Chain Letters and Responsibility

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People never wise up.

In the Internet era, chain letters have grown more pervasive than ever, even if they’ve stayed equally absurd:

  • The e-mail asking you to forward its message to a set number of people that they then must forward along so that you can see something (“you’ve never seen anything like this before!”), win something (money! vacations! cars!), or gain good or avoid bad luck (who knew so many people believed in voodoo?).

  • The social media posts asking you to like or share something scary (a new crime for suckers like you!), joyous (yet good things do happen), funny (dumb people! goofy animals!), sad (dying people! distressed animals!), silly (“What flavor of ice cream are you?”), or mundane (“I put text in a colored box!”) or to respond to questions that you then must ask five other people to answer (first kiss, first pet, first anything).

Don’t hold your breath, waiting on the chain letter’s extinction.

Guilt, fear, greed, crowd dynamics, groupthink, and ignorance fuel the chain letter—as they do so much in life. When complying takes so little effort, especially in the Internet age, why break a chain, tempt bad luck, fail to share information, miss money and prizes, or buck the trend?

Yet even if we can’t ask our fellow humans to stop the madness, can we ask them to take a little more care? Just as the Internet makes creating and spreading misinformation easier than ever, it makes validating material easier as well. Do we share a greater burden for substantiating information in the digital age? Do we hold greater responsibility when we contribute to misunderstandings and perpetuate misinformation?

Before we like or share something, we can take a moment to consider whether what the action will do for a given cause; whether it has any value to our friends, fans, and followers; and whether it perpetuates hurtful misinformation. We can search key words from chain letters to check truthfulness. We can vet information through Snopes.

Liking a post does not provide funds for a charity. Little Timmy may never have fallen down the well—and if he did, Lassie likely rescued him a while ago. (Further, sharing a post about his plight won’t do much even if he stayed stuck.) Forwarding a scandalous story about a company or the government may create unsubstantiated panic and anger more than it saves grief. Does this product really kill people? Did that restaurant really kick out a girl with a mangled face?

We can ask, but we won’t receive. We can’t count on all people wising up, but we can count on a predominance of laziness. We can only manage ourselves. (Which I recommend.)

What do you think?