How We Became Infected by Chain E-Mail

Like a virus, its sole purpose is replication.

Illustration by Igor Bastidas

God only knows when it began, but I can tell you this: it is never going to end. I don’t mean the pandemiccijilu123永不失效地址, the origins of which are more or less clear, temporally if not yet biologically, and I don’t mean our great national hunkering-down, which hadn’t even started back on the Groundhog Day it now so resembles. I mean a minor, unexpected, and vexing byproduct of them both: the feel-good chain e-mail, some version of which you have almost certainly received since you’ve been stuck at home. Friends! I know these are trying times, so, in the interest of bringing a little joy into all of our lives, I’m inviting you to join in sharing a beloved poem/recipe/Bible verse/inspiring quote/home workout/elephant joke/photo of yourself in your favorite Renaissance Faire outfit/drawing of a cat in a litter box. This is meant to be FUN!, so please don’t spend too much time on it. It shouldn’t take more than fifty hours of wondering how to graciously decline this request followed by another thirty hours of ignoring it followed by six hours of obsessively refining your recipe for microwave chocolate-chip cheesecake in a mug. When you’re done, simply add your name to the seventh empty slot below, copy and paste this note into a new e-mail, move my name to the third slot above your own, hit “reply all” to send your response to the non-blind-carbon-copied strangers on this note, then forward it to twenty friends you never want to speak to again.

I am being, perhaps, overly harsh. These are trying times, and, assuming you steer clear of pyramid schemes, I can think of no good reason, if it makes you feel even the slightest bit better, to discourage you from sending Joyce Kilmer or Psalm 91 or Chicken Surprise winging around the Internet. I can, however, think of a very good reason to discourage you from sending any of those things to me, which is that your Great Chain of Being E-mailed will promptly rupture. In every one of these that I have ever received, and they are numerous, I am the weak link, by which I mean I am the intransigent link. The issue is not that I am an introvert, liable to feel invaded by what , in describing these e-mails, “social homework.” Nor am I temporarily running a third-, fifth-, and eighth-grade classroom out of my kitchen while simultaneously running a legal-aid office out of my bedroom. As a childless magazine writer whose peaceful rural home makes a quarantine look basically indistinguishable from Yaddo, I do not have the excuse of being too overburdened to rummage through my cookbooks.

But am I going to send you my favorite soufflé recipe? I am not. There is a scene in “The Sopranos” (I can tell you this because, in a rare welcome side effect of stay-at-home orders, I finally got around to watching it) in which, following the death of Tony Soprano’s mother, his sister tries to convince everyone gathered for the memorial service to share a special memory of the deceased. One problem with this kind of organized emoting is that it is wildly at odds with the funerary traditions of Italian-Catholic mobsters. Another is that the late Mrs. Soprano was so manipulative, embittered, narcissistic, and homicidal as to render her entirely eulogy-proof. But the chief problem is that Tony’s sister, being similarly manipulative and murderous, is incapable of proposing the idea without coming across as equal parts deranged, disingenuous, and smarmy, like Madame Defarge doing a turn as a camp counsellor. Watching the scene, in which all the other mourners studiously examine their freshly shined loafers, I felt a combination of vicarious horror and dismayed recognition. This was a month or so ago, and already it felt strikingly familiar: a bunch of people who don’t want to participate in something but also don’t want to express their real feelings about it, given the prevailing atmosphere of solemnity, solidarity, and grief.

All this is to say that there are few things in life more irritating than coerced participation in an allegedly uplifting group activity. Granted, the line between that and just being a good sport can be a fine one, and it is drawn in different places by different people. The family dinner where, guest or not, everyone at the table is expected to join hands in prayer before tucking into the pot roast? To my mind, perfectly acceptable. The corporate retreat where everyone is expected to take part in restorative breathing exercises before the budget meeting? Unforgivable. You may have the opposite feeling. Because of these differences in opinion, it is possible to play neutral about feel-good chain e-mails—to claim that whether they are a wholesome stress-reliever or a demanding intrusion is simply a matter of taste. But that is not quite true. I love taste. It is infinitely branching, endlessly interesting, and, all told, one of the most delightful and comic realms of human existence. But the thing about taste is that, although we all absorb some of it from outside influences, it is, by definition, a private matter—which is exactly what it ceases to be the moment you foist it on someone else. That is the problem with the chain e-mail. Other people’s vinyl recliners do not show up in your living room and require you to sit on them.

