The human virus: e-mail chain letters

"FW: PLEASE READ! IT WAS ON GOOD MORNING AMERICA & TODAY SHOW," is the subject line on an e-mail message that you receive in your inbox on Monday morning at work. You see that the e-mail message is from an or e-mail address from some relative that doesn't use her e-mail for business. The e-mail has been sent to at least ten people, and you can see the other recipient's e-mail addresses in the "To:" line. You can tell that the message has been forwarded multiple times by the hundreds of e-mail addresses in the multiple nested block quotes in the body. The message says that you'll get paid $245 by Intel and Microsoft for each person that you forward the e-mail message to as a beta test of the e-mail system. The original message claims that a friend who is an attorney can vouch for the accuracy of the statements, and at least one person that has forwarded the message has added a personal testimony above that.

What do yo do next? Do you add a "It's worth a try" to the top and forward it to everyone whose e-mail address you have? Do you click on delete? Maybe you send a nasty reply to the sender demanding your time and your e-mail address privacy back?

The above is an example of a chain letter and it is a hoax. Chain letters have been around since at least 1885, according to research by Daniel W. VanArsdale. Chain letters are letters that experience exponential distribution by asking the recipient to send out multiple copies to other people and also ask that this chain of distribution not be broken. There are basically two different kinds of chain letters circulating via e-mail today. Half contain humorous, inspirtational, or informational quotes or images. The other half are meant to spread misinformation such as hoaxes or urban legends.

The humorous ones that we typically see contain very non-politically correct humor attacking a politician or celebrity, or simply your daily farside calendar joke.

Inspirational messages tell the inspirational sides of stories like the one where a dog walks upright because he has no front paws, and ends up commanding a lot of respect from humans for walking like them. These types of chain letters often simply contain a prayer or a blessing and an animated image with a religous theme. Inspirational chain letters also may simply have a picture of a landscape, or the picture of a cute baby or animal with an inpirational quote for a caption. Included in the inspirational variety is the money angel, a very popular chain letter subject, that supposedly will bring you good tidings.

Informational ones are usually about a new law that is on the books and includes propaganda from one side that is for or against the legislation, possibly even an online petition.

The other half are more malicious and the hoaxes include ones such as the one at the beginning of my article. The same psychology of gullibility plays into these as the typical scam. One is forwarded something from someone that one trusts, so one automatically gives the information some credibility. Furthered by possible scientific ignorance and a possible desire for it to be true, one may fall victim to a joke at one's own expense. These types of e-mails have ploys that range from empty promises of getting a check from Microsoft, having money donated to some charity, or simply having a funny video popping up on ones computer if the e-mail message is forwarded to enough people.

The urban legend ones help propagate misinformation such as the little known "fact" that drinking cold water causes heart attacks, or that some kid dying from cancer wants your business cards and greeting cards, or that the supposed removal of the words "In God We Trust" from the new dollar coin is an attempt to remove religion from our lives by the new liberal America.

The dollar coin, by the way, keeps the religious inscription, but it's been moved to the edge. One thing that many hoax chain letters have in common are testimonials both in the original message and possibly also ones added either humorously, maliciously, or ignorantly by someone in the chain.

All chain letters spread by offering some type of motivation for forwarding the e-mail. The motivation is usually a promise of something of percieved value, a promise of good luck, or a perceived social burden.

Most e-mails are luckily pretty tame in that they simply promise good fortune if you forward the chain letter to a certain number of people. Stuart A. Vyse, Ph.D. a psychology professor at Connecticut College, in his book Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, writes that the illusion of control over one's own good fortunes can reduce tension and give you a sense that you're doing what you can do to help out.

A perceived value either of monetary gain or of simply satisfying a curiosity is often times used to good effect to encourage the spreading of chain letters. In reality, it's rare that one actually gets something of value for nothing. Based on many responses I've seen in these types of chain letters, most forwarders are actually very sceptical but forward the message anyway simply because little effort is required to do so. It takes far less work to simply forward the message along rather than to investigate the claim in the e-mail message. By the way, there is no one except perhaps your own network's administrator who can actually track how many times you forward an e-mail message in order to trigger the delivery of any type of reward.

A social burden can often be passed on in a chain letter by simply asking the recipient not to break the chain. Together with a history of how long the chain has been going, some people can actually be pressured into not breaking the chain due to some notion of the social value of the chain succeeding.

The worst kind of chain letters, which we luckily see very few of today are the ones that actually threaten harm, usually through extremely bad luck to those who break the chain. Some people are superstitious enough to believe these, and it can put a strong emotional burden on them as well as anyone that they may forward the message to.

There are also some of these that will threaten harm to loved ones by indicating it directly or by simply saying that the message should be forwarded to anyone that the recipient doesn't want to "lose that year". Although it may reaffirm ones love for the recipient, it may place an overwhelming burden on the recipient as well.

Another thing in common that I've seen in chain letters is that they're typically in an HTML format e-mail message with a large blue or pink font. I don't know if these are the originals, or if the formatting is simply a recipient in the chain's stationary. Since most chain letters come from users that primarily use their e-mail for other than work purposes, it's common for them to have a very non-business look. Based on how many of these I have received from my sisters' personal e-mail accounts, it seems that some people really have nothing better to e-mail each other about than simply forwarding things around that they found interesting.

When this topic was given to me, I believe that I was supposed to write an article about the evil scourge of chain letters. I personally hate getting these chain e-mails in my inbox, and it's my job to stop them from arriving in yours. One thing that helps chain letters get forwarded is because it's so easy to do. The senders really don't imagine any harm being done, or any cost being associated. If one actually had to print out the chain letter and hand carry it to someone or even postal mail it, it often wouldn't seem worth the effort. Although the distribution of postal mail chain letters have been signifiant, the distribution of most e-mail chain letters would dwarf them in comparison.

Chain letters, because they usually have images, are usually hundreds of times bigger than a typical e-mail message. Due to their size and their wide distribution, chain letters consume large amounts of resources and significantly impact the Internet e-mail system and likely increase the cost that everyone pays for Internet access and network infrastructure.

The spread of misinformation in some chain letters is dangerous, and some businesses like Microsoft and Intel, have had to spend large amounts of money on resources to address hoaxes like the one I wrote about above. Some families and businesses have had to relocate to get away from the massive amounts of postal greeting cards sent to them after a chain letter asked for the mail.

Many workers spend more than five minutes of their employer's time reading and forwarding chain letters each day, and likely violating their office's Internet usage policies and impacting their company's e-mail server and Internet connection.

Some chain letters put an undue emotional or social burden on the recipient or contain jokes that probably offend some group of people and that probably wouldn't be appreciated by the sender's employer.

However, after I did my research I really did find the softer side of the story. Although the original creator of these chain letters probably had an ulterior motive, the people who continue the chain usually do it because of a fondness for the recipient. If people didn't send chain letters, we might consider the remaining percentage of mundane e-mail just as bad. Chain letters do act in many ways like a computer virus, although one that is spread willingly by humans. However, I think that we can say that about all e-mail. I'm still going to do my best to stop e-mail chain letters from reaching your inbox, though.

Some things to keep in mind when sending chain letters:

  1. The previous sender probably didn't mean any harm.
  2. The recipient probably would prefer a personal note rather than the chain letter.
  3. Please consider that any claims, especially those requiring testimonials, likely aren't true.
  4. Most Internet users rely on trusted news sites for their news, not your personal e-mail.
  5. If your chain letter gets blocked as spam, please don't be offended. We didn't block it because it was from your relative, but rather based on the content. The next personal message from that person won't be blocked.
  6. Consider whether you want to be the vector of a human virus or a chain breaker.