Thursday, June 18, 2020

On Chain Letters and Pandemics

Guest post by Varsha Dani.

My 11-year-old child received a letter in the mail. "Send a book to the first person named," it said, "then move everyone's name up the list, add your own name and send copies of the letter to six friends. In a few weeks you will receive 36 books from all over the world!". Wow. When I first encountered chain letters in the mid eighties, it was postcards, but even then it hadn't taken me in. Since then I hadn't seen one of these in a long time, but I guess with a lot of people suddenly at home for extended periods, people crave both entertainment and a connection to others. 

What's wrong with chain letters? Well quite apart from the fact that they are illegal, even a child can comprehend that the number of books (or postcards or other gifts) received must equal the number sent, and that for every participant who does get a rich reward, there will be many who get nothing. 

But there is another kind of chain communication going around. It is an email, asking the recipient to send a poem or meditation to somebody, and later they will receive many communications of the same sort. How endearing. Poetry. Sweetness and Light. No get-rich-quick pyramid schemes here. What's wrong with that? 

Of course, it depends on what one means by "wrong". Maybe you like exchanging poetry with strangers. Maybe you don't find it onerous or wish that your spam filter would weed it out. But let's leave aside those issues and look at the math alone. You send the email to two friends, each of whom forwards it to two of their friends and so on. So the number of people the email reaches ostensibly doubles every step. Exponential growth. But in fact that is not what the graph of human connections looks like. Instead, what happens is that the sets of friends overlap, so that after a while the growth stops being exponential and tapers down. 

Where else have we seen something like that? Oh, right. The pandemic. The virus jumps from infected people to the people they meet, and from them to the people they meet and so on. Initially, that's exponential growth fof new cases, but after a while  it tapers off, forms a peak and then starts to decrease. Why? Because eventually there is overlap in the sets of people that each infected person is "trying" (unintentionally) to infect, and a newly infected person who got the virus from one or many previously infected people is still just one newly infected person.  

So the chain letter spreads just like a virus. Indeed if one were to, somewhat fancifully, think of the chain letter as an independent entity whose goal is to self-replicate, then it looks even more like a virus, and, like a virus, it can only achieve its self-replication goal through the help of a host. But here's a way in which it is not like a virus. Once one has got the virus and recovered, one (hopefully) does not get it again. Not so the chain letter, of which one may get many copies over time! So maybe you will get some gifts or poetry, but you will likely also get more requests for them!

So what's wrong with the poetry chain email? It depends on your perspective.  To those of you who are wistfully waiting for that Poem from a Stranger, I dedicate the following to you.

An open letter to my 2n dearest friends:

A letter came for me today
It promised wondrous ends
If only I would forward it 
To just two other friends.

If they in turn should send it on
to two more that they know,
the goodwill that we're sending out
would grow and grow and grow.

Is this as pleasant as it seems?
Alas, dear friends, it's not.
This exponential growth can lead
To quite a sticky spot.

Friends of friends of friends of mine
May very well be linked
The further that the letters go.
These folks are not distinct!

Ensuring there's no overlap
Is a logistic* pain.
As you will see, when you receive
That letter yet again. 

So while you're stuck at home this year
And pacing in your room.
Pick up the phone and make a call
Or see your friends on Zoom.

Your real thoughts would make me smile.
Chain letters are a con.
Do everyone a favor and
Don't send that letter on!


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