The “Chain Post” Dilemma
We all like it when others affirm that they care about us. This desire for affirmation is now driving a new form of viral messaging – something we are seeing with growing frequency on Google+, even if haven’t quite recognized it for what it is.
Let’s call it a “chain post.”
A Brief History of Chain Messaging:
The chain post is the latest evolution of an older form of communication; something we once called the “chain letter” back when it worked its magic by motivating people to make physical copies of a letter and distribute those copies to new recipients via the mail service. Over time, the chain letter became more efficient, morphing into a “chain email” as it moved to electronic copying and distribution with the clicks of a few buttons in our inboxes.
Today this extremely viral form of “chain messaging” has morphed once again, adapting and evolving to fit the conditions of its new medium: the online social network. Today, rather than a message, it is a post.
In previous incarnations, chain messages required lots of copying and forwarding. Today, the method for attracting new waves of recipients looks quite different – at least on the surface – for there’s no real copying and re-sharing of the message itself. Instead, the chain post works its magic by bringing wave after wave of new recipients to it.
By now, you are no doubt wondering what I’m talking about, but before I divulge that, let me highlight one more important aspect of the chain post, which is its methods for attracting new recipients.
In its older incarnations, the chain letter and the chain email used a variety of tricks for convincing people to spread them to new recipients. In some cases, it was positive inducements – such as the possibility of monetary rewards or other types of prizes. In other cases, the incentives took negative forms, such as the threat of physical violence or even bad luck.
Wikipedia Chain letter article:
Today’s latest iteration of the chain message is more singular in its incentives for participation, and it ties back to my opening remark about just how important social affirmation is to most of us. The chain post attracts new recipients through affirmation.
OK: What Actually is a “Chain Post?
So, what exactly is a chain post?
Chain posts take a variety of forms, but always include two key elements. First, they seed the initial waves of engagement by “plus mentioning” (typing the “+” sign along with someone’s name) a handful of people that the poster really likes. Second, the post then secures subsequent waves of engagement by encouraging others to use the comments to plus-mention a certain number of additional people that they too really like.
When you see your name mentioned in one of these comments, it feels natural to plus the comment as a simple nod of thanks to the person who mentioned you. But because that sometimes doesn’t feel quite sufficient, you sometimes also feel the need to plus-mention a thanks to that person as well. And while you’re commenting, it can feel a little rude not add your own contributions of new people to the growing list. It feels a little bit like free-riding on other people’s goodwill, and we humans have millions of years of social programming making that kind of thing taboo.
And so the chain starts growing with each person who is plus-mentioned receiving a notification that calls them to the post. As the comments and plusses grow, so too does the algorithmic weight of the post, making it ever more visible in our streams. Each engagement feeds the next, growing like a snowball gathering mass and speed as it rolls down the hill of our collective social behavior. You couldn’t design a better vehicle for engagement if you tried. It is the consummate viral message, almost unstoppable once it reaches a certain critical mass.
But here’s the thing: I find these chain posts irritating.
Now before you get mad at me or call me a party-pooping, old-fashioned, anti-social, fuddy-duddy, let me just say a couple things.
1) A number of people I really like and respect participate in chain posts and many have been very kind in including me in them. I am grateful for that, and in no way is this post intended as indictment or judgement. Heck, I’ve participated in plenty of these chain posts over this last year or so.
2) Some of these post are more than just engagement-driving, popularity contests. For example, I’ve seen some that are designed around finding people with a particular expertise or interest in some topic area – and I’ve found those extremely useful for meeting interesting new people.
I have two reasons for not liking chain posts:
1) Hurt Feelings: Chain posts tend to create more ill-will and hurt feelings than the net goodwill that comes from them. The catalyst for this particular post was that the other day, for the first time in a long time, I participated in a chain post. I followed the rules and named just seven people I really like. Within minutes, I remembered why I don’t like doing this. Because suddenly I saw other friends on that same post – people who I really like – and I didn’t mention them. So, while the seven people I did mention may have gotten a certain amount of happiness from my mentioning them, I think it’s more than canceled out by the dozens upon dozens of people who might rightfully have expected I’d mention them – but didn’t. That sucks. Come on. Admit it. It sucks.
2) Manipulation: The second reason I don’t like chain posts is that I feel manipulated by them. I know enough about how engagement and relevance works here on Google+ to feel that these posts are quite self-serving for the original poster – a new and improved form of chain letter, designed to boost their social relevance. There. I said it. Maybe Google discounts this type of engagement in its algorithms. I don’t know, but the intent behind (most of) them is to hitch a ride on our social instincts and drive up engagement. I don’t feel as strongly about this point as the first point, but I admit that I don’t like feeling manipulated in this way.
Don’t Shoot Me
This post is not an easy one to write because my intention really is not to offend anyone who is participating in chain posts. As I say, I’ve done it myself. But there’s always been this vague sense of obligation to it. And my guess is that many of you will know what I’m talking about.
Here’s the other thing – I get it: it’s nice to get and give a little love once in a while. Affirmation is a very real and very natural human desire. After writing this, I almost threw it away because of that. But then I remembered why I wrote it in the first place, which was whatever harm I was doing through inadvertently excluding people I care about. This isn’t the high school lunch table folks; there’s plenty of room for more than five, six or even ten people you like. If you want to share some of your favorite people with others, why not just use a circle share? Seriously.
You will have to reach your own conclusions about how you personally want to deal with future requests to participate in chain posts. Personally, I think there is a way to gracefully bow out without much negative personal consequences. Yes, I suspect I will probably not be included in many future chain posts – and that’s ok. Aside from the really focused versions I mentioned above, I don’t believe they do much for the people being mentioned in them. They don’t really result in many new followers and I’m guessing probably don’t add much to increase our individual Page Rank here on Google+.
My New Chain Post Policy:
So, for anyone who’s interested, here is my policy on how I will deal with chain posts going forward:
✦ If I find myself mentioned in a chain post, I will still plus the comment as a way of saying thanks. Why? Because I still very much like the people who mention me and appreciate their sentiment.
✦ I won’t plus-mention a thanks back though. And I won’t be adding any more additional people to the post.
✦ Depending upon how fuddy-duddy I’m feeling that day, I may comment with a link to this post to explain my reasons for not joining in on the fun.
Thanks for listening – and for keeping an open mind.
#chainpost #chainletter #viral #engagement