December 27, 2000, 10:25 AM —
E-MAIL HAS BECOMEmany people's default form of contact, and why not? It's fast, simple, cheap and independent of time zones and geography. E-mail also makes communication purely democratic; its impersonal white screen and black letters often strip a person's status from her words. As the cartoon caption goes, "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog." But this freedom often makes it hard to communicate usefully. People can usually figure out what you do from your e-mail, but they can't always determine what kind of person you are. If you will forgive another dog analogy, nobody knows whether you're a poodle who's just been fed or a Doberman with an empty dinner dish. And that makes e-mail a dangerously blind medium. My e-mail inbox at SmartMoney.com, where until recently I reported on tech stocks, received more unenlightening noise than I've heard on the streets of Manhattan. And I don't mean spam: I mean bile.
Many of my most outspoken readers traded stocks online, making consequential decisions without any human contact. Good thing, because their good manners disappeared when they communicated in virtual form. "Grow up and stop preaching your ethos of oppression," snarled one reader after a story on possible interest rate hikes. Another excoriated my editor for praising a buyout deal. The arrangement, he protested, "left the poor shareholders like me crying for KY jelly." Ahem. How does a writer respond to that? Of course, that's just it. The sender usually assumes you won't respond to e-mail. There's no voice on the other end, no threat of personal confrontation. When you use e-mail, you are truly venting into the ether. The effect fails when the ether responds. A writer who first addressed me as "silly Alec" when responding to a story I wrote suddenly backed down when I wrote back advising him to read the article more closely. And I'll always remember Jacki. One Tuesday, from behind an AOL address, she accused me of trying to scare her with "a trashy piece of scribbling" about yield curves. That Thursday, after I replied with a personal note defending my logic, this stranger changed her tune: "The first part of your article would have been frightening to someone who didn't know better (or didn't read the entire article, for example, my brother-in-law). And you certainly didn't need to reply, that was very courteous. Sorry, Jacki." Forced into dialogue, my e-pal grew a name and a brother-in-law. And I gained qualities beyond my name and mail address. The result: Jacki and I achieved peace. But such peace is elusive.