virus: Replicative strategies

Kevin M O'Connor (
Mon, 28 Oct 1996 02:32:20 EST

--------- Begin forwarded message ----------
To: (KMO prime)
Cc: "william f. hansen" <>,"Alan E.
Mays",<>,preston michael,<preston@spot.colorado.EDU>
Subject: Replicative strategies
Date: Sun, 27 Oct 1996 09:53:01 -0800 (PST)
Message-ID: <>


Thanks for sending me the posts on the "Brain Tennis"
feature on HotWired.

Aaron Lynch used some very effective language, and
seems to me to have a good grasp of the mechanics of
social replicators. Particularly note how he
interprets the "end is near" doctrine of early
Christianity as a factor that accelerated
replication of the doctrine. This is present in
chain letters, where all "prayer" letters of this
century have a DEADLINE for making copies. For example,
the dominant chain from 1906 to 1917 had a nine copy in
nine days demand. Then around 1920 a new more secular
letter appeared, which again asked for nine copies. But
it wanted them in 24 hours. This letter replaced the
prior one completely (though there were likely other factors
operating as well as the quicker deadline).
Now here is something I am working on, but do not have enough
data yet. This 24 hour deadline persisted for a while, and
that letter may have migrated to South America. A new letter
appeared here asking for 5 copies in 4 days (expressed as 96 hours
as is still present). In the 1970's a South American letter came
back to America and got attached to the prevailing letter. This
attachment was missing its deadline (24 hours) but asked for
24 copies! I suspect someone had miscopied, replacing the
nine copies by twenty four copies. This got into the office
sub-culture where copying machines were just coming in, and
not only survived but out-competed the prior nine copy versions.
Here the 24 request changed to 20, which had come in here in 1959.
This could be a spectacular case of an accident or error replicating,
but I need more data. Still, 24 copies is suspicious, and you see
such transference of numbers often.

I break down the requirements of replication and see how letters
address these. Thus not only (1) abundance of copies is important,
but also the (2) promptness with which they are produced, and how
(3) effectively they are distributed. Further, the (4) accuracy and
legibility of the copies is a factor benefiting increase in population
of a variant. Often just abundance of copies is mentioned, but these
other factors are important, and there are many examples of chain
letter text that promote these requirements of replication. The classic
" around the world nine times," going way back, is I feel like a hook
on a seed, and in many forms the letter says "is to go around the world."
Thus this promotes more effective distribution, just like tumble weeds
have spread all over the west (they are introduced from Australia). If
I had many letters with sender and receiver return addresses, I even
I could show that early chains tended to go from east to west, and may
indeed be circling the world now, in a statistical sense. Early on when
a person received the same letter again, they may have thought it had
made a circumnavigation, hence the count. I could go on with other
examples -
like the re-type testimonial (since 1988) promotes more accurate copying
by countering photocopy degeneration. And consider this: what is the
worst enemy of chain letters? Immediate destruction, obviously. If you
keep it, it may work its will on you by a lot of tricks, especially if
you start having some bad luck. So who is punished the most in chain
letters? You got it, the guy (Fairchild) who not believing throws the
letter away. Or (in a Mexican letter), Maria Buena who "lost her letter
and lost her life."

I could go on with more examples. The truth is that the data I have
reveals that chain letters are a composite of many replicative
having accumulated over centuries, with many hands contributing the key
innovations but many of these innovations may have been whimsical, or
some even accidents of copying. In any case I make a big issue that no
one person could be the author, that the replicative strategies that
have accumulated are not totally comprehended by the copiers (nor anyone
that some of these strategies may defy present understanding (such as
the subtle use of ambiguity, interaction with other traditions, play
on minority superstitions, etc.), and that the damn things are like
little beasties doing there own thing, though in a way it is just
sort of mechanical, a sorting takes place, nothing mystical, no demons
Barbrook accuses. This will be fun documenting this, getting into
the details of the "clever" replicative strategies (like the ones
I don't understand yet), and seeing just how far back this process
has been going on.
Some of this should probably wait for the publication of our book,
but I can see Aaron Lynch thinks along similar lines (as you do),
and I will get his book. I will NOT be writing much on the philosophy
of memetics - this will be a data heavy book - it is the sequence
of letters that should take center stage - our work should be
to show the lineage and to explain the content. From what I have
seen of the modern letters, this explanation is best done simply
by figuring out what gets copied and distributed best. It is that
simple. Dan

PS. Note that it was "Maria Buena" that lost her letter and lost her
life. What is in a name? Well, note that "Fairchild" dies for
throwing the American letter away. Now, can you think of any more
virtuous names? "Mary Good" !!! The letter is demonstrating that
your virtue, piety, will not protect you, you still will be punished
if you destroy or lose the letter. Of course the letter "does" nothing,
it is just a "tool" of understanding to see it as an entity of some
sort. Incidentally, these names were probably accidental discoveries.
Other foreign examples may be needed to make this case better, but you
can see how subtle chain letter "replicative strategies" may be,
and how the may still defy comprehension. When a cultural item has
strategies that no one understands (yet), I feel the memetic approach is
fertile ground.

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