Take one, pass it on
ELEANOR ROBERTSON DELVES INTO THE HISTORY OF CHAIN LETTERS.
When you hear the word ‘meme’, you probably think of a stock image with a funny caption, digitally replicated millions of times across different platforms on the internet. Like a picture of a minion from the movie Minions on your uncle’s Facebook wall, captioned ‘HOME: Where I Can Look Ugly And Enjoy It! SHARE if you AGREE’, or that cartoon of a cat being force-fed a pill where the cat is labelled ‘me’ and the pill is labelled ‘going to bed at a reasonable hour’. But these are memes on easy mode – you can produce and distribute a meme in less time than it takes to redo your ponytail. Chain letters, a type of proto-meme format that’s existed for thousands of years, took real sweat-of-the-brow effort to get going.
Folklorist Daniel Vanarsdale, who maintains a huge database of chain letters, defines them as “texts that appeal to superstition to encourage their copying or publication”. This ‘appeal to superstition’ is still present in some modern memes, although it’s often ironic – you still see tweets that say something like ‘RT this to stop yourself from falling into a cement mixer before midnight’, for instance, but it’s not an essential part of the format. It’s a vestigial flourish, like the human appendix. Before social media, that superstitious incentive was a loadbearing feature of chain letters, because they took actual work to circulate. Why would someone in the year 1255 go to the trouble of copying a letter or an image by hand, often multiple times, then circulating it within their community, if it didn’t promise to protect them from ‘variouse palsyies ande sicknessys’?
Even up until the 1990s, chain letters showed some level of emotional manipulation to get the recipient motivated enough to share. In fact, sometimes identifying people susceptible to that kind of manipulation and building a list of suckers to target for more serious scams was the whole point. Charming! One of the most famous early email chain letters, the ‘Little Jessica Mydek hoax’ that circulated in 1997, claimed that a sick little girl’s only chance at recovery was to keep the email forward going. Of course, that doesn’t make a lick of sense, but the people who believed it were probably naive enough to fall for anything. A self-selected pool of gullible fools is a valuable resource if you’re enough of a rat bastard to live off tricking people out of their money.
A more direct way of using chain letters to part people from their pay cheques is the ‘send a dime’ method, which was very popular in the late-19th to mid-20th century. Put together a good sob story – something like ‘help cute orphans buy winter coats’ – and solicit people to send a very small amount of cash to the return address, before forwarding the letter on to a handful of friends. Bingo bango, now you’ve got an army of rubes mailing you a steady stream of small change. If you can find a sack durable enough to carry the coins to the bank every week, you’re set for life. In America, it was also popular to use chain letters to sign people up to your pyramid scheme, at least until it was made illegal in the 1970s.
Not all chain letters were exploitative, though. Historians trace the roots of the chain letter back to the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, which encouraged people to copy pictures from within it by saying, “The man who shall make a picture of the things which are to the north of the hidden house of the Tuat shall find it of great benefit to him both in heaven and on Earth.” Benefits in heaven and Earth? Sign me up, baby! Similar promises were touted by some Buddhist sutras (or scriptures), which encouraged people to copy and circulate them in return for luck and good karma. These are great examples of how superstition can help particular ideologies propagate in communities – which religious text are you more likely to spread, the one that offers you good fortune, or the one that offers you bupkis?
Some chain letters used the format to raise awareness of a genuine cause or problem, too. In 1986, a chain letter circulated internationally among universities to advocate for worldwide nuclear disarmament. Other chain letters advocated against apartheid in South Africa, or against raising the price of butter, milk and eggs during World War II in the USA. (I would definitely have passed that one on! Gimme that cheap butter!) Whether this was an effective activism technique is unclear, but the point is, just because something is in a chain letter format doesn’t necessarily mean someone’s trying to pull a fast one on you – although it’s definitely better to be safe than sorry. Convincing people to replicate a message is a powerful technique, and it can be used for both good and ill – it’s really up to the conscience of the person who initiates the chain letter whether it’s a straight-up scam, a slightly dodgy manipulation tactic, a bit of harmless fun or a genuine plea to circulate knowledge. Although paper chain letters have mostly gone the way of VHS tapes and car phones, the way they use very basic features of human psychology to change behaviour is eternal. You may laugh at thousands of people in 1888 sending a dime through the post to pay for ‘underprivileged, sick children who need velvet top hats’ or whatever, but variations of that same tactic are still used today, and the lesson they teach us is: don’t be a sucker!