The day the 45th president of the United States was impeached, I was alerted to the situation by a text message full of emoji tongues.
“🚨🚨🚨HAPPY IMPEACHMENT DAY to all my freedom🗽loving hoes💦👅👅👅,” began the missive, forwarded to me without comment by my former roommate. It thanked its recipients for “putting the 🍑in IM🍑MENT” and made passing reference to “hoe biden” and “daddy ukraine,” as well as a sexual act that was deemed “the only ethical form of consumption under late capitalism.” before demanding that the note be forwarded to 10 “woke” contacts, “☭”.
It wasn’t the first text message I’d received in this style, nor the first one I had copy-pasted and forwarded on to my siblings and friends. At this point in my life, I’m well aware of the unpleasant things that can happen to a person if she doesn’t forward a chain message: She can die, or she can miss out on a chance to make a fortune, or she can disappoint her Father in heaven, or she can have a totally sexless year. These consequences have been threatened for centuries in paper letters, emails—and, recently, smutty, emoji-studded text messages, typically timed to a holiday or major event.
They are gross, they are phonetically challenging, and they are extremely compelling. On December 19, the Atlantic editor Ellen Cushing sent me the same impeachment-themed text message, followed by a plea and a question: “sorry please don’t report me to HR. where do they come from??????”
Where do they come from? That’s the million [money-bag emoji] question [smiley face with a dollar sign on its tongue]. They come from a friend who got it from a friend who got it from a friend, which is to say they come from no one. You can find them on Tumblr and Reddit and Twitter, but the person posting them is rarely the person writing them.
I learned this the hard way, after messaging a Reddit user who goes by “Anthologay,” who shared the impeachment-day text in a forum. When I asked him for the origins of the text, he admitted, “I was sent it by some other gay guy lol,” then did not respond to several emails begging him to help me find the source.
As it turned out, the text was originally posted in September of 2019 (very proactive!) to the subreddit r/copypasta, which archives all kinds of copypasta: chunks of text that are meant to be copy-pasted and spread across the web. Then it was reposted to Twitter, then to Tumblr. Once again, I used Reddit’s chat feature to ask a stranger about the origins of a message, and once again, the person confessed, “I’m so sorry, I got it from a friend.”
If it is nearly impossible to say where chain texts come from individually, it is much less difficult to say where they came from generally. The most complete accounting of the history of chain letters was written by an 82-year-old self-described independent researcher from California named Daniel W. VanArsdale, whose archive is a treasure trove of what he calls “amoral chaos” and contains more than 900 letters, dating back to the late 1880s.
“I just thought that it would be interesting to try to figure out what was going on and how [chain letters] worked,” he told me, of a research project that has taken almost half a century and much of his life.
The first chain letters, in VanArsdale’s analysis, were what folklorists sometimes call “heavenly letters,” or, more commonly, Himmelsbrief, a German term. These letters claimed to be authored by God, typically offering divine protection in exchange for proper religious observance. It’s an enduring format: VanArsdale’s archive cites a letter, discovered in Greece, dating back to the third century.
Early letters from heaven urged the reader to “ ‘publish’ the letter,” according to VanArsdale’s reasearch, and until at least the 1960s, many local newspapers did. But by the 20th century, the most popular chain letters “gained more circulation by relying on individual copying.” These letters—paper, sent by mail—were not all that different from the modern chain text. They were short. They were secular. They stated a minimum number of copies that the recipient should distribute. And they included a deadline. Often, they listed consequences for not forwarding them on.
“DO NOT BREAK THE CHAIN, for whoever does will have BAD LUCK,” reads a letter from 1922. “Do it within twenty-hour hours and count nine days and you will have some great good fortune.” Others promised that those who forwarded the letter would often win the lottery shortly after. People who didn’t follow the instructions supposedly “lost everything [they] possessed,” or died mysteriously.
By the second half of the 20th century, chain letters were ubiquitous enough to become a vector for scams, hoaxes, and viral lies. Chain pyramid schemes ran rampant through the U.S. mail system before they were made illegal in 1948. Emails demanding multiple forwardings to avoid the wrath of some teenage ghost were so prevalent that they warranted attention from the federal government in the late ’90s. Chain letters also served as absurd and ingenious misinformation campaigns, nearly impossible to trace back to their source. In 1999, the Better Business Bureau released an advisory about two email-chain hoaxes. The first promised that readers could win a free case of M&Ms (“the candy of the Millennium”) if they helped the message go sufficiently viral before Y2K. (According to a company operations manager, there was, in fact, no email-related way to win any Mars Candy products.) The second claimed that Procter & Gamble’s moon-and-stars corporate trademark was a symbol of Satanism. (It is not.)
