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Insults engraved in cyberspace

Today I passed along a private email exchange to a few good friends. It was something frivolous and trivial, but I knew it would be a good email discussion topic, and indeed, in only the last hour I received two responses. I’ve noted elsewhere that email discussions are a clumsy way to have a real discussion, but until some better web app comes along, that’s what we’re stuck with.

I’ve also noted before that in these sort of email discussions, deep intellectual discussions rarely get responded to, whereas a totally short and trivial remark can attract an avalanche of responses lasting several days. That can be delightful for some people who enjoy reading that kind of thing, but annoying for others who resent being sent responses as a result of the Reply to All button. It’s one thing to receive email from old friends; it’s another thing to read a response from a friend of a friend you’ve never met.

Anyway, my friend sent a reply to all indicating that he was miffed that I had forwarded this email to everybody. And indeed, the thought had occurred to me that I was taking liberties to make public a private conversation. That is the horrifying thing about email. There really is no such thing as a private email, and you can never take for granted that your friend hasn’t forwarded it to every friend and family member you know. As a result online writing is written with a public voice; the sanctity of your private voice really depends on how much trust you have for the person receiving it. People do not maliciously forward stuff; they do it because they think it is funny or because they do see no harm in doing so. But it is difficult to predict the reaction of a group of people. After all, the person who forwarded you those jokes probably thought they were hilarious. But you can barely get through them. “What could this person have been thinking?” you wonder.

So my friend was miffed –but was he really? Perhaps he is only pretending to be pouting. Or perhaps he was having fun with me–trying to see if I would apologize for the etiquette breach. The problem is that it is next to impossible to guess the writer’s level of anger or facetiousness by his words. Is the person slightly peeved, visibly annoyed or downright furious? Because competent writers are such masters at restrained language, it is doubly difficult to decipher one’s true feelings.

These problems of ambiguity are not unique to the email medium, but email is such an easily reproducible medium that such problems occur more frequently than ever. Of course, because you reproduce messages so easily, it tends to build online communities overnight. The difficulty lies in deciding what sort of things can/should be shared or reproduced and how to escape from other’s meaningless chatter.

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