If you’re like many people trying to navigate this bizarro-world of social distancing, you may have seen an old friend crop up in your inbox lately: The chain letter – complete with convoluted instructions and possibly a dash of “FW: FW: FW:” in the subject line, just for nostalgia’s sake.
The last time e-mail chain letters were a “thing” in the cultural mainstream was in the ’90s, when people were breaking in their first-ever home computers and signing up for inaugural Hotmail addresses.
Now, the anxiety and restlessness of coronavirus isolation has seemed to bring this dated form of communication back to life in the form of recipe and poem exchanges and vague apocryphal inspiration, traded among friends and relatives because… well, it’s something to do.
And in this listless season, that’s as good a reason as any.
It’s an old tradition …
“Going back to old times with a recipe exchange!” reads the top of one popular chain email. Through several paragraphs, your mission becomes clear: Send a simple recipe to someone, put your name on a rotating list, and, in theory you’ll get 36 recipes back.
Marian Robinson of Highlands Ranch, Colorado, has been around long enough to know a sketchy letter when she sees one. Robinson, who’s in her 60s, remembers way back, when people would get paper chain letters in the mail – proof positive that, though we think of this as a 90’s throwback trend, people have been bothering friends and family in this manner for far longer.
However, when Robinson received the recipe exchange email from her daughter in Los Angeles, it struck her differently.
“I’ve never replied to a chain letter,” she said. “But I did this time, for a few reasons: One, my daughter sent it to me. Also, this kind of letter is fun and harmless. There was no threat.”
She sent her mother’s recipe for simple Hungarian noodles with cheese, along with a little story about what the dish meant to her family.
… but it’s still relevant to younger generations
Sarah Robinson, Marian’s daughter, has received no less than six chain emails in the past few weeks from friends all over the globe asking for recipes and inspirational quotes. Some she ended up responding to, and has actually gotten responses back. Others she left unanswered purely because she didn’t have the energy to respond to so many.
“I remember MySpace chain letters and messages over AIM and email,” the 29-year-old actress and writer said. “I think the camaraderie was fun, and it makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourself.”
Robinson also got another curious round of chain messages on Instagram, asking her to participate in a “follow loop.”
“All you have to do is follow the accounts below and in return you should receive hundreds if not thousands of interesting followers,” the nearly identical messages read. Then, the fine print: Follow accounts on a list, add yourself to the top of the list and forward.
There’s a psychology behind it
“If you want to ask why people are sending things like this right now, a better question may be why wouldn’t they be sending things like this?” says Scott Campbell, professor of communication and media at the University of Michigan.
“In 1935, people were sending dimes in postal envelopes, letters with the same threats or the same promises that you’ll become famous. So why wouldn’t people still do this?”
Campbell says strange forms of communication like chain letters access two sides of the same social coin: Wanting to feel comforted and connected, and wanting to control your surroundings.
“This is a way that people are expressing a new level of connectedness,” he tells CNN. “But people have this other side of them where this feeling of control comes out of convincing others or getting them to do something.”
When thrust into the uncertain and isolated center of a pandemic, these two sides of our social id can come roaring through at the same time. Not to mention, the way we currently connect – via screens and scrolls – plays into another function of our collective anxiety.
“Right now, we have a recipe where people reach for technology to center themselves,” Campbell says. In other words, reaching for our phones, scrolling through feeds or batting around emails is another way to search for control and meaning. And we’re certainly apt to do all of those things much more often when we’re stuck at home.
“In terms of the way we spend our time, things are being shifted way more toward the digital realm right now,” Campbell says.
The medium has changed, the messages are the same
Sarah Robinson’s Instagram messages reveal a fascinating truth about chain letters: Not only are they not new, but in between the e-mail heyday of the 90’s and this pandemic-fueled resurgence, chain letters haven’t actually gone away. They’ve simply changed form.
After all, what is the difference between an e-mail forward and one of those copy-and-paste Facebook memes asking people to share bands they’ve seen or photos they love?
For years, insidious “Secret Sisters Gift Exchange” has cropped up on social media around Christmastime, prompting perennial warnings about predatory chain letter behavior going back decades.
The language is eerily familiar throughout, from the innocuous chain letters currently circulating, to the Secret Sisters message,s to examples of chain letters that are almost a hundred years old, catalogued in an online database by researcher Daniel W. VanArsdale.
Omit the first name. Send that person a hand- kerchief. Make 4 copies of this letter adding your name to the bottom of the list. Send to four friends. In turn, as your name comes to the top of the list you will receive 256 handkies. Please do not break the chain.
And, from a current chain letter for a poem exchange:
“After you’ve sent the short poem/verse/quote/etc. to the person in position 1, and only that person, copy this letter into a new email. Move the second name to position 1, and put your name in position 2. Only the name you move up and your name should show in the new email. Send it to 20ish friends BCC (blind copy).”
There’s a reason why people are skeptical
Though some people find these chain letters about recipes and prayers and the like to be a fun, harmless way to connect with people during a disconnected time, there’s no hiding the internet’s general disdain.
On social media, the complaints seem to focus on a few things: The letters bestow an unnecessary obligation. Or, they’re irrelevant.
Maybe that’s true, under normal circumstances. But we aren’t living in normal circumstances. And while plenty may find the resurgence of these forwards annoying, well, clearly many people don’t. How else are they finding their way around?
Michelle Serafin of Westfield, New Jersey, is usually in the latter camp. “In the past, I would receive them and totally ignore them. Frankly, I think they’re kind of silly,” she tells CNN.
But when a chain letter asking for inspiring poems started circulating among work friends, she felt compelled to dive in, if only this once.
“I just think it’s something positive in this time we’re going through,” she says.
For the most part, these rash of coronavirus-era emails make no secret of their purpose. It’s right there, in the forwarded and re-forwarded text: They’re meant to be “meaningful” and “uplifting,” according to one inspiration exchange letter.
“We all need new ideas,” reads the recipe exchange one.
“We all need new pleasures,” reads a poem exchange.
Pleasures like connecting and sharing, and possibly getting someone else to do the same.