What Is a Chain Letter?

Chain letters aren't all they're cracked up to be
Some people think chain letters have quasi-magical properties. Fanatic Studio/Getty Images

Question: What is a chain letter?

Answer: Simply defined, a chain letter is a written message that attempts to persuade recipients to copy, share or otherwise reproduce it. A typical specimen might say, for example, "Please copy this letter and send it to 10 more people." A common online variant might say, "Forward this email to everyone you know!"

The Good Luck of Flanders letter is a classic example from the 1930s and '40s.

The Flanders letter promised prosperity to all who copied and resent it to four (or more) people within 24 hours, and bad luck to anyone who "broke the chain" by failing to comply. Virtually all chain letters hold out some sort of reward for reproducing them, be it blessings, good luck, money or a clear conscience. On the flip side, there are threats of calamity or karmic punishment for failing to circulate the requisite number of copies: "One person did not pass this letter along and died a week later."

However preposterous their claims, chain letters always play on the irrational wishes or fears of recipients — and often succeed. For those especially vulnerable to psychological manipulation they seem to exude an aura of mystical or quasi-mystical power.

Soliciting Money by Chain Letter Is Against the Law

Chain letters that solicit money are against the law in the United States and many other countries.

The U.S. Postal Service deems them illegal "if they request money or other items of value and promise a substantial return to the participants." Because it's tantamount to gambling, sending such letters through the mail ("or delivering them in person or by computer, but mailing money to participate") violates Title 8, United States Code, Section 1302, the Postal Lottery Statute, according to the U.S. Postal Service.

Pyramid schemes conducted by chain letter, including some versions of multi-level marketing, are also prohibited by law.

Chain letters have existed in one form or another since the late 19th century, with precedents dating back almost a thousand years. The Prester John letter, a fictional missive purporting to originate from the ruler of a paradisaical "land of honey and milk" in the East, circulated throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and is regarded as a progenitor of the genre.

Chain Letters Via Forwarded Email and Social Media

Without a doubt, the Internet has proven to be the greatest boon to the proliferation of chain letters since photocopy machines. Email messages, which can be forwarded to multiple recipients with the click of a button, are the ideal medium for this type of endeavor. Small wonder the Internet is glutted with them. For good or ill (most experienced users would say ill), chain letters are an online fact of life.

With that have come special variations in chain letter form and content, including the invention of a popular new sub-genre: fear-mongering alerts and warnings about dangers ranging from criminal activities to health threats.

Messages of this kind rarely offer substantiating evidence to support their claims.

Most often, in fact, they purvey downright false information. Their true purpose is to provoke fear, and more importantly to spread it, not to inform. Often the forwarded texts are mere pranks or hoaxes. People who share them without validating their content may be credited with naive good intentions, but it's impossible to attribute anything other than cynical or self-serving motives to their original — and almost always anonymous — authors.

Returning to our simple definition — a chain letter is a text that advocates its own reproduction — it bears noting that the typical email chain letter (or "chain email," as it's often called) is different from its traditional forbears in that it may also purport to convey important information. In this light it's comparable not only to a rumor, but to an old-fashioned handbill, say, or a photocopied flier, both of which in their day performed similar functions.

But because the "information" they contain is almost always false (or unverified at best) and conveyed in an emotionally manipulative way, in the end it remains accurate to say that online chain letters serve no real purpose apart from self-replication.

Further reading:

The Curious History of Chain Letters

Chain Letter Evolution

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Emery, David. "What Is a Chain Letter?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 21, 2016, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-chain-letter-3299551. Emery, David. (2016, February 21). What Is a Chain Letter? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-chain-letter-3299551 Emery, David. "What Is a Chain Letter?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-chain-letter-3299551 (accessed November 17, 2017).