Butiama Bed & Breakfast

Butiama Bed & Breakfast

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Letter from Butiama: Chain letters, old and new

This is one of numerous articles I wrote for the Sunday News (Tanzania) column "Letter from Butiama" between 2005 and 2011.

When photocopying was the principal means of reproducing documents, it was common to receive a chain letter whose recipient was directed to make several copies and forward the copies to other individuals, usually more than ten, with each of the new recipients expected to carry the chain forward.

The letter warned the recipient of the consequences of ignoring the letter, disclosing a few tragic incidents that befell those who failed to follow the instructions and revealing the fortunes that fell on the laps of those who followed the instructions.

Secretarial bureaus made brisk business reproducing the chain letters, until a conspiracy theorist suggested that chain letters originated from photocopy salesmen (very few women were in sales-related occupations in those days), and paper merchants who wanted to stimulate sales of their products. No mention is made of members of the Universal Postal Union whose national postal systems also benefited by conveying a large volume of chain letters.

With the advent of new technologies, the chain letter was transformed to take advantage of the newer means of communication. When the information superhighway opened up to traffic, variations of the traditional chain letter began to circulate in the form of e-mail messages. The photocopier salesmen were probably now also selling computers, and it is likely the former paper merchants had switched to production of ‘electronic paper’, such as computer diskettes and CD’s. And it would not be out of character for both of them to have acquired stakes in the cyber cafĂ©’ business.

Users of technology are simultaneously trying to keep up with the pace of changes in technology, and remain sane at the same time. Getting tomorrow’s information yesterday is considered the only way that one can be ahead of the rest. People are in a rush; they need to make decisions as they walk, as they drive, as they eat. They have to be connected all the time; a fact which seems not to have escaped the attention of the salesman-merchant duo. The electronic chain letter of the Internet has now found its way into the mobile phone system.

In this fast-paced world where time is a most precious commodity and it is becoming even wasteful for someone to sit in front of a personal computer to answer his electronic chain letter, some companies have already devised a way to accomplish the same task through the mobile phone. To others, the chain letter has become the chain short message (sms).

I received one such chain sms on my phone on 29th May* informing me it was ‘World Best Friends Day’. I was urged to forward the text to my friends, including the sender of the message, if I considered him to be my friend, and then wait to discover whether the message will go through a loop and get back to me. The message said if I get only 7 responses I should consider myself a likeable person. I sent out more than seven messages to people who I seriously consider my friends, but it seems they have a different opinion of me. Not one of them sent a return message. They must know a lot more about that old chain letter conspiracy theory.

Not all chain text messages have such an innocent character. Some contain false promises. One message which surfaced last December and purporting to originate from one of the cellular phone companies promised those who swallowed the bait some free airtime if they forwarded a text message which had public service content.

When I received mine, I called the company’s customer service centre where a customer service representative said his company had nothing to do with the text message, adding that the company’s text messages to subscribers originated from a particular number which can easily be identified.

Would it possible for his company, I suggested, to send out a text message to caution subscribers against participating in that misleading chain. He did not think that was a good idea because it would cost his company some money. He could not understand how some clients were falling prey to such trivial pranks. I suggested it was easy for him to discover those anomalies but the average client is not like him. He agreed with me. Yes, the average Tanzanian client was not like him. In fact, the average Kenyan subscriber was not as gullible as a Tanzanian one, he told me.

I suggested to him that while he continued to argue subscribers were losing money needlessly. I conservatively estimated that within an hour of sending out the first infamous message, and assuming those receiving the message carried the chain forward, his company earned forty million shillings in revenue from the chain messages alone, not to mention the phone calls many had made to other subscribers to warn them of the misleading message.

The customer sales representative finally reluctantly accepted my suggestion, and said he would talk to his supervisor. In fact, two days later a subscriber from Arusha told me she had received a text message from the cellular phone company disassociating itself from the chain text message.

In today’s fast-paced world where a possible forty million shillings can be earned by the company and lost by its subscribers within an hour, two days is a millennium.


Postscript: One wonders whether it would have taken the company 48 hours to stem a loss of 40 million shillings per hour.

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