Rachel Hynes, 35, a financial consultant who lives in the Battery Park neighborhood of Manhattan, woke up on a recent Monday morning to an email from a female colleague she rarely works with.
When she opened it she found something unexpected: an old-school chain letter.
“Please send an insight/poem/quote/thought to the person whose name is in position 1 below (even if you don’t know them.) It should be a favorite text/verse/meditation that has affected you. Don’t agonize over it,” the email said.
It went on to instruct: “After you’ve sent the short poem/verse/quote/etc. to the person in position #1, and only that person, copy this letter into a new email in the text, move my name to position #1, and put your name in position #2 …. Then send the email to yourself and BCC 20 women you admire.”
“If I don’t send it around I’m a jerk to this person, and if I do send it around am I even more of a jerk for perpetuating this thing?” Ms. Hynes said. “Why are these back?”
Her place of employment solved the dilemma for her. When she tried to forward the email, the action was blocked by an internal system that marked it as spam.
Isolation at home has brought a return of something many people haven’t seen since junior high: the chain letter. They are being spread on email and social media across the generations, although many are targeted at women. While some participants find them a source of amusement, others call them an annoyance we don’t need ever, especially during a pandemic.
“People are bored,” Ms. Hynes said.
She added that, in addition to the colleague’s chain letter, she’s getting four or five a week from aunts, uncles, former teachers, friends’ parents, cousins and old college buddies.
On Instagram she got one requiring her to post a pretty picture of herself and tag 10 beautiful women to do the same. On Facebook, she’s had to name her first kiss, her first car, her first memory with her spouse, before passing it along. “There was this one where I had to use emoji to answer questions about how I’m feeling right now, what I am listening to, et cetera,” she said.
Ann Shoket, 47, the author of “The Big Life” and former editor of Seventeen magazine, said these challenges give her a sense of belonging. “People are desperate for community,” she said. “They want to know other people are out there and paying attention to them.”
She added: “It feels nice when someone tags you.” (Ms. Hynes said some friends she didn’t tag felt left out and complained.)
For one chain, Ms. Shoket shared a quote that has kept her going under stay-at-home orders in Manhattan. “I wrote this long answer to the first person on the list,” she said. “It was about something Barbara Walters once told me about how you have no idea how interesting your life can become and the adventures in store for you.”
She hasn’t yet forwarded the challenge along to colleagues and friends, though. “I am tickled to be included and charmed by this whole thing,” she said. “But I am still deciding if my friends will be tickled and charmed.” (She’s been sitting on her email draft for more than two weeks.)
Kathryn Mockler, a writer, university professor and self-described member of Generation X who lives in Toronto, is not amused by these chains. Since March 27, she’s been getting messages that ask her to write a poem or meditation; she refuses to send them along.
“There is a manipulative tone that I don’t like,” Ms. Mockler said. “The implication is that if you don’t participate you are not who we thought you were and you are breaking everyone’s fun.”
She also resents the fact that many messages say how little time this activity will take up. “You know what is a lot less work than sending one email or not agonizing over the text?” she said. “Not doing it at all and never having received it in the first place.”
Kaitlin Ruiz, 25, a graduate student at Penn State who lives in State College, Pa., started a chain letter on Twitter, choosing a topic she thought would be fun and undemanding: geckos. She asked followers to post photos of the lizards and send it to friends.
“A typical day in quarantine has me feeling sorry for myself, and there’s really only one thing to do to ward off self-pity: look at pictures of geckos.” she said. “We have plenty of reasons to feel paranoid right now, so here’s something absurd and beautiful. Take what you need and pass it on.”
There’s a chain currently circulating on Instagram that warns: If you don’t draw an orange and send it to five people, you will be visited by a ghost tonight at midnight. But generally quarantine-era chain letters are milder than they were two or three decades ago, when harsh punishments were predicted for breaking the thread; maybe a family member would die or you would have bad sex for 10 years. “There is no threat in these contemporary versions,” Ms. Mockler said.
Perhaps that’s because there is plenty of threat outside.