Why People Forward Chain Letters





Chris Garrett asked a question on twitter this morning:

Anyone know why people forward chain letters?

And since I’ve been doing some research on exactly that question recently, I thought I’d write a post detailing some of what I’ve found.

Probably the most important point is the idea that viral email chain letters are “virtual urban legends” and as such many of the motivations that cause people to spread urban legends are the same that make people forward those emails.

Many urban legends function as warnings, if you break with social rules and roles you will be punished. Go to lover’s lane with your boyfriend and a crazy serial killer will come and kill you or him (or both of you). Disregard your parents’ dislike of unhealthy fast food and you may end up eating a rat.

As I mentioned briefly in a post last week humans evolved with strong rewards to develop imitation and social learning skills. Evolutionarily, people have a motivation to be susceptible to social warnings and pass them on to their family and community.

In 1998 Edmund Chattoe published a paper for IRISS titled “Virtual Urban Legends: Investigating the Ecology of the World Wide Web” in it he studies traditional chain letters and virus warnings, and in it he cites an earlier paper by Woolgar and Russell (called “The Social Basis of Computer Viruses” I can’t find it on the web) when he says

users are rather inclined to believe in computer viruses as just ‘punishment’ for electronic promiscuity

Here the urban legend similarity is clear, if you disregard careful computer-based chastity and network with unsavory types (like downloading pirated music or programs) you’ll be punished with a computer virus.

Before email existed, chain letters propagated via snail mail and while they were still very virulent then, with the advent of the internet several factors changed which accelerated their spread. Obviously the speed of transmission and the ease at which someone can create and pass on a viral email is a lot greater than for traditional paper mail, and the anonymity of email reduces the risk to those who craft and continue the chains online.

Two of the key criterias of a successful meme are copying fidelity and fecundity, that is the less a message changes each time it is transmitted the greater the chance it has to retain the effective parts and continue spreading, and the more people it can be transmitted to the more successful it will be. Viral emails are copied verbatim and all the sender has to do is click “forward” and it an exact copy is sent to all of their friends.

In the paper mail chain letter world, most people had become immune to the over-the-top promises and demands so their effectiveness started to drop. With the ease of spread and the high copying fielding available to mental email viruses, they’ve been able to evolve into more subtle and unfalsifiable variations. The chances of a person passing the email on is great online, so the messages themselves need to require less instructions about their own replication, making them less obvious and more trustworthy. Chattoe says:

More generally, chain letters have increasingly stressed intangibles like ‘good luck’ rather than more concrete rewards. They thus render themselves immune from obvious falsification and tap into a human tendency to ‘superstition’, spotting patterns where none exist. If I fail to pass on a chain letter and shortly afterwards something bad happens, I may connect the two events and be more susceptible in future.

And while many (if not most) of these emails are debunked on sites like snopes, preliminary data from my survey shows that those who typically forward chain letters are typically less savvy users and may not know about snopes.

Perhaps the most subtle and powerful viral element of chain letters in email is the social proof that comes with many of them. Every time someone forwards one to his or her address book, another list of recipients and senders is attached to it, creating essentially a list of people who implicitly give authority to the message. If one person sends an email to another, the source may or may not be cited, and the sender’s reputation is the only real social authority the email carries, with a huge list of hundreds of others attached it, with popular viral emails, it suddenly appears that the message is common knowledge and the receiver is perhaps the only person left on the internet who wasn’t warned of the danger.

The social proof factor goes back to information cascades and the understanding that humans base many of their decisions on the choices of others, it just makes good evolutionary and survival sense to do so. Even if you may think an email is a hoax, who are you to think that you know better than hundreds of your peers? And on the off-chance the email was true, and you didn’t pass it on you didn’t do your best to protect and enrich your friends and family.

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{ 19 comments }

Paula April 8, 2008 at 9:03 am

Thanx Dan! After reading this, I know that I have done good! :)

I trained my sister years ago to check things on Snopes, and I have seen her teaching others! Also, when I do send out a mass email, if it is to people who may not know each other, I always blind copy to protect emails.