The defining feature of chain e-mails, in other words, is that, unlike taste, everybody is obliged to share them, in every sense: endorse them, participate in them, send them along to others. For those of us who are disinclined to do so, that makes them—beneath their banal, formulaic, exclamation-mark-heavy prose—precision-engineered traps. It’s not just that they are a pain in the neck. It’s that they are designed to make you seem like a pain in the neck, a feat they achieve by falling somewhat short of being actually horrible: because they are basically well-intentioned and, in the scheme of things, basically inoffensive, it is impossible to criticize them without seeming mean-spirited, especially in these dire times. Which is a problem, because it is precisely in these dire times that the feel-good chain letter, which had its last recrudesce not only before the coronavirus but before SARS and before MERScijilu123永不失效地址 and before a quarter of the world’s current population was even born, has suddenly come back to haunt us.

When the chain e-mail itself was born is, as I said, a matter of some mystery. To an unimpressed recipient, it may seem like the regrettable offspring of multilevel marketing and the four-page family holiday letter, but in fact its roots are much older than both of those. One person who has tried to unearth those origins is the folklorist Daniel W. VanArsdale, the curator of an archive of more than nine hundred chain letters and author of a digital publication called Chain Letter Evolution. VanArsdale traces the form back more than a thousand years, to early religious texts that include demands for their own reproduction and promises of good fortune or eternal salvation to those who comply. But it took many centuries, plus the rise of printing technologies, widespread literacy, and international mail, for the chain letter to assume its modern form.

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Here is a representative specimen, also in the religious vein, that appears to have originated in Massachusetts in 1951:

We are making a novena to Our Lady of Fatima. It is not much and requires little time. Just one Our Father each day for nine days. It is the first one started and is going around the world. . . . Make nine copies of this letter and send them to nine different persons before the fourth day after receiving this letter. . . . The fourth day after sending this, a favor will come to you.

That is the contemporary chain letter distilled down to its mathematical essence: do x thing (it’s easy and won’t take much time), make y number of copies, send them out within z days, and something good will befall you within ncijilu123永不失效地址 period of time. (With its fanatical emphasis on numbers, protocols, and timing, the chain letter has more in common with astrology, witchcraft, and voodoo than with any mainline religion.) This particular example departs in only two ways from the standard formula. First, it is more modest than the majority of its kin, in that it merely proposes to circumnavigate the world, while most others claim to have already done so, often multiple times. Second, it lacks a threat, even though chain letters traditionally menace their recipients: not only will good luck come to you if you send it along but terrible things await you if you do not. From one such letter that began sometime around 1939:

Mrs. Gay Field received $5000, five hours after mailing.
Mrs. Ambrose received $4000, four hours after mailing.
cijilu123永不失效地址Mr. Nevin broke the chain and lost everything he had.

cijilu123永不失效地址That reads like the juvenilia of Edward Gorey (who was, as it happens, fourteen years old at the time), and it is representative: almost all the threats in chain letters operate in this vein of comic gloom. Mr. Wilcox failed to take the enclosed request seriously and his house was destroyed; Antonio Martinez had his secretary type it up but forgot to mail the copies and promptly lost his job; Detective Segundo B. Villanueva laughed at this note and “met instantaneous death in an accident.”

Threat, testimonial, quota, deadline: within these broadly shared constraints, chain letters vary widely and have changed considerably over time. VanArsdale’s own view of them is para-biological; not by accident is his treatise called Chain Letter Evolution. By his count, there are more than four thousand known generations of chain letters, which collectively contain a great many “mutations” that have caused certain prototypes to thrive while others fade away. Thus, the addition of “Send no money” at the bottom of one might increase its circulation, as might swapping a more ominous threat for a more imploring one: in place of instant death, “Please, I beg of you, for your soul and mine, don’t take the risk. If you have the slightest doubt, obey the instructions.” Other changes are effectively spandrels, variations that are neither beneficial nor advantageous but that can still be fascinating: a man who declined to answer a chain letter starts out losing his life and ends up losing his wife. (That kind of change all but vanished with the advent of e-mail chains, which eradicated the need for hand-copying and the inevitable errors that came with it.)

