Chain letters had a noble start in 1888 – a letter sent to a person requesting a church donation and to send the letter to three people asking them to do the same. However, over the years, the chain letter evolved into warnings of bad luck, promises of good fortune, and in the 2000s became “this Nigerian prince needs your credit card info” without the mysticism (to quote my RevPub partner).
I remember the chain letters I grew up with. They were passed around school, and I even received a few in the mail. Remember, this was a time people actually mailed things to each other; it wasn’t just junk mail and postcards.
They looked similar to this:
If you’re reading this, then you’ve already started the chain reaction and there’s no going back. The events I am about to warn you about will definitely unfold, even if you close this email now. The best thing you can do now is read on and carefully follow my instructions.
I remember at 10-12 years old believing something terrible would happen to my friends and family after reading this, so of course I made copies and mailed them out. It was scary but cool at the same time. I’d call my best friend to gossip about all the horrible things that could happen if I didn’t respond. (She was probably the one who sent it to me, although she’d never admitted it.)
So what happened to them? The Internet.
By the late ’90s, the Internet took the world by storm, and not only could you send things to people in a matter of seconds, you could email chain letters. And people did. I received hundreds, maybe thousands, of these, and they were no longer just scary. Some promised money, fame, true love. Or they served as a way to “show” people you cared about someone or something.
The problem was too many people sent too many of them. Email took off, and people were reading things they cared about: emails from friends, links to things on the Web, or they stopped checking their email all together. No one took chain letters seriously. Then the wonderful spam settings were established, and you never had to see them. Chain letters became spam, junk mail.
I feel this is a sad loss in our culture because many kids and teenagers have no idea what a chain letter is. There was a sense of urgency about them, a suspense receiving one created – especially if you were superstitious. They were fun and felt a little dangerous, and as a kid, made you feel special because you received it. Most people used to love receiving letters after all.
I don’t recommend bringing them back, but let’s not forget where we came from – even Spam has a cool back story!
And if you feel the need to bring them back, here’s a how to start a chain letter. Be careful!