% response. This means that when you send your 100 letters with your name in the fifth position, 9 people respond. They will have sent out 900 letters with your name in the fourth position. Okay, 9% of 900 is 81. Now, 81 people send you $5.00 and send 100 letters with your name in the third slot. Are you getting the idea? So then, 9% of 8100 is 729. 729 people send you $5.00 and now your are in the number two spot. Here comes the payoff, 9% of 72,900 is $32,805 and 6566- 100 letters are mailed with you in the top place. If 9% respond, you will get over $295,245 before your name is removed from the list. Double the figure for additional names you send letters to. It is all legal. WHY WAIT? Join the program, and keep percentages rolling. DO IT NOW? IF YOU ALL FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS IN GOOD FAITH, IT WILL WORK FOR ALL OF YOU!!! [sic]

This is better known as a pyramid scheme, which the postal service made illegal after enough letters requesting money made their way through its offices. When chain letters migrated to the internet in the late ’90s and early aughts, they changed; their purpose went from get-rich-quick scheming or harvesting email addresses from suckers to something more playful, and social media was the architect of that change.

Around a decade and a half ago, MySpace was the top social networking site; one of its features was an area for bulletins — reminiscent of those BBSs in the early days of the internet — that were immediately visible to all of your friends on the site. Chain letters, naturally, proliferated there because they were uniquely suited to the format. Instant distribution ensured that death hoaxes (e.g. “if you don’t pass this on to 10 people in the next hour you’ll die”), luck letters (e.g. “send this to 15 of your friends and something good will happen to you”), and the like were everywhere. The format underwent another change afterward, when chain letters collided with meme culture. On Tumblr, for example, there are a number of popular posts that implore users to reblog them or something bad might happen; they’re popular enough there that there are chain posts to protect users from… the ill-effects of chain posts.

All this, of course, only happens because having superstitions is a part of being human, and those irrational beliefs come from our biological ability to recognize patterns. As a study from 2014 put it: “During human evolution, pattern processing capabilities became increasingly sophisticated as the result of expansion of the cerebral cortex, particularly the prefrontal cortex and regions involved in processing of images,” the author writes. That propensity to recognize patterns, he posits, is the reason humans are so cognitively sophisticated. The appeal of chain letters is about control: By forwarding them we allow ourselves to believe that we can command the future. Or at least ward off the worst.

Which brings us back to chain letters in text messages, and how chain messages have begun to change again. Over the last decade or so, as the format shifted to accommodate its new contexts online, there was a corresponding move away from sincerity; online meme culture is usually drenched in layers of irony, and that’s become more evident in the latest examples of chain posts. Text message chains are generally sent because they’re amusing, and not because the senders want their recipients to do something. (One Tumblr user is cataloguing them here, and it’s a fascinating read.) Correspondingly, on Facebook, chain message-like posts proliferate in people’s statuses — usually ending with the tagline “share if you agree.” They’re a way to comment on the day’s issues and signal where you stand without necessarily having to do more than repost someone else’s thoughts. And that’s sort of the point, because participating in a chain is really about the act of sharing. Which is one of the things that makes us human.