[supplied title]

viral messaging

Email had been around for decades by the time I started college, but the idea of giving every incoming student an address was relatively new. I remember my address ended with uclink4.berkeley.edu; I guess they ran out of space on uclink3 (and 2, and preceding)), and the process of setting up new servers without having to use a new domain name each time hadn't been developed yet. I don't remember what name I used before the @, and I lost access to that address a few months after graduation. I never saved the messages.

Since instructors could assume everyone had email, a few started having students use mailing lists for out-of-classroom discussion. One TA memorably set up a newsgroup just for us, with our course number and discussion section nested somewhere far down the Usenet hierarchy, I think under "soc." But that was the exception.

Email etiquette was still developing. I think everyone agreed by then that using all caps was a bad idea, but the boundaries between public and private use were unclear. This was a time when students would sign up for one address for anything, formal or informal, even if their chosen address declared their excitement at the back-to-back Houston Rockets NBA championships (1994 and 1995) and gave no sign of an actual name. And there wasn't yet a sense that forwarded emails like chain letters were probably better sent to specific people you knew and not to the class listserv.

A few weeks into the 1996 Spring semester, someone forwarded an email to the listserv for a class I'd just dropped a few days earlier. The message started with a plea to do three things:

  1. Please forward this to your friends
  2. Don't shorten the message by removing the headers that show everyone who's already sent or received it
  3. Read to the bottom to see the original message

The message was a wall of text, full of addresses, punctuated by declarations from previous senders: "amazing!", "this blew my mind!", "you've got to read to the end!". At the end, the original sender claimed to be doing a project for a class. The goal was to demonstrate how a single individual could spread AIDS far beyond the people they knew. The way to illustrate this would be to forward the email to all of your friends as if it were an infection, then leave a record of the "infected" in the address headers.

When I dropped that class, I expected to stop receiving email discussion posts but I still got them every day. I knew how listservs generally worked but couldn't figure out how to unsubscribe myself from that one; maybe the instructor controlled the membership. So I was just about to do that irritating thing people do where they email a list asking to unsubscribe when the AIDS email came through. I replied to it with two comments: 1) I dropped this class but haven't been able to unsubscribe myself, could I please be unsubscribed? and 2) I find it concerning that so many people are enthusiastically if metaphorically infecting their friends with a fatal disease. That got me unsubscribed.


Yesterday, I read about a recent study that found that most adults in the U.S. are less likely to wear masks around friends and family than they are at the grocery store and it made me think of that old AIDS email. Though to be fair, I doubt anyone is trying to infect their friends or family by hanging out unmasked just to prove a point. If anything, they believe they're being safe enough among the people they trust most.

So I thought I'd write up my memory of the AIDS email for this week's blog post and leave it at that. But then I started looking for the actual text of the email and it turns out there's more to its history than I realized.


Have you ever tried to find an email from the 1990s that you didn't save yourself, and whose text you don't remember clearly? It turned out to be easier than I thought. After a few failed attempts to find collections of old forwarded emails, I combined the phrase "forwarded email" with "AIDS" and was brought to a webpage warning people of the hazards of forwarding emails whose content they can't vouch for.1 That page doesn't appear to have been updated since 1999. The AIDS email is singled out as an example of a questionable forward, though there's some ambiguity as to whether it could be considered a chain letter.

That led me to Johann's AIDS/HIV Email Chain Letter Page, which is just what the title says it is. Johann's critique of the AIDS email is extensive, and seems to have first gone online in February 1996. He mentions having written to the original author but never having received a reply. By 1999, which seems to be the year of the last update, he'd added a list of links to the bottom of the page about email chain letters and spam as general topics.2

Was the AIDS letter a chain letter? Johann's page includes the actual text, which has a signature ("Young Bradley") and an email address, but all of the forwarding headers have been stripped away. Searching for the address, I was able to find some examples in situ online such as this one from what appears to be a still active mailing list for a regional group of the Society for Creative Anachronism.3

The first forwarder in that message was someone who claimed to have gone to high school with the original sender. Something about it seemed genuine to me, not the "friend of a friend" pattern associated with urban legends. So I looked up their names. It turns out that Young Bradley4 was a real person and he spoke to a reporter in June of 1996.

It's a sign of how information can get garbled online through lack of attention to detail that "Sending a jolting message about AIDS", an article published in the June 3, 1996 edition of the St. Petersburg Times, is currently presented online as an article in the Tampa Bay Times (the name the St. Petersburg Times adopted in 2012) with an apparent publication date of September 15, 2005 (which seems to be the date the current webpage went online).5 I independently verified the earlier publication date using a newspaper database, which puts the story about six months after the AIDS email first went out.

Young Bradley, the story reveals, was a freshman in the nursing program at Syracuse, and the person claiming to be one of his high school friends really did know him from high school. She was one of seven friends Bradley emailed to get the chain started. Bradley's motives were genuine: his uncle had recently passed away from AIDS, and he really did want to demonstrate how the disease could spread through contacts.

Reading the story now, knowing it wasn't developed as a hoax, I'm more sympathetic to the project than I was before. But I still don't think you should go out and infect your friends. That's an approach endorsed by Bradley himself in the article: "some people tell me they won't send it (the message) on, which is great. It stops the chain right there."

  1. The history of asking people to read things before they share them online goes back a long way. 

  2. Many of these links don't go to the right places now, but with the help of the Wayback Machine this could be a good resource for researching the culture of email forwarding. 

  3. If you'd like to see additional contemporaenous examples from mailing lists, try entering the combination of ["KEESLER" "BEKESSLE" "MAILBOX.SYR.EDU"] in a search box near you. 

  4. I've decided to use the name he signed to the email instead of adding another potential search engine result associating his actual name with something he did 25 years ago. 

  5. The article URL reveals the original publication date via the string archive/1996/06/03/ but no one has seen fit to correct the date in the text. A fuller citation is: Deggans, Eric, “Sending a Jolting Message about AIDS," St. Petersburg Times, June 3, 1996.