Chain email routes circuitous rather than viral

The notion that the routes taken by chain email are viral in nature has been challenged by findings from the National Science Foundation: its research suggests that people are selective in forwarding messages to others in their social networks.

The notion that the routes taken by chain email are viral in nature has been challenged by findings from the National Science Foundation. Research into forwarded missives by Jon Kleinberg of Cornell University, and David Liben-Nowell of Carleton College, looked at two e-mail petitions circulated within the past 10 years.

One petition in support of public radio began circulating in 1995; the other, in opposition to the US invasion of Iraq, originated in 2002. Both messages were widely circulated - the researchers were able to find 316 copies of the public radio petition containing 13,000 signatures, and 637 copies of the Iraq petition with 20,000 signatures.

Rather than spreading like a virus, with each message producing many direct ̵6;descendents̵7; in the tree diagram, data suggests that people are selective in forwarding messages to others in their social networks. For instance, the research discovered that 90 per cent of messages produced only a single descendent.

These messages also rarely took the most direct route between two inboxes, even when two people were connected by a few degrees of separation. "The chain letters themselves often got to people by highly circuitous routes," Jon Kleinberg explains. "You could be six steps away from someone, and yet the chain letter could pass through up to 100 intermediaries before showing-up in your inbox."

The research suggests that these messages travel in a less direct and more diffuse pattern than previously assumed. It also means that messages can reach some groups of people very quickly and take a relatively longer period of time to reach others - creating opportunities for the original message to be altered or abbreviated. This insight has potential implications for scholars in computer networking, sociology, marketing, political science, and other fields, Kleinberg says.

Further information: hwww.esf.org.

Image: Cornell University̵7;s Jon Kleinberg: chain email spreads on a selective, not viral, basis.

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