Bound in Chains

How an idea spread and grew on the Internet.
July 20 1997 3:30 AM

Bound in Chains

The evolutionary strategies of those annoying e-mail chain letters.

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In November 1994, an e-mail letter began to circulate on the Internet detailing the dangers of a vicious, hard-drive-eating computer virus called "Good Times." Recipients were urged to forward the e-mail to their friends. Computer authorities promptly debunked the letter--the virus did not exist. Soon, a revamped "Good Times" message appeared on the Net, warning of an "nth-complexity infinite binary loop"--a device as fictional as it is impressive-sounding. Even though this note was debunked, it continued to propagate as well-intentioned computer users forwarded it to their friends and colleagues. Netizens translated it into other languages and it appeared around the world. It was read over a radio broadcast in Malta. Eventually a parody arrived--it, too, was widely circulated. According to the "Good Times FAQ" Web page, "It's no longer accurate to speak of 'comebacks' and 'outbreaks' of Good Times. It's just there--part of the landscape, like kudzu and dandelions."

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Of course, chain letters like the "Good Times" e-mail predate the Internet. In the 19th century, "prayer chains" encouraged the faithful to pray for someone in need and extend the chain. A well-known postal chain, the St. Jude letter, claims a 1903 inception date. It promises luck to those who forward it and calamity to those who don't. The U.S. Postal Service estimates that the chain has circled the globe at least nine times. Prayer chains also thrive on the telephone, as callers dial friends and acquaintances and ask them to pray for someone in need--and then ask them to make the same request of their friends and acquaintances.

The St. Jude letter is a "mind virus," says Oliver Goodenough of Vermont Law School. Goodenough and Richard Dawkins, the noted Darwinist, have written about the survival techniques of the St. Jude letter and other chain mail for the scientific journal Nature. In their view, these information parasites seek to infect host brains. The most "fit" mind virus is the one that is forwarded ("replicated") to prospective infectees. Less fit letters are not forwarded, and so die. Some potential hosts are inoculated against chain-mail viruses by excessive exposure--they simply ignore the letters.

In the old days, there were measurable costs to extending the chain--time-consuming hand-copying or expensive photocopying or the price of postage. But thanks to virtually free e-mail, the velocity of chain mail has accelerated on the Net, and successful chains now billow into huge, tumorous entities in a matter of weeks.

The "Good Times" e-mail cribs its evolutionary strategy from the old postal chains: "A Utah man received this letter and threw it away. Nine days later he died." By invoking fear and disaster, the "Good Times" e-mail finds a soft spot to infect: Anxiety about a hard-disk crash is never far from computer users' minds.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Greed is almost as good a parasitic strategy as fear. The ubiquitous "Make Money Fast" e-mail recasts the classic pyramid scheme as e-scam: Send $5 to the names on the list, add your own name to the bottom, and reap your windfall later. The "MMF Hall of Humiliation" Web site traces the "Make Money Fast" chains to their origins and lists addresses and phones of the alleged originators, requesting that you spam them.

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P itted against the evolutionary strategies of fear and greed, we find a genre of chain e-mail that employs compassion. Surely you've received the "Jessica Mydek" letter, birthed on America Online. It reads:

LITTLE JESSICA MYDEK IS SEVEN YEARS OLD AND IS SUFFERING FROM AN ACUTE AND VERY

RARE CASE OF CEREBRAL CARCINOMA. THIS CONDITION CAUSES SEVERE MALIGNANT BRAIN

TUMORS AND IS A TERMINAL ILLNESS. THE DOCTORS HAVE GIVEN HER SIX MONTHS TO LIVE.

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