Subject to the evolutionary forces of mutation and competition, the chain e-mail, like beetles and finches, gradually evolved over time, until its basic template diversified into a wide range of sub-varieties. Some remained essentially religious. Some offered a secularized promise of protection from bad luck. Some claimed to raise funds for charitable causes, while others, less altruistic, promised a large sum of money in exchange for a small one upfront. Some claimed to be trying to set a new world record for the longest unbroken chain. Some advocated for one or another political cause (the end of Prohibition, the election of Wendell Willkie, nuclear disarmament). Others—the most direct antecedent of today’s feel-good chain e-mail—asked participants to send along an easily shared object: stamps, aprons, postcards, quilt squares, handkerchiefs, tea towels, T-shirts, earrings, paperback books, children’s books, dog toys, grocery coupons, “new panties.” Still others, perennially popular among schoolgirls, promised romantic fulfillment:

Copy this letter word by word within 4 days. Give it to 8 people (no guys). This is no joke. It has worked for 70 years. On the fourth day drink a glass of milk and say his name (the boy you like) 5 times. Within the 6th day he will ask you out. If you break the chain you will have bad luck.

We have indeed evolved rather far from nine Our Fathers. Yet with or without an explicitly religious mandate, chain letters remain fundamentally evangelical: whatever their other message, the underlying one is always “spread the word!” And they did. Measured by sheer rate of transmission, chain letters were, and still are, astonishingly successful. The most infamous of all the money versions, for instance, was a chain letter known sometimes as Send-a-Dime and sometimes as the Prosperity Club. The idea was that by mailing ten cents plus five copies of the letter, the sender would receive, five iterations later, $1,562.50, in dimes. Begun in Colorado in 1935, the Send-a-Dime letter spread so quickly that it caused mail in Denver to triple; in April, a Denver Post headline reported “Carriers stagger under 350,000 pieces.” Within a year, hundreds of millions of copies had been mailed worldwide.

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That particular chain letter was propelled around the globe largely by self-interest, but those of a more generous spirit also flourish. In 1989, the parents of Craig Shergold, a nine-year-old boy diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor, asked people to help meet his dying wish: their son wanted to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records for receiving the most greeting cards. With the help of a chain letter, he succeeded, one year and sixteen million cards later. So far, so sweet. But then, against all odds, Craig Shergold survived. Indeed, he is still alive today—and so is the chain letter begun on his behalf. Over time, its alleged recipient has mutated into “Craig Shelford,” “Craig Stafford,” “Craig Sheppard,” and “Greg Sherwood,” among many other supposedly dying boys, and an estimated two hundred and fifty million cards have been sent on his, or their, behalf. The actual Shergold family received so many of these at their home address that the British postal service had to give the house the equivalent of its own Zip Code; eventually, overwhelmed, the family moved away. The Guinness Book of World Records closed the greeting-card category to discourage similar deluges in the future.

It did not work, for that chain or any other. VanArsdale estimates that, between 1970 and 2000, at least 2.2 billion chain letters circulated in the United States alone. My mother-in-law, who has been a rural letter carriercijilu123永不失效地址 for close to forty years, recalls the era well. “Every now and then there would be hundreds,” she told me. “We would stand on the floor to see who had the most per route.” If there got to be so many that a customer complained, they had to notify management. And yet, despite regular dissuasion efforts on the part of the post office and near universal aversion, the only thing that finally tamed the chain letter was the only thing that was arguably worse: the chain e-mail.

You probably got a chain e-mail long before the current recipe-and-poetry-and-daily-meditation craze. They emerged back in the nineties, showing up at everybody’s newly registered AOL address or Hotmail account with subject lines like “Fwd: Fwd: Fwd: Fwd: Fwd: Re: Neat idea!” They came in countless incarnations, including all the usual snail-mail ones (good luck, good causes, money chains), plus several new ones, from personality tests to fake virus warnings. Eventually, as the novelty of e-mail wore off, they subsided a bit, but they never really disappeared. And now they are back with a vengeance, albeit largely stripped of their threats and financial dealings, operating almost entirely in the feel-good vein (and operating, too, via all the other new platforms that have sprung up in the meantime: Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, even text messages). Put them under an X-ray, though, and the old familiar bones are there: the looming deadline, the gnostic numerology, the promises—albeit now more psychological than mystical—to bring something good into our lives.

It is these barely concealed origins that account, in part, for my enduring antipathy to chain e-mails. But I am also irked by the claim, which reliably prefaces every one of them these days, that they have materialized in order to provide us with fun, connection, and solace in a time of crisis. That strikes me as exactly backward. For as long as chain letters have existed, they have flourished at the intersection of hucksterism and credulity, which is disturbingly close to where all of us are currently obliged to live. That being the case, I am hardly inclined to spend more time there, or to believe that it’s an accident that chain letters are suddenly faring so well again—and still less that they are doing so in order to meet our own admittedly manifest needs. As VanArsdale understood, chain letters respond to one need only, which is the imperative to make more of themselves.

