How Did We, As A Society, Allow Chain Letters To Become Cool Again?

Lindsay Hattrick / Photos: Getty Images

Gird your body glitter and hold on to your chain wallets — the '90s are back, baby. And once again, they want you to tag 10 people and pass it on.

In times of personal (or, in this case, global) crisis, it's not uncommon to turn to nostalgia for solace, in search of a simpler time. Instead of spiraling, a breakup can send you spinning old Alanis Morissette records. A bad day on the job can be salvaged by marathoning Bridget Jones' Diary and pining for a bowl of (discontinued) French Toast Crunch. And as the coronavirus sweeps the planet, civilians are manning themselves with an impermeable source of positivity: a good, old-fashioned chain letter. With the flick of the wrist and the click of your mouse, everything old is new again.

If you feel strangely triggered, chances are, you A: still live in fear of Y2K, and B: once received a fateful message in your inbox with the subject line: Forward This To 15 People Or You Will Die Tonight. But this is not your older sister's chain mail, designed for fear-mongering and bed-wetting. No, the objective of this virtual game of telephone is optimism and connectivity, two virtues that we're all looking for right now.

But that doesn't make them any less annoying.

For your convenience, I've divided 2020's chain letters into two digestible categories: Anonymous and Performative. The former refers to the classification that most closely resembles chain mail in its purest form: An "email collective" that aims to facilitate an uplifting exchange through "women thought leaders." The only requirements are that you send a poem, verse, or quote to the person designated after you and pass on the original email through BCC to 20 people, effectively marching them to the digital guillotine.

Anonymous Chain Letters

I've received this letter twice now — humble brag — from an old friend and my college roommate, and the content is almost identical. And while it's nice to be thought of, the message has a subtle, nefarious subtext. Both versions have included the line: We have included those we think would be willing to participate and make it meaningful. Translation: I sent this to you because I believe you're a good person, but go ahead, prove me wrong. But the line that really got me was: Seldom does anyone drop out. First of all, when's the last time you casually used the word "seldom"? Second of all, Is that a threat? I was so taken aback by the tone of this supposedly cheerful chain that I x'ed out immediately and erased it from the forefront of my brain. Besides, what was my motivation to pass it on? Surely no one will ever discover that it was I who dismantled the women thought leaders email collective. Right?

Performative Chain Letters

The latter category appears to be overwhelmingly popular — but perhaps that's only because it exists in the most public arena known to mankind: Instagram Stories. Gone is the private turmoil of choosing whether or not to forward the chain, and the fate that might befall your family if you don't comply. This nouveau genre of chain letter is communal and outward-facing: You participate in a viral challenge, and then tag 10 users to do one of the following — A: Share photos of the most inspiring women you know, B: Do 10 push-ups (which is inherently cruel?), C: Post a series of childhood photos, which you are well aware are adorable but will claim to be embarrassed by, D: Fill out a template-style questionnaire. Influencers are doing it. Your random friend from gymnastics camp is doing it. Beauty brands are doing it. And you're witnessing all of it from the other side of the screen.

While this Gen Z-era chain letter is more visual and much less menacing, its intentions feel morally muddied. Are Instagram users really passing on social media chain mail because they crave connection to others in their virtual circles, their simulated "communities'? Or perhaps, we're all just "bored in the house," as TikTok users would lead us to believe. Are chain letters the antidote to the loneliness of social distancing?

I want to humbly offer up a more cynical analysis — performative chain letters aren't about connectivity: They feed off of superiority. I inherently have no more of a desire to be one of 10 tagged friends than I do one of 20 BCC'd people, but I'm more inclined to engage in a performative chain letter. Why? Because people will see if I'm not. Watching acquaintances participate in these challenges while I sit alone in the house, trying to get my mother to return my phone calls, feels, for lack of a better word, pathetic. It's the digital version of staying at home on a Saturday night to watch SNL: I Love SNL, but shouldn't I be at a party or something?

Smashbox on Instagram
Leah Ferezan on Instagram

I'm actually tickled by the idea of a chain letter: A pure message of hope that unites citizens from across the globe during a divisive cosmic event around a common purpose. But does that purpose have to be push-ups? In other words, what seems lovely in theory might be losing its appeal in the execution. If I want to feel uplifted, I'll call my little sister. If I want to feel connected, I'll organize a Zoom happy hour with my high school friends. And if I want to feel popular, I'll post a goddamn thirst trap and watch the likes roll in.

Now, for the love of God, will you please delete my email?