In the 2000s, chain letters jumped to text, and in the following decade they began to adopt the emoji-heavy format we see today. Some still have the same anti-capitalist tinge: May Day, for example, has its own crude tributes, in which the proletariat becomes the “HOEletariat.” Most retain the vague threat of missing out on something good if you don’t push the message through your entire social network: At Christmas, your stocking only gets stuffed if you text enough “naughty elves.”
Others are smarmier, taking sweet issue with the perceived meanness of your average chain message. One, in honor of “Palentine’s Day,” asks the reader to forward it to 10 people. If you get 10 back you’re “ONE HECK OF A PAL.” If you get five back, you’re “LOVED 💓💗❣️BY SOME 🌞GOOD 🌸FOLKS.” But if you get zero back, “YOURE FRIENDS👫👭👬WITH PEOPLE WHO DON’T ❌PARTICIPATE❌ IN HOLIDAY 🎉🎊🎄🐰❤️CHAIN ⛓TEXTS ⛓🔕AND THAT’S NOT❌ A REFLECTION 🔮ON YOU 💁♀️OR YOUR VALUE ⚖️AS A HUMAN BEING👽.” Others keep the format and extract the sexiness: “Are you DTF?!” starts an Easter text. “Down 2 Forgive? Jesus forgave you for your sins.”
By 2015, these types of messages were so popular that r/copypasta cordoned them off into their own subreddit: r/emojipasta. One of its moderators, a 24-year-old from Tel Aviv named Yitzchok Trachtenberg, told me it was founded to highlight the “creativity and innovation of youth creating new and powerful ideas through technological advancement transforming simple emoticons into works of textual art.”A little rhetorically dense, maybe, but fair. Chain texts do transform anodyne emoji and bad puns into strange and elaborate poems about current events—as charming as they are crass, like young people themselves, and way more fun than sanctimonious tweets or mass-manufactured greeting cards.
However, in r/emojipasta, the particular character of Reddit really asserts itself over the form. On New Year’s Eve, one member of the subreddit shared an inspirational text he told me he came up with on the spot: “🗣Fuck 🖕🏻your New Years 💥kiss💋. Who’s trying🤔 to go 🚶♂️to the gym 💪and get a New Years💥 lift🏋️♂️❓,” it says, in part. That poster’s favorite emojipasta, he said, is the one that takes a chunk of dialogue from Todd Phillips’s Joker and fills it in with clowns and squirt guns. (Trachtenberg told me that since 2015, r/emojipasta has “devolved into a place where people are allowed to say what they think and we all know what that turns into online, a bunch of racist antigay homophobes.” He no longer spends much time there, he said.)
As it turns out, r/emojipasta wasn’t even the first chain-text archive. In April 2015, a few months before the subreddit was founded, a “Chain Texts” Tumblr started accepting and publishing submissions.
Tumblr’s foremost chain-text archive ran hundreds of new submissions before it stopped publishing in December 2017. The texts provide a neat time capsule of very recent history, like that day in June 2015 when “Macklemore legalized macklemarriage,” or that day two months later when Lana Del Rey announced that all she wanted to do was get high by the beach, or that day Britain voted to leave the European Union. A very Millennial text refashioned the Fairly OddParents theme song to include the phrase “Bush did 9/11.” At the end of 2016, a New Year’s Eve message recapped the year with characteristically uncouth references to Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, the death of Harambe the gorilla, the return of the Zodiac Killer mystery, and the election of “Donald TRUMPET,” who had grabbed the country by its taco emoji.
In 2008, researchers at UC San Diego proposed using a chain email as a model for the way that information spreads online. In the resulting paper, they analyzed the circulation of a 2002 petition that asked recipients to sign their names in opposition to the war in Iraq. In the end, they found 637 copies with “distinct chains of recipients,” resulting in around 20,000 signatures.
Though the researchers expected each letter to radiate quickly out into broader and broader networks, they actually moved through pretty narrow channels. The average letter traveled 300 steps from beginning to end, and more than 90 percent of the email recipients succeeded in getting no more than one other person to sign on. Basically, it was a very long game of telephone.
We’ve been primed to worry about information spreading too quickly and widely, so it’s tempting to see this as preferable. But the model is disconcerting in its own way: “The large number of steps [give] the diffusion a certain fragility,” the study’s authors wrote, “and [present] greater opportunities for the information to be altered or lost as it spreads.”
Though this study was about emails, not texts, I think I can extrapolate slightly. What this means, for my purposes, is that hunting down the origin of any one chain text in particular could likely require the participation of 300 people.
