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Chain-socials – harmless fun or annoying distraction

It seams that a week doesn’t go by without someone asking me to change my profile picture or post something to my wall to supposedly help some good cause or else to avoid the curse of 20 years of bad luck. One currently doing the rounds is to change your profile picture to a cartoon character which is the one that has triggered me to write this. To follow this then you need to understand a little about how these work and what sort of people create them, but first what are they?

What are chain-socials?

Firstly I have to admit that I’ve just made this name up, but I’ve based it on the name of chain-emails and chain-mails before them. You could equally call these chain-posts, chain-tweets (twitter) or chain-wallposts (Facebook).

These are the posts on social network sites that ask you to forward on or repost on the social network sites often using warnings or promises to encourage a wider circulation. They often play on feelings of guilt by suggesting that you may not be a real friend or similar if you don’t forward the message.

Virals are different?

There are also virals which can have a similar effect, but are usually far more productive. A viral (which is an unfortunate name for it) is something that gets circulated based on it’s own merits. These are often animations or videos or games designed so that people want to forward these on. Virals don’t normally need anyone to make fake promises or threats and get forwarded on their own merits.

There is some overlap and some virals may be bogus, but the intent is usually different. Although others may have a different opinion.

The pyramid effect

The reason that these work is due to the pyramid effect. One person sends a message (1), which is re-posted by two of their friends (3), which is re-posted by two of their friends (7) and then by two of their friends (15). As you can see from the numbers this grows very quickly. If it was reposted by 10 friends each time then it would get very big very quickly:

Are these a bad thing?

Some can be have a very negative effect. In the 90s there was a huge number of emails sent to the Make-A-Wish foundation for a fake world record attempt. The Make-A-Wish foundation does great work in granting wishes to terminally ill children. The email pretended to be a world record for the number of email replies, but just generated huge volumes of pointless emails against the charity getting in the way of the genuine work they were trying to do.

Some also use the chain-socials to get peoples personal information to sell on or use for targeting phishing / spam email. In particular care needs to be taken when the post links to or is generated by an application (consider the recent Fancheck issue).

Some send out incorrect or misleading information.

Others may even help raise awareness which can be a good thing, but it is usually better to send on an official communication than some random comment pretending to be representing a charity or organisation.

Some also encourage you to break the rules of the social networking site and/or copyright law (including the use of copyright cartoon characters as profile pictures). Admittedly it’s only a small issue and you may believe that such usage should be included in some kind of “common good” usage of the copyright, but technically as the law stands I believe it could be considered a mis-use of copyright.

Who creates these?

The official virals are created directly by the organisation that they represent, but these “chain-socials” are normally created by sad individuals who get kicks out of being able to get as many people as possible to follow their pointless instructions.

Perhaps in some cases these are created with good intent, but it would be far better to organise an official viral with the co-operation of the organisation then to start a campaign that may not correctly represent the organisation.

These rely on the peoples good will and naivety to spread around these chain-socials.


This particular chain-social may have helped to raise a little awareness, but it could have done much more. Perhaps if it included a link to the NSPCC Everyday Choices videos then it may have helped children by a wider awareness of the NSPCC helpline, perhaps it could have included a link to the NSPCC Love Santa fund-raising campaign or it could have encouraged people to give a donation to the NSPCC. Any of these could provide a very real benefit to children in awful situations.

I care a great deal about this particular charity. I provide a monthly donation to the charity taken directly from my salary and have done for several years. I have forwarded the NSPCC videos in the past and recently ordered Letters from Santa for my children and posted the link to my Facebook page. I am not however going to change my profile picture to a cartoon character.