Email post. Prediction of extinction of paper luck chain letters. D. VanArsdale. US, 1995. 

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Subject: Extinction of paper luck chains
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Subject: Imminent extinction of paper "luck chain letters."

I predict that the familiar "prayer" or "good luck" type chain
letters will totally disappear from the US mail by the year
2000. To argue this some much needed terminology (in
caps) will be introduced - please gripe about any you don't
like. Let's call these letters LUCK CHAIN LETTERS
(LCL). In contrast, a MONEY CHAIN LETTER (MCL)
asks that money be sent to one or more prior recipients.
Both have PAPER and CYBER versions. Digitization is
not a new phenomenon; MCLs circulated via telegraph sixty
years ago. Some population mathematics will also be
described which, though not essential to follow the
argument, has helped me to see how critical small factors
are for the survival of chain letters and their variants. The
key fact here is that kids are getting E-mail before they get
any snail mail. Reasoning:

(I) Population dynamics, exponential growth and decay.
If m letters in hand result in n letters in new hands, define
the GROWTH FACTOR as f=n/m. Starting with m letters,
after t generations there will be P=m*(f^t) letters. The
familiar "exponential growth constant" is the natural
logarithm ln f. GENERATION TIME is the average time
to go from one hand to another - about one week for paper
LCLs ( the four days DEADLINE plus three days in
transit). For f>1, doubling of a population occurs in d=ln2 /
ln f generations. Thus if 20 copies of a LCL produce on
average 22 copies, then f=22/20=1.1 and d is about 7.3
generations or two months. At this rate of doubling, U.S.
saturation (100,000,000 copies) would occur in 7.3 years.
If f=18/20=0.9 the population is declining, halving every
two months.

(II) Long term survival, feedback control.
A constant growth factor (exponential growth) is a
reasonable assumption for a replicator in a large
homogeneous population. However LCLs have neither
disappeared nor covered the earth. Thus the long term
growth factor is extremely close to f=1; phases of
exponential growth / decay being episodic. This survival
implies feedback control on population. Call a social
replicator DECREMENTAL if a person is less likely to
reproduce it on multiple exposure. Thus jokes are highly
decremental. Chain letters are also decremental (noted by
Wickets, also Goodenough and Dawkins). Some polling on
this should be done, but it seems clear for the LCLs at least.
Thus exponential growth is checked by saturation of the
available human population. And sustained decay produces
a large new crop of potential first time recipients, thus
increasing the growth factor. Such population dynamics
can be modeled by the "logistic" curve.

(III) Cyber versions, youth access.
Cyber LCLs are widespread on the Internet, and within
private On-line services. What is important here is not how
many have been sent, but the likelihood of receiving one. It
seems we all do after a few months. And this must apply to
the hundreds of thousands of youth with access. I believe a
sample will show that most who are sending cyber LCLs
(like the SPEAR CHUCKER letter that now predominates)
are dependents. Thus they have had little chance to receive
a paper version, since those go to a mailing address, or are
distributed at places of employment (in work mail boxes, or
left on desks). Consequently paper versions are being
deprived of a significant proportion of first time recipients,
and it will only get worse as millions more get on-line. It
will do no good if a more replicative paper version appears
- it will just be put on the net (e.g. to save on distribution
costs) and again the paper medium is deprived of first crack
at virgin recipients. For these reasons I believe paper luck
chain letters are already in a rapid decline in the U.S., and
will completely disappear in a few more years.
Dan VanArsdale, 6/7/95,

Posted to the CU Boulder folklore list on June 7, 1995 by DWV (now at


Chain Letter Evolution (a history of paper chain letters).