If you thought sinister copy-and-paste chain letters had died with Hotmail, think again – a new generation has reinvented the incessant 00s trend, this time to manifest good luck
“If yOU dOn’t sEnd thIs tO At lEAst 12 pEOplE yOU wIll hAvE bAd lUck fOr thE rEst Of yOUr lIfE.” If you remember receiving an email like this on your ancient Hotmail address, then you’re old enough to remember how incessant chain mail was in the early 2000s. Its email form has died out for the most part, but chain mail is far from obsolete. In fact, it’s been reincarnated on TikTok, of course, because where else would it reappear but the video-sharing app that’s helped young people discover practices such as manifestation and affirmations? Gen Z believes in so many of the things many Millennials turn their noses up at: luck, karma, speaking things into existence – they’re the generation that popularised the idea of ‘romanticising your life’, after all. And now, they’re redefining chain mail for the age of digital spirituality.
Chain mail began not, as you might think, on an ancient Dell laptop in the late 1990s, but over 100 years ago in a Methodist Academy for female missionaries in Chicago. According to 2015 research, there was a financial motive behind the first recorded chain letter in 1888. The letter, sent out from the school for female missionaries, asked each person who received it to donate a dime to the school and send out three copies of the letter asking other people to do the same thing. These chain mail letters were popularised throughout the 20th century as people soon began to introduce the idea of superstition to them to make them more effective – think: ‘If you don’t send this on you will have bad luck’.
Chain mail reached peak absurdity when it became digital (like most things), with emails threatening that an infant girl would appear in your mirror and kill you if you didn’t re-share the message. They were sinister threats for many of the teenagers receiving them, so they sent them on ‘just in case’, meaning chain mail maintained popularity until young people stopped using email to communicate with their friends.
Chain letter emails had various aims: hackers used them to input viruses onto computers, scammers used them to steal data and money, and they’ve even been used for fraud. Many chain mail emails, however, were actually just created by high school students who were looking to establish some sort of legacy by having their email shared hundreds of times. Chain messages were also sent by text – a practice still employed today by Gen X mums on Whatsapp (although they’re mainly sharing fake COVID news, warnings about Whatsapp scams, or very sweet motivational quotes, rather than scaremongering threats). In fact, there was a time when the main benefit of owning a Blackberry was being able to send round a broadcast – the early 2010s take on a group message – to your entire contact list, which made these types of chain messages even more popular.
The aim of TikTok chain mail is not dissimilar to the motives of 2000s teenagers. In fact, creating a video that falls under the category of ‘TikTok chain mail’ is a very easy way to go viral. The chain mail videos use a trending sound – one of the most popular ones, with 1.6 million videos under it, is called “TIME IN OBLIVION” – and are captioned something along the lines of, ‘I used this sound and something great happened to me’.
“Was v stressed and unemployed when I found this sound last week” user @asthmabaddie said in a now-deleted TikTok that had over 2.5 million views. “This week I got four job offers and was approved for a $6,000 grant I applied for A YEAR AND A HALF AGO. This sh!t works. Save this sound and watch ur life improve.”
The TikTok algorithm works so that the more people that interact with your video, the more likely it is to appear on other users’ For You pages. Encouraging people to like the video or save a sound for good luck is a very easy way to secure the kind of engagement that can make a video go viral. And there’s even less stakes for the people liking and saving these clips than there was for Gen Z’s Millennial counterparts who forwarded chain mail emails on. Young people can engage with chain mail TikToks – securing the good luck they are promised and helping the video to go viral – completely anonymously by saving the sound or video to a private folder.
“When you save these videos, you’re priming the mind with what you want to happen, so you’re then going to look for it. We look to confirm our biases” – Dr Audrey Tang
But why do young people believe that privately saving a video will bring them luck? “Superstition goes back to one of the most fundamental and common styles of learning – we make associations,” explains Dr Audrey Tang, a chartered psychologist. Tang adds that when we do something and something else happens, we link the two things together even if they’re not directly related. This is one of the biggest reasons people believe they’ve had superstitious and lucky experiences.
19-year-old Cameron began using chain mail sounds on TikTok earlier this year, and he believes they have more to do with manifestation than superstition. “You have to believe that something good will happen to you once you use the sound in a positive way,” he says. So has saving hundreds of these videos actually brought luck into Cameron’s life? Apparently so. He tells Dazed about a time he was saving the sounds in the hope it would improve his relationship with a boy he liked: “I was thinking over and over while recording, ‘He’s gonna text me, he’s gonna text me’, and five minutes later he texted me saying he missed me.”
Fani, aged 29 and from London, agrees that she has experienced better luck since saving chain mail sounds. “I didn’t have anything specific in mind when I recorded the video and saved it into my drafts for the first time, but I thought I had nothing to lose by trying it out,” she says. Three days later, Fani had a conversation with her boyfriend that significantly improved their relationship. “Although these events could have taken place regardless of me saving the sound, I feel in a way that they are connected. It was completely out of the blue!”
There’s another reason as to why people might believe that saving these TikTok sounds are making good things happen in their life. According to Tang, much of superstition comes down to something called confirmation bias. “When you save these videos, you’re priming the mind with what you want to happen, so you’re then going to look for it. We look to confirm our biases.”
“The secret to going viral on TikTok is making up a crazy story that might seem believable,” Cameron says, explaining that this is why he made this TikTok about conversion therapy. With this video, Cameron was able to monopolise on the popularity of the chain mail, which he thinks is successful because of timing. As people go through particularly difficult circumstances as a result of the pandemic, they’re finding solace in the idea of good luck.
“The secret to going viral on TikTok is making up a crazy story that might seem believable” – Cameron
In the UK alone, an estimated eight million people in England with mental health problems cannot get specialist help, because they are not considered sick enough to qualify – and this has only worsened since the pandemic began. Tang believes the lack of access to mental health services means that people look to trends like TikTok chain mail to help them validate their feelings. “With these videos, they don’t have to express themselves, they don’t have to be told, ‘I’m not sick enough’, they don't have to go through any of that shame – they just need to share a video,” she says.
Research from the Springtide Institute found that 51 per cent of 13 to 25-year-olds engage with tarot cards or fortune telling, which might explain why Gen Z are so willing to buy into superstition. But they’re also not consuming it totally uncritically. In fact, Cameron made a viral TikTok mocking the chain mail trend, filming the video using a popular sound called “I’m so lucky lucky” and adding the caption, “Used this sound, and 20 min later my mom said she bought me tickets to this camp where they change you into this new person, and you get super close w God”.
Although these TikToks might be helping some people to build a positive mindset, Tang believes they have the ability to be harmful, especially as many of the videos that fall under the chain mail trend have started to focus on the bad things that might happen if you don’t share the video, rather than the good things that will happen if you do.
20-year-old Mollie says she finds these videos triggering as someone who suffers with OCD, and so made a TikTok about having to hide the chain mail audios from her For You page. “If you hold down on this video and hide audios with this sound, nothing awful will happen I promise. This audio holds no power over your life or future,” she says.
As far as history goes, chain mail can be harmless. But just like most things on the internet, it has the potential to be harmful when it goes unregulated. Doomscrolling has become the norm thanks to the pandemic, and it’s easy to see how young people could become anxious about all the bad things that might happen to them if they don’t engage with a TikTok video, rather than feeling optimistic about the good things that might happen to them if they do. And if we’re talking about superstition, for TikTok’s Gen Z users who’ve so far had two of their formative years stolen from them by COVID-19, they might be inclined to expect bad luck.
As Cameron says: “I think so many people are using this sound right now because we don’t live in the most kind world – people are always looking for good luck.”