Saturday, 25 January 2014

An interesting specimen

     I've mentioned before my interest in chain letters. I classify them as memetic viruses, because just as a DNA or RNA virus gets into a cell nucleus and directs the molecular machinery to make copies of the virus and send them out to infect other cells, so do chain letters get into your consciousness and direct you to make copies to infect other minds. (I should point out that calling them viruses doesn't mean I think they're an evil pestilence, though some clearly are. I'm using the word "virus" in a clinical sense to describe the life cycle, not as a pejorative. Throughout, I'll be using terms related to viruses, such as identifying people who are "infected" as "hosts", and so on, simply because the analogy to biological viruses is so powerful.)
     Occasionally I receive interesting specimens from friends and relatives who know I collect them, but yesterday I spotted a new one in the wild, so to speak: it was forwarded to me by someone in earnest. Here's the text I received, minus the names of the participants. I'll talk about the interesting aspects of it below.

Dear Friend,
We're continuing a collective, constructive, and hopefully uplifting Bible verse exchange. It's a one-time thing and we hope you will participate. We have picked those we think would be faithful, and make it fun. Please send an encouraging Bible verse to the person whose name is in position 1 below (even if you don't know him/her). It should be a favorite verse that has lifted you when you were experiencing challenging times. Don't agonize over it--it is one you reach for when you need it or the one that you a

1. [redacted]
2.  [redacted]
After you've sent the verse to the person in position 1, and only that person, copy this letter into a new email, move my name to position 1 and put your name in position 2. Only my name and your name should show when you email. Send to 20 friends BCC (blind copy). If you cannot do this in five days, let us know so it will be fair to those participating. It's fun to see where they come from. Seldom does anyone drop out, because we all need new ideas and inspiration. The turnaround is fast, as there are only two names on the list, and you only have to do it once.

     The main thing to understand about chain letters is that they exist because people forward them, and the more effective they are at getting people to share them, the more successful they'll be. Most people are actually pretty resistant hosts; we have all sorts of built-in immunities that make us unlikely to just copy something because we were asked. That's why the Superstitiones have to threaten bad luck if you break the chain, why the Pyramides offer the promise of receiving more of whatever you send out. The Petitiones make you think you're doing a good deed for others by forwarding them, as do the Notifers, which are forwarded simply because you think the recipient will find their content valuable in some way.
     Those who have looked at the taxonomy of chain letters I've been developing will see that its structure places it squarely in the family Pyramides. All pyramideans I've seen before this one, however, have been of the make-money-fast variety, where each participant is asked to send money to the first (or each) person on the list (of usually from four to ten previous hosts) before altering the list and forwarding the chain. Interestingly, this is the first modern pyramidean I've collected that asks for something other than money to be sent to the earlier hosts. (I have seen a large number of parody chains that appear to request the host to send various things like spouses to earlier hosts, but while these appear structurally as pyramideans, their actual replicative strategy puts them in the family Notifera.)
     This is not actually a new trait, however. According to Dan Van Arsdale's brilliant work on Chain Letter Evolution, the earliest chain letters were "letters from Heaven" and prayer requests. In time, a "luck" chain letter appeared, which mutated in the 1930s to the "Send a dime" chain from which all modern pyramideans are descended. Well, maybe not all -- it is conceivable that someone could re-invent a chain letter from whole cloth. However, the presence of common features from previous chains strongly suggests that the authors of even brand new chains are usually inspired by exposure to previous chains, so they are "descended" from the earlier ones in that sense.
     The specimen above appears to me to belong to such a lineage, as it explicitly talks about the "turnaround time" and points out that there are only two names on the list, implying a tacit expectation that there would normally be more. It also prescribes a number of people one is supposed to forward it to, as well as a deadline by which one is supposed to do so, both of which are extremely common features to chain letters (particularly of families Pyramides and Superstitiones). So the author was in my view no stranger to chain letters. As well, the instructions about how to use BCC suggest that the author is at least a little bit email savvy. (I have seen many species which were originally paper chains, predating email, and occasionally you can see artifacts of that ancestry in the email version.)

     There's a quite clever and novel trait this particular specimen has to boost compliance, which I've never seen before in a chain letter. It's the bit that says, "If you cannot do this in five days, let us know so it will be fair to those participating". Most chains rely to some extent on making you think that your friend who sent it to you is relying on you to do so (consider the Facebook status posts framed as a "personal" favor), but this one asks you to do something if you cannot do the other requested thing. So there's a quite powerful psychological reinforcement, framing it as a choice between complying or explaining why you can't, which of course conceals the third option: ignore.

     And then the fourth option, which is to add it to your collection and write a blog post about it.


  1. It seems like the Hound of Heaven is on yur trail, Tom.

  2. Actually, this kind of chain letter is -- even though it is not a profit-motive-based one -- still illegal (to my understanding) to send through the U.S. Postal system; and may also be through the Canadian postal service.

    It's illegal because it contains an implied threat.

    When you receive unsolicited mail, you have the right to do such things as ignore it or dispose of it without action. Most of the religious ones threaten dire consequences if you don't do what they direct you to do ('bad luck if you break the chain' is the typical phraseology.)

    This one tries to get you to respond either by participating or by responding that you won't participate; when indeed you have the right not to respond regardless of the decision. That's an implied threat that you action is necessary and there are consequences to follow if you don't conform (in one way or another) with the sender's will.

    Most legitimate Christian ministers/priests take a dim view of these kinds of chain letters, by the way.

  3. I disagree with respect to the threat. It's true that many, if not most, religious chain letters do carry some sort of implied threat, but this one doesn't. You are right that it asks you to respond in one way or another, but there's nothing even remotely threatening about that. If there were, then every letter I get asking me to donate to cancer research or starving children would also be a threat, to say nothing of the ads for home security or insurance or radon test kits.

    This letter threatens no consequences whatsoever. It ASKS you to reply to let them know if you can't participate, but it doesn't say or even imply something bad will happen to you if you don't.

    In any event, bona fide threats are unlawful in their own right, whether as the common law tort of assault or the criminal charge (in Canada) of uttering death threats, or some other means. But for something to actually qualify as a threat is a little harder than asserting consequences. If I tell you you're going to choke on a pretzel if you don't chew properly, for example, that's not a threat in the legal sense, at least in part because I have no control over the consequence. If I tell you I'm going to forcefully jam a pretzel into your throat so that you choke, THAT is a threat.