Where did all the chain mail go?

By Jack Flanagan

“Read this or you will DIE” is an untypical opener to an email, but you’ve probably encountered it before.

We’ve all been burdened by the occasional chain email, whether it’s a threat of ghosts or a promise that your loved one will message you. In some cases, emails featured a story that would try and compel the reader to forward it to friends. Horror and romance stories were common, but pyramid schemes, prophecies, and dying wishes from children also attempted to suck you in. They seemed to come from everywhere—your best friend, your mom, your co-worker—people you wouldn’t expect, inspired by the seemingly vapid threats and promises made by typical chain-emails.

The reasons anyone would start these mails is a guess at best: Some say it’s just people after attention. It seems more plausible that they’re a way for spammers to farm email addresses. In one famous instance, a student name Shannon Syfrett attempted to collect “email responses for a school project,” but the project became so daunting it was shut down before the proposed deadline, though the email, and variations of it, continued to circulate for years.

Over the last five years, chain email has suffered a slow death, but it’s not exactly clear why. It’s tempting to think that we got smarter. Sites like Truth or Fiction and Snopes debunked the emails case by case. Zombies? Didn’t happen. An easy $10 billion just for you? Unlikely.

But chainmail hasn’t really disappeared. It’s just mutated.

Dr. Tess Bridges took matters one step further. In a blog post from Null Hypothesis, she tested the truth of various chain emails, finding that when she lack of response didn’t lead to any of the predicted events described in the correspondence.

The very nature of email certainly played a role. We stopped clicking and started sending such messages to our junkmail folder instead of forwarding.

The owner of the debunking site described the change in a farewell post:

“I’m proud to have been your source for real, reliable information you can trust about e-mail rumors and hoaxes for nearly 13 years. Since we started on this journey together, many things have changed. Social media has replaced e-mail as the vehicle of source to share information with friends and family and more and more people have learned to question everything that they see online.”

But chain mail hasn’t really disappeared. It’s just mutated.

It’s not that we’ve learned to question everything, however. It’s that the type of content our friends and family has shared with us has changed. It’s not longer obnoxious emails. It’s dumb listicles, Upworthy viral videos, and supposed facts presented as memes on Facebook.
Such content gets shared because it inspires the viewer, be that a happy couple expressing their love for one another or a montage of people doing extraordinary things. They get shared because people want to express their disbelief, excitement, or to be a part of the cause.

That’s a world away from the empty threats and false promises of the original chain mails.

But there’s a sinister side to it as well, often disguised as what the Daily Dot called “image spam,” where photos designed to go viral on Facebook serve as mere click-bait for content farms. Many erroneous science claims also get passed off as extraordinary fact (see the Faroe Island Dolphins or this MacDonald’s misunderstanding).

Then there are the giveaways on Facebook—the vague promise of getting something in return for liking a page or sharing something. Here’s one recent example:

Occupy with art

Before, chainmail made us search Scopes and mark emails as spam. Now they’re making us quietly unfollow our friends on Facebook.