Monday, October 6, 2008

Links, Letters, Art and Life

click each example for close-up views

I was lamenting the other day the death of chain letters. The internet has many chains, and seems to have absorbed nearly all of the phenomenon. I haven't gotten a chain letter, that is, written on paper and sent through the mail, since 1992. And just when I decided to begin collecting them as artifacts. (I actually incorporated a chain letter into a painting then). And I hadn't thought too much about actual chain letters since then.
Back then, they were well-crafted in the sense that Nature "crafts" species: those with compelling memes survived, and those without perished. By compelling, I mean a meme that, by whatever magic, actually got the receiver to go through the trouble of making handwritten copies and sealing and stamping envelopes. Quite a lot of effort, really. Of course their internet descendents are far easier to transmit, but far less robust, in my view.

Back then I classed the best-surviving chain-mail memes into two classes: those that promised luck and good fortune, and those that used fear: "Do not break the chain, or horrible harm will come to you!" It's easy to tag and rate each strong memic fragment. I found it life-affirming that most chain-letters I received were richer in good-luck memes than fear-memes.
There does not seem to be a clear path of descent from the paper and stamp variety into their internet analogs. There are a few documented "jumps" from paper to internet, but in most modern cases I presume the email things evolved independently. Life was created twice! The "meta-meme" of chain letters made the hop, actually.
I will propose that a chain letter requiring 100 copies be sent might die out as fast as one requiring only two copies. Too much work involved in the former case, too much chance of stalling out with non-superstitious folks in the latter.

A fragment of yet another article: "The chain letter reproduces asexually. After all, the odds are pretty slim that someone would get two chain letters on the same day, and somehow merge them. If you like to daydream, though, you might imagine chain letters mating this way, with the recipient randomly taking a sentence from one or the other to build an 'offspring'... After reproducing, the chain letter, like a salmon, dies. Unless someone is really cheap, and makes 19 copies and then mails out the original!"

My investigation started with a "trollstorm" on a blog that normally has maybe a hundred comments show up under each article. I was thinking about optimal size of a comments section for the transmission of ideas (and also anecdotal disinformation!), and how the "six degrees of separation" work. Too many comments means people may post comments, but they won't read them all. (The section becomes what my friend Stevie Toledo sardonically calls "write-only memory.") Communication becomes one-way. In contrast, too few comments may mean too few readers (of the comments) and thus too high a bar - insufficient critical mass for an idea to take off. Optimal is a popular writer with a reasonable number of comments which can be followed by a casual reader, and in which a theme might be established; a dialog which takes the readers' fancy.
All of which in turn, I thought, has something to do with transmissibility - survivability / population increase - of memes in general. It's been fruitful. I was reminded that there are several distinct historical environments for chain letters. Pre-copy machine is one, and then fax machines, and now the internet. Other old environments were the mimeograph, "no typewriter in the house" and probably "a typewriter, but no carbon paper." Plus pen and paper only: The "teenage girl" letter, seen at the top.

1 comment:

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