This makes them less of a welcome distraction in the era of the coronavirus than a useful analogy. Consider this explanation of the wild popularity of the “send your favorite text/meditation/verse” variation, as by the writer Uri Bram back in 2016, long before the emergence of COVID-19:

Luckily for us, chain emails are much simpler [than infectious diseases]; still, several key concepts from epidemiology can help. A major one is the “basic reproduction number,” known as R0, which measures how many new cases of infection will be caused by one infected individual. So long as R0 is larger than 1—that is, so long as each new case leads to more than one additional new case—the infection will continue to spread and grow. . . . When our chain email author claimed, “Seldom does anyone drop out,” she was saying, in epidemiological terms, “R0cijilu123永不失效地址 of this email is close to 20.”

For anyone who has been following not only the economic and health impacts of the coronavirus but also the science behind it, R0 has become—like a whole series of terms before it, including O-rings, hanging chads, credit-default swaps, and the emoluments clause—a bit of previously obscure jargon that has suddenly rocketed into our collective vocabulary. Left to its own devices, the R0cijilu123永不失效地址 of the novel coronavirus is at least 2.5 and possibly much higher; our lives will go back to something resembling normal—to having dinner out with friends, putting on a decent outfit, wandering unmasked and anxiety-free down well-stocked grocery-store aisles, honoring the heartbreaking privilege of mourning, in person, our dead—when that number drops below one.

That is, by any measure, a more important cause than getting the R0 of the recipe exchange down to zero. Still, the epidemiological understanding of chain letters casts them in a particularly chilly light, one that fatally undercuts their current self-presentation as a sweet little gift among friends and strangers in difficult times. As VanArsdale notes, “chain letters are ‘designed’ to replicate, not to help anyone. Hope and fear, truth and error, charity and greed, anything that increases replication becomes part of the tradition.” In hundreds of years of spreading and evolving, he writes, “chain letters have discovered and exploited our secret fantasies and vulnerabilities.”

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cijilu123永不失效地址What, then, to do when the next one shows up in your in-box? One option is to just ignore it. This is my preferred alternative, and I was happy to Miss Manners, despite having spent much of her professional life encouraging people to send each other letters, shares my opinion. For all her advocacy of thank-you notes and condolence cards and congratulatory missives for new grads and new homes and new babies, she frowns firmly upon the chain e-mail, and, true to her persona, devised the most deliciously passive-aggressive way to respond to it: if you decline to reply and the sender has the poor taste to make a follow-up inquiry, say “My spam filter must have caught it.”

That response—in supremely polite deadpan, “stop sending me junk!”—cannot be bested. Sometimes, however, it just won’t do, as when the request comes from someone you either cannot afford or cannot bear to leave hanging: your boss, your grandmother, a genuine friend who has temporarily lost her mind. In such cases, a second option is to find a tactful way to bow out of participating. The trouble is that even under the best of circumstances, doing so is scarcely less annoying and time-consuming than just playing along, a problem that our present state of affairs has considerably exacerbated. Outside of essential workers, none of us are currently away from our cookbooks or poetry collections or, more’s the pity, our e-mail. It is possible, with recipe swaps, to play the gluten-free-peanut-allergy-vegan card, although the more honest reply would be “And here I thought the Internet was a recipe swap.” Either way, none of us can claim anymore not to cook.

The final option, of course, is to simply give in: read the e-mail, comply with its cheerfully complicated dictates, and perpetuate the sin by imposing it on your friends. There are, however, downsides to this choice. For one thing, some of those friends might go around in the privacy of their unvisitable apartments telling their cats how surprised they are to discover that you’re the kind of person who forwards chain letters. Worse, you might have to go around your own apartment reckoning with the fact that you do indeed seem to have become such a person. Also, you might have to live with a measure of disappointment. As one recent victim of this strategy reported—that is, someone who had never before agreed to participate in a chain letter and has no idea what she was thinking when she suddenly changed her mind and sent it to, among others, me—“these are the worst fucking recipes I have ever seen in my life.” On the plus side, and I suppose this is the whole point, it was wonderful to hear from her.