And if you don't love me now,
You will never love me again.
I can still hear you saying
you would never break the chain.
—"The Chain," Fleetwood Mac
I am grateful to have a lifestyle that lets me get on social media a lot. When I wake up, I browse Twitter on my phone and see what my friends and favorite comedians are joking about; whenever I have a break at work or at home, I get on Facebook to post, read, chat, or debate; heck, I even check Google+ from time to time to, uh, see if there's anything there.
I love social media. It helps me feel connected to people, lets me start conversations on topics I think are important, makes me laugh, gives me something to do when I'm bored, and even serves as an outlet for my life's most intense emotions on occasion.
But social media can also be profoundly annoying and even upsetting. I sometimes disagree strongly with my friends' opinions or feel left out of the fun things I see others enjoying. Few things on social media irritate me more than things like the following, however, which was taken directly from my Facebook feed today:
"Not something I would normally do ... but I am curious. Please continue to read. It occurs to me that for each and every one of you on my friends list, I catch myself looking at your pictures, sharing jokes and news, as well as support during good and bad times. I am happy to have you among my friends. We will see who will take the time to read this message until the end. If you appreciate your friends from all over the world, go ahead and copy this into your status too, even if it's just for a minute. I'm going to be watching to see who takes care of the friendship, just like me. Thank you all for being a part of my life. Copy and paste please, don't share. If no one reads my wall, this should be a short experiment.This post is irritating for several reasons. The primary reason I'll get to in a moment, but the secondary one is broader, so I'll address it first: it's a chain letter. A chain letter is essentially a thought virus, a message with a built-in agenda to manipulate the reader into spreading it to others. Originally, chain letters were actual, physical letters people sent in the mail (with messages like "You must send this on 3 hours after reading the letter to 10 different people. If you do this, you will receive unbeleavably good luck in love...If you do not, bad luck will rear it's head at you. THIS IS NOT A JOKE!"). These days, a chain letter is more likely to be an email (encouraging the reader to let others know, say, that the President is the Antichrist), a message on Twitter (it might start with "retweet if you agree"), or even an image macro posted on Facebook:
This is a Facebook game to see who reads and who just scrolls. So, if you read this, leave one word on how we met. Only one word, then copy this to your wall so I can leave a word for you. Please don't add your word and forget or neglect to copy. Thanks."
I hate feeling manipulated, so I flipping hate chain letters. I assume that most people also hate them, but I suppose that, for at least some people, the irritation that one feels at being manipulated gets overridden when they read a message that really appeals to them. Which I guess is just saying that the manipulation works sometimes.
The manipulation in any of these messages is essentially a threat to the reader; the threat can be that they'll have bad luck, that they'll let their friends down by not giving them valuable information, they'll fail to support the right cause, they'll show that they aren't really religious, or what have you. In the message I saw today on my feed, the threat is that people will think the reader doesn't care about the person who posted it ("I am happy to have you among my friends. We will see who will take the time to read this message until the end...This is a Facebook game to see who reads and who just scrolls.")
The threat that others will think you don't care or worse, that the person who posted it will think you don't care, is especially powerful and therefore especially awful. "I'm supposed to be your friend, aren't I?" it says; "If we're really friends, show me." In fact, this is nothing less than the social media equivalent of that old chestnut, uttered by abusive friends, family members, and lovers everywhere: "If you love me, you'll do what I want." It's hella. freaking. manipulative.
|Good luck fighting Satan with Facebook, man.|
Which is the primary reason I don't like this post in particular: it's a loyalty test. It's the worst sort of thought virus, because it spreads by encouraging people to separate their friends into categories of "real" and "fake," friends who supposedly genuinely care and friends who supposedly don't. Other kinds of chain letters are irritating. This kind can do real harm, both to your perception of your friends and to their perception of you.
There's actually a pretty skillful trick at work in this kind of post: once you see it and write a comment, you've already done half of what it asked, so you feel obliged do the other half too: you copy it and put it up for your own friends to see. Congratulations! You've just been tricked into either (a) shaming your friends into doing something or (b) getting them to like you less, depending on whether they go along with it or not. Possibly both, actually.
The point of all this is simple: don't spread this stuff. Social media has made it especially easy to get exposed to these thought viruses, but all it takes is a very small amount of critical thinking to recognize them and refuse to participate. When you come across them, don't post things that manipulate your emotions to get you to repost, don't forward emails that tell you to forward them, and never encourage your friends to share fond memories with you by making it a test of their true friendship. Because that, my friends, is sucky.
I want to take an extra few paragraphs and do a breakdown of the original post that inspired this tirade. I'll look at it in chunks and talk briefly about the rhetorical strategies at work:
"Not something I would normally do ... but I am curious. Please continue to read. It occurs to me that for each and every one of you on my friends list, I catch myself looking at your pictures, sharing jokes and news, as well as support during good and bad times. I am happy to have you among my friends."The post starts with what is basically an apology. It lets us know that the poster is not really the sort of person that forwards chain letters, but that this is a special case. (Note that it also serves to make the idea of reposting more palatable: this chain letter has a built-in apology so people will know you're not the kind of person that forwards chain letters either when the time comes!) It then lures the reader in further, asking us to take the time to read the message, and then rewarding us by making us feel connected to the person who posted it.
"We will see who will take the time to read this message until the end. If you appreciate your friends from all over the world, go ahead and copy this into your status too, even if it's just for a minute. I'm going to be watching to see who takes care of the friendship, just like me. Thank you all for being a part of my life. Copy and paste please, don't share."Here's where the manipulation really kicks into gear: the implication is that "we will all see who takes the time to read this and who does not; you'd better take the time, or else!" Then comes the first demand that the reader share the message, cleverly attached to a condition that no one would say no to: "If you appreciate your friends"—and who doesn't?—then you'll share this with them. Next, the most straightforwardly manipulative sentence in the whole thing: "I'll be watching" to see who is a real friend, "just like me." And right after is a nice sentiment to cover up the ugliness: thanks so much for being part of my life! I love you guys!
"If no one reads my wall, this should be a short experiment."This is my favorite: it's so thoroughly passive-aggressive and icky. This sentence does two big things in just 12 words: it provides a hedge against failure if no one comments ("Ha ha, just an experiment guys, no big deal!") and it provides a massive extra heap of shame for the reader through false modesty and self-pity ("Oh no, if no one responds, it means no one reads their wall at all, that's terrible!") It's a real gem, this sentence.
"This is a Facebook game to see who reads and who just scrolls. So, if you read this, leave one word on how we met. Only one word, then copy this to your wall so I can leave a word for you. Please don't add your word and forget or neglect to copy. Thanks."Lastly, we get a summary of what came before, and finally the actual thing the reader is supposed to do in response to all this, as well as a couple extra manipulations for good measure; the messages are: (1) this "game" is a test of true friendship, (2) please respond so I know you're my friend, (3) it won't be a big deal, just a moment of your time: one word, in fact! (3) if you respond to me, I'll respond to you, it'll be great! (4) definitely, definitely, spread this thought virus to other people, and lastly (5) Thanks!
It's quite an effectively composed message; the key themes are all there several times, the actual thing you're asked to do is presented as low effort (one word is all it takes!) and high profit (I'll know you're my friend and we'll both feel good!), and there are even several cop-outs to help you not feel bad for reposting. So if you fell for this one, don't feel too bad: it did its job well, is all.
Photo 1 source: https://secure.flickr.com/photos/botheredbybees/708642955/
Other photo sources: people who think chain letters are okay for some reason