Monday, January 18, 2010

You Must Pass This On? You Must Be Kidding.

by Julia Buckley

We all get them: the e-mails that make bizarre promises of luck, riches, or fame. Often they are accompanied by all sorts of praise-filled rhetoric: you are a wonderful person; just wanted to let you know I'm thinking of you; you're a special friend. Some contain cute puppy and kitten photos. Others offer inspirational visuals accompanied by encouraging text: You can only achieve when you try.

Sometimes I'm really caught up in these e-mails, inspired by the text or pictures. And then I get to the bottom, where I read a message something like this: "You must send this on to twelve friends in the next twenty minutes or you will not have good luck." Conversely, if I DO send it to those friends, I am assured of some amazing results.

I have many questions about these e-mails. Here are some:

Who writes them? Who takes the time to compile not just the elaborate text and visual combinations, but then the strange chain-letter stuff at the bottom?

Why do they do it? What's in it for them? Are they somehow gleaning e-mail addresses every time someone continues the ridiculous chain of nothing? Or do they just take pleasure from the fact that someone out there is falling for the gag? (And people do pass them on--intelligent people who send them to me with the added line, "Just in case!" What does that mean?)

What's the draw
? I understand that people are superstitious, but why would they think that, assuming some entity out there had the power to actually affect their futures, that this powerful entity would choose to manifest itself through a chain e-mail?

Why the judgment? Many of these e-mails include the added annoyance of preaching. The text will say something like, "We don't appreciate our true friends enough, so send this on to your ten best friends and make their day. Remember, they would do it for you." Well, no they wouldn't, if they know me well enough. :) The ideological sub-text of these e-forwards suggests that someone wants to share their smug outlook with the world at large. Conform, ye chain recipients.

Why promise wealth? I'm sure we've all gotten the Bill Gates e-mail at least once, in which it is stated that Microsoft will give 100 dollars to everyone who passes on the e-mail. It usually says, "I checked this on Snopes and it's true!" That's my first sign that it's not true, as well as the basic understanding that Bill Gates, who hires people to decide how to charitably and equitably distribute his vast fortune, is not going to give people money for forwarding e-mails. Still, my own father sent this to me, with the note, "It's worth a try."

Sure, the Internet is the Wild West and anyone can put bait out there. People are bound to respond, even to send on the things that fool them. But I find something existential in the endless chains, the forwarding on just for the sake of forwarding, or just because some words that appeared onscreen told us to do so. What is the point, of the writing or the sending?


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

How about the chain letter that tell cautionary tales about the people who failed to pass it on and got dealt more suffering than Job, or passed it on and won the lottery? These stories must have been part of the letter from the beginning, so how can they report results? Duh. Love the photo, btw!

Sandra Parshall said...

I've been getting a lot of e-mails lately (mostly on Yahoo mail, my junk mail account) urging me to pursue a career as a CSI, a dental hygienist, an x-ray technician, etc. Does somebody know something I don't about my, uh, writing career?

Julia Buckley said...

Yes, exactly--by what authority does some anonymous chain writer promise doom? I suppose there's some basic psychological principal at work here: we'd like to win the lottery (or so we think)so we'll snatch at any straw, even a bogus e-mail?

Sandra, my favorite is the one that says, "Get your Ph.D online." :)

I got the picture with my computer. It sends a timeless message, doesn't it?

Susan D said...

Thanks, Julia, for expressing your puzzlement and mine. I'm forwarding this to 10 of my closest, most personal, female friends. Before the sun sets.

Julia Buckley said...

Haha. Yes, by all means send it on. You know the drill by now. :)

Marilynne said...

You are right, of course, but some of those pictures are soooo sweet.

Capri said...

It's all a big power-trip for the anonymous cowards who make up this stuff, and if the "You'll get good luck for passing this on!" doesn't work, they'll push any and all emotional buttons they can think of. Cute pictures, poems that are either badly written or else ripped off of a real author, stripping that author of credit and claiming the poem was written by a dying kid or some celebrity more famous probably than the real author. And there's always the guilt trip, and there are so many angles they take. "If you care about children" "If you love Jesus" "Delete this if we're not friends" "Just think, it could be you some day" "If you/I should die tomorrow and you didn't take the time to say this special prayer and those all important three little words - but you can do it now, by passing on this chain letter!"

Poems, cute pics, whatever, even if it has the "Forward or else" crap cut out, it's still a chain letter, and I'll smash, not merely break every single one without mercy. The false negative rumors, misquotes etc. about famous people or companies, the "Help the children!" and "If you are a true child of God!" chain letters are exceedingly annoying and wrong. But at the bottom of the heap are the sick kid and bad rumors about real people. Whoever's sick enough to rip off a poem, claim it was written by some fictional dying kid, make up an email tracker story, and toss in several guilt trips just to get everybody crying and praying over their fictional sick kid, then passing on the downer to all their friends to do the same, - whoever's behind those hoaxes is beyond despicable.

Women and Christians are one of the biggest targets for chain letters, and so are right-wingers, male and female alike.

Julia Buckley said...

Too true, Marilynne. :)

Capri, very interesting points. I guess politics enter into everything--even chain letters.

Donna Lea Simpson said...

What I want to know is, what kind of friend will forward one of these things to me, threatening doom if I don't fall in line and pass it on? I'm too much of a friend to pull that crap on those I care about.

But what is worst is trying - gently, politely, sweetly, with a thousand apologies - to ask people to take me off their 'forward to all' list... why does everyone react as if I asked them to never speak to me again?

Julia Buckley said...

I hear you, Donna Lee. Someone needs to write a book of e-mail etiquette, in which it says, "Thou shalt not send chain e-mails," and then, "Thou shalt not mind when people hate your chain e-mails."