So I wrote to almost everyone who had shared a chain text in r/emojipasta in the past three months, hoping I would eventually get lucky. After a dozen tries, I found someone who had posted work that was original, but only in the internet’s generous, remix-culture sense of the word: The author of a New Year’s emojipasta posted to Reddit (too evocative to excerpt here) told me he typically just takes things off Twitter and adds emoji to them. “I’m mainly doing these to increase karma [points that Reddit users receive when their posts are upvoted by others], so I can post on other subreddits that have a requirement,” he explained. Some might call this joke stealing, and it is, but it’s more like joke repurposing: The joke is taken out of its original context and turned into something that is meant to be copied and edited and made blurry around the edges.
Operating in the same sort of intellectual-property gray zone, Jorge Galat, a 27-year-old software developer who lives in Buenos Aires, is likely responsible for some of the chain texts that have been widely shared. Three years ago, he and a friend built an emojipasta generator and posted the code on the open-source-software platform GitHub for anyone to use. To make it, they used the full text of r/emojipasta to train a simple probabilistic model, with the goal of creating “an unlimited source of emojipastas.” It works pretty well, Galat told me, though sometimes it can spit back out verbatim posts from the source text, or “things that don’t make any sense.”
Nobody has ever sent Galat a chain text—he said they aren’t popular in Argentina and he only found out about them online. This was a few years ago, when he knew less English, and he was confused by some of them. (“I remember reading the word penis followed by a cucumber or something like that.”) Now, he said, he thinks emojipasta are funny because you can’t tell whether the message you’re reading is the original or if someone has changed it to be about something new. “Trying to track the source of it is quite difficult.”
Before I tried the generator out myself, he reminded me that he wasn’t responsible for anything I might read. “They’re not all sexual but they’re pretty dark.”
The first text I got started “🤗🤗hey what up y'all 🤗🤗 this your👸🏼👸🏼 girl 👸🏼👸🏼little j and this is my best friend 🍴🍴'knife' to meet you 🔪🔪 i really do love knives!🔪🔪🔪knife is love, and also life👎👎👎.” The second: “Good 📰 everyone👍👍i am a 🅿roud registered☑☑☑socialist🗽 who wants❤only 🆓🆒🆕🆓healthcare🏥🏨 🏥for everyone👶👪👵👴👧💯!!!!”
They were pretty much exactly what you would expect—a computer-generated rendering close enough to the real thing to be copy-pasted into an iMessage window with little effort and few tweaks.
After days of frustrating conversations with people who were simply copy-pasting, never dreaming up their own elaborate threats and innuendos, I chatted with one last Reddit user—B, an 18-year-old from California who asked to be anonymous for privacy reasons—who had mostly posted in various tech-support subreddits. He had shared one original copypasta, on New Year’s Eve, with the post title “a quickie I wrote tonight—.” The message heralds the end of the year in an absurdly explicit manner, then continues for a while in a manner you can probably imagine, before concluding, “SEND this to 6️⃣9️⃣ NEW YEAR HOESSS💥🧨👨❤️👨😜 or daddy won’t be given u any 🎉🎊Party P0️⃣ppers🎉 ALL YEAR 😱😰🥵📅📆😭😿🔮.”
“It’s kind of just a holiday tradition from me to my close friends,” he told me via Reddit’s chat feature. “The ones I send are just super goofy and supposed to be taken as big fat jokes hehe.” Then he explained his writing process. He uses the Notes app on his Mac laptop, side by side with the Character Viewer tool (which allows users to easily browse and select emoji). “As for the content … they usually follow a pretty similar pattern,” he said. “Greeting with a play on the name of the holiday; context for holiday, usually an obviously wrong recount of the history; some excuse to do [explicit thing]; send this to [outrageous number] of people or else [silly thing] will happen; analysis of what the number of them you get back means.” Hilarity is formulaic; all you have to do is swap out some nouns.
And any note that is meant to be passed along plays on the same set of human paranoias, about death or loneliness or poverty. A common trope in VanArnsdale’s archive is “romance games,” like the paper note intercepted by a California middle-school teacher in 1995, which reads, in part, “Copy this letter word by word within 4 days. Give it to 8 people (no guys) … On the fourth day drink a glass of milk and say his name (the boy you like) 5 times. Within the 6th day he will ask you out. If you break the chain you will have bad luck.”
Drinking a glass of milk and getting a date is much more chaste than whatever an internet-age chain text might ask you to do, or promise you as a reward, but the sequence of events is structurally similar. If you don’t play the romance game, whatever happens next is all your fault. If you do play, you put yourself in the hands of the universe. The choice is obvious.
To some degree, the internet has ruined this: Chain emails petered out once email services got much more aggressive about preventing spam, and a chain text is slightly less exhilarating after you Google it. But you can still opt out of demystification. Chain texts, like the emails and postcards before them, are not actually sent from heaven above, but they do have a sort of divinity: They arrive knowing their generation’s hopes and fears, and they leave well on their way to omnipresence.