Wednesday, February 09, 2000

The trouble with e-mail

When it comes time to examine the decline of civility here at the dawn of the new millennium, e-mail will have a lot to answer for.

Oh, sure, people behave badly in their cars, they behave badly at work, they allow their children to behave badly. They yell at each other on TV talk shows and sue at the drop of a hat. Movies encourage a kick-ass attitude toward one's fellow man, sit-coms specialize in rude rebuttals. There's certainly enough excuses for abuses to go around.

Yet I never cease to be amazed at the things people will say to each other in e-mail--which, after all, is hardly anonymous, and often even archived for posterity. The jerk who cuts you off on the highway rarely tosses a business card through your window so you'll know where to reach him, but the person who flames you on an e-mail list is likely to include full name, e-mail address, workplace, perhaps city and state of residence, perhaps something about the family. Hey, you moron, come visit my Web site!

Often, I suspect, the moron part is unintentional. I've done a lot of thinking about the way disputes develop in e-mail discussion groups--the way one person will overreact, then the other person will overreact bigger, and then other overreactors will pile on in a frenzy of righteous indignation--and I'm convinced that there is a fundamental difference in the way one feels about sending e-mail and the way one feels about reading it.

The sending of e-mail has a certain impersonal feeling to it. It's not a letter that you have to type and sign and read and address and stamp; it's not a medium that requires any thought at all. Often you're corresponding with people you've never met and are never likely to meet. You may have a warm feeling of familiarity toward them from reading their writing in previous posts, but they really don't exist in the way that somebody you see in physical form on a regular basis does. You may actually like them better than people you see in physical form on a regular basis, but the stakes are lower. You're likely to express your opinion a little more liberally, your sense of humor a little more sharply. You spout, you send; it's fast, it's fun, it's freeing. It's only e-mail. Nothing personal.

But reading e-mail is very personal. You're sitting in your nice safe home, basking in the warm glow of the computer. Maybe you're in your pajamas, maybe your kids are playing nearby. The message comes right to you; maybe it goes out to 2,000 other people, too, but it feels like person to person. It mentions you by name. It misinterprets your words. It accuses you of not knowing what you're talking about. It's hard not to see it as a personal attack. What someone may have meant as a quick shot from the lip becomes a shot to the heart. Your blood pressure goes up. Maybe you yell at the screen. Maybe you yell at your kids. Your mood turns sour.

And then you write back, shooting fast, sending without thinking, to that anonymous but offending party out there in cyberspace. And that party, reading your response in her peaceful home in her pajamas, may wonder what in the heck you're talking about and why you're so blooming sensitive. And will write back as though the hurtful words were yours. And so on and so on and so on.

E-mail is a medium without much capacity for nuance. Dry humor or simple bluntness can sound like hostility, and people who have never met can't easily judge one another's intentions. Emoticons help--they're like little handshakes, showing that there are no concealed weapons. Time would help more, but an e-mail program that automatically held up messages for 24 hours and then asked if you really want to send that would probably not be around for long.

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