in an era of instant communica- tion, when face-to-face contact seems rarer and rarer, nothing is more conveniently disposable than e-mail.
One line or 20 pages, e-mail remains a shockingly direct form of conversation. Spelling is optional and offhand, half-baked remarks expected.
It would be disturbing to add up exactly how many hours I spend a day exchanging pointless, pithy e-mail messages with friends. A line here, three words there, and maybe a bizarre picture or link thrown in to lighten up the day.
Nice and disposable, right? Well, no.
What if, one day, all those little notes were made public, if someone took your casual comments, occasional off-colour remarks and whatever else you bang out absent-mindedly during downtime and hung them out for public viewing?
That's precisely what wildly celebrated writer Dave Eggers, author of the memoir A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius, did last week.
Unhappy with a New York Times profile that, while being fairly positive, quoted some off-the-record conversations, screwed up some facts and took a stand on a lawsuit between the author and his agent, Eggers struck back.
Since the arrangements for the interview with the Times, and in fact the interview itself, took place via e-mail, Eggers took the series of private e-mail exchanges between himself and the Times writer and published them, unedited, on his widely read mcsweeneys.net Web site.
The entire unpleasant affair is available for viewing at www.mcsweeneys.net/news/clar_nytimes.html. Eggers got his revenge and, needless to say, the Times writer looked like a fool.
There has been a lot of discussion since Eggers struck back, particularly on journalism message boards like www.poynter.org/medianews, about whether he was being overly precious and whether the journalist got what he deserved. As interesting as the debate about journalistic ethics and thin-skinned writers is, the questions surrounding Eggers's payback are more disturbing.
We tend to forget that while it's convenient to dash off a few lines and then hit "send," those messages don't disappear. To make his point, Eggers had to save more than two weeks' worth of e-mails and then cross the line in making a private exchange public.
Like most Internet courtesies, the line between private and public is a bit hazy. Nowhere is voyeurism easier and more popular than online.
The line still exists, though. And as we've seen in the case of the British legal secretary whose off-colour remarks in a personal e-mail about giving her pal a blow job ended up becoming perhaps the most forwarded and humiliating message this year, crossing it is easier than it might seem from a distance.
Reading the very personal transcript of the Eggers/Times scrap was a bit like peering at a car crash -- thrilling but also terrifying. How many of your messages are sitting in someone's in-box, waiting to be made public?
It's a frightening thought.
Has it made me think more about what I write before I click "send"? Not really, but I think I might learn to speak in code. *
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