net.wars: Better feuding through email

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 16 May 2003

The characters in what follows are wholly fictional. None of them are intended to represent real people, either living or dead. I have to say that, or they might kill me.

Wendy M Grossman

The old-style family feud involved whispers at a family gathering. "I heard Joe called Betsy and her kids Cretans." "That's silly. They've never even been to Greece." "Well, you know, she is awfully dark-skinned."

The new-style family feud involves forwarding email, verbatim, with a full list of recipients, to everyone else. "OK, cretins ... "

Now, you see how email is ruining family feuds? Where's the scope for misunderstanding, gossip, speculative rumours, if everyone can read everything? You can, of course, selectively forward the correspondence, leaving out the "cretins" message so that the retaliation, when it comes, looks unprovoked. Kind of like the guy I once read about in a hilarious book called Your Check Is in the Mail: How to Live Legally and Profitably in Debt, who hounded a Jewish creditor with late-night anti-Semitic phone calls so that when they eventually landed in court the creditor/plaintiff was frothing with so much rage that the judge dismissed the case because the defendant seemed so reasonable and the plaintiff was clearly unhinged.

But sooner or later someone everyone trusts will post the entire correspondence on a Web page, and you, the cretin-caller, are doomed to face the virus-laden attached files.

The people whose machinations email complicates are, of course, the mediators and manipulators. (Doesn't every family have at least one of each?) Both suffer because despite divergent motives, both use the same technique: they say different things to different people. Just like the military before CNN, when each briefing could be tailored to its audience. Once CNN was a worldwide phenomenon, according to a comment I heard at the 1998 Virtual Diplomacy conference, anxious relatives, taxpayers back home, foreign powers, the enemy government and military forces, and our own troops on the ground all watched the same broadcast.

The same way, politicians stumping for re-election can no longer get away with telling California farmers they'll increase water subsidies while promising Northeastern environmentalists they'll protect the aquifers.

Email-using would-be mediators must assume that any email may be sent around. They must use bland language, to which no one could take exception. They must be scrupulous about not revealing privileged information they've been entrusted with. Plus, they must know much, much more about everyone's history, feelings, and email habits. In other words: they must actually listen to them.

Note that we're not talking about flame fests here. Those are so easy to start in online media they're not even worth talking about: just deprive a few of sleep, and shoot them up with a little adrenaline. They'll soon start posting intemperate incoherence and burst into abusive rage when their correspondents do not guess correctly the portions of their thoughts they left out. No, I'm talking about the kind of family feud where the divisions sown by the grandparents deepen through the generations until some exponentially-great grandchild goes looking for the long-lost branch of the family without a clue as to how or why communication ceased. (And with the fragility of electronic media, that person may never find out.)

Of course, in my own case I spent many happy years posting anything I wanted on the Net, secure in the delusion that none of my relatives ever used it or read what I said. It has come to my attention that this may not be true. My mother couldn't find the Start button, but those 30-something grandchildren know Google. On the other hand, I have no children to suffer for my familial dissidence. The feud stops here. This gives me immense freedom. Are you reading that, Grossmans?

Still, if you really want to pour oil on the troubled cretins and set it alight, email affords the perfect accelerant. The potential is huge for the dedicated family feudist. Foment that seriously acrid dissent, why not? Here are some tips to get you started:

- Subtly alter quoted email so that it looks the same to the casual eye – but isn't. Insert or delete a strategic "not" or two.

- Make a very small typo in the list of recipients so that one respondent fails to get all-important canvasses of opinions on dates for family gatherings. They'll think they're excluded and everyone else will think they don't care enough to come.

- Answer only the points relating to the tiniest details, and ignore the pressing questions. For example, in a lengthy email covering everything from incorporation papers to the disposal of an important and valuable family collection of Mongolian zorks, respond only to the misspelling of your name in that email. Seize on that as