Bound in Chains

Bound in Chains

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.

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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

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

AS PART OF HER DYING WISH, SHE WANTED TO START A CHAIN LETTER TO INFORM PEOPLE

OF THIS CONDITION AND TO SEND PEOPLE THE MESSAGE TO LIVE LIFE TO THE FULLEST AND

ENJOY EVERY MOMENT, A CHANCE THAT SHE WILL NEVER HAVE. FURTHERMORE, THE

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AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY AND SEVERAL CORPORATE SPONSORS HAVE AGREED TO DONATE

THREE CENTS TOWARD CONTINUING CANCER RESEARCH FOR EVERY NEW PERSON THAT GETS

FORWARDED THIS MESSAGE. PLEASE GIVE JESSICA AND ALL CANCER VICTIMS A CHANCE.

It is a beautiful vision. A dying girl spreads a noble message across the world. All readers need to do to fill cancer-research coffers is click a button. The one problem, of course, is that Jessica Mydek is as fictitious as an nth-complexity infinite binary loop. The American Cancer Society disavows any involvement with the letter.

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The "Jessica Mydek" e-mail succeeds because it promises the replicator instant karma. So does the "Save NPR" letter, which claims that public broadcasting is in peril. Its modest request is that recipients put their names at the bottom of the list and forward it to friends. Eventually, the letter states, the e-mail petition will be collected and presented to Congress and the president. Never mind, of course, that public broadcasting isn't under attack, that NPR receives little of its support directly from Congress, and that NPR spokespeople say the letter is useless.

Web sites that campaign against chain mail complain that junk e-mail wastes Internet bandwidth, reduces productivity, and exploits human emotions. But let's not forget the upside to the chains. They make you feel as if the click of your mouse has saved your neighbor's hard drive, healed sickly Jessica Mydek, and rescued poor little NPR. Jessica Mydek may not be real, but the emotion showered on her is, and the millions of e-mails containing her name suggest that the impulse to do good on the Net could be harnessed.

Craig Shergold was a genuine Jessica Mydek, a 7-year-old with cancer. In 1989 he began a conventional postal chain letter asking that greeting cards be mailed to Atlanta's Children's Wish Foundation--his goal was to break the Guinness World Record. He did it in two years, receiving 16 million cards, and his cancer went into permanent remission.

Then the chain moved to the Internet, and people continued to send cards, even though Craig asked them not to. By 1993 he was clearing 300,000 cards a week and stopped counting at 60 million total cards. The foundation needed a donated warehouse and 40 full-time staff to handle the mail, which it simply recycled.

Last month I got a chain e-mail requesting greeting cards for Craig Shergold. I forwarded it to 10 friends.