When I receive those emails with all the forwards and so many email addresses, I often look thru them just to see where all an email has been. Makes me wonder who else may be looking at these addresses… Then its always fun when you get the reply from someone you do not know who just hit the ‘reply all’ button…

There should be something for the tech-UN Savvy to be able to go to learn proper email etiquette and how to not spread urban legends!

Dan Zarrella April 8, 2008 at 9:05 am

yeah, a lot of the research that has gone into chain letters online deals with innoculization emails, some of which are pretty funny.

Igor The Troll April 8, 2008 at 10:15 am

Sounds like HiveThink! Good way to stat a Revolution. ;-)

Brett Borders April 8, 2008 at 12:04 pm

Cool, well-researched article. I have always realized that the chain letters are the original “viral content” on the Web, but you did a great job exploring why they move.

Dan Zarrella April 8, 2008 at 6:11 pm

yeah, i know someone who says “email isn’t viral, blogs are” and i constantly have to correct them by pointing out that when you’re talking about the web, email is the original viral content.

Chris Bergeron May 11, 2008 at 11:55 am

Hah, the whole lemmings thing still kills me. That people would see the little furry guys and think “yep, they’re little suicidal rodents” when they’ve got no personal examples of rodents randomly diving off high precipice…

I’m left wondering if the rapid fire e-mail will have the same lasting effect as, say, Disney’s lemming killing meme though.

Wedding Celebrant Redcliffe October 10, 2008 at 1:04 am

A very interesting post. There’s some ideas in the recent book “Make it Stick” that goes some way to explaining the urban legend phenonomenum.

I find the most annoying e-mail chains are the ones that offer good luck if you pass them on, or bad luck if you don’t.

C January 1, 2009 at 4:32 pm

I hate chain letters…. if you hate them don’t read any farther… for some reason at 27 yrs old I still feel compelled to do what it says

when you are reading this don’t stop or something bad will happen My name is summer i am 15 years old i have blond hair many scars no nose or ears i am dead if you don’t copy this just like from the ring on 5 more sites.. or.. i will apear one dark quiet night when your not expecting by your bed with a knife and kill you. this is no joke something good with happen if you post this on 5 more sites something good will happen

Holland Blinds January 29, 2009 at 2:49 am

I really wish e-mail wasn’t free. Even if it cost just .1 cents per e-mail, I believe there would be a lot less spam and useless e-mails.

Thanks for the interesting post.

Blogshot February 25, 2009 at 1:46 am

Yes, if people had to pay a few micro-censt for e-mail, I’m sure spam would be reduced dramatically. Apparently there is less than a handful of people who cause over 90% of the spam.

DJ MASACRE April 20, 2009 at 12:45 pm

the reason there IS spam, is because you people are too stupid or don’t care about the world, or how to use the Internet.

We see this mostly in our communication, which most often seems to elude us because of this “false anonymity” many share behind a computer.

Chain Letters should never be spread anywhere by anyone. It does NOT belong anywhere, certainly the Internet !

All this does is fill up the Internet with more of your junk !

Stop this NOW !

Rob April 22, 2009 at 7:40 am

Please Fwd to 8 friends or you LOL just a little humor, I know (very little) I always thought someone made money off of these things ?

ZippyGirljw July 1, 2009 at 2:25 pm

Why do we need to know this? email forwards are cool!

Redbrick Stock August 19, 2009 at 6:49 am

I think in some cultures the play on superstition works very well. I must admit sometimes I have a lingering doubt when I delete such spam.

kaplangdesign August 25, 2009 at 3:10 am

really interesting post :)

b0bbilly September 3, 2009 at 12:08 pm

Welll, i'm a very
smart good-looking person &
i think this is all STOOPID .
i don't get any of it, and i get all A's !

nettycairns November 18, 2009 at 4:01 pm

Interesting blog, well researched. It's fascinating to read about the reasons why people forward these emails.

nettycairns November 19, 2009 at 12:01 am

Interesting blog, well researched. It's fascinating to read about the reasons why people forward these emails.

Remove Spyware August 5, 2010 at 3:42 pm

Nice post there. Raised a few things I hadn't thought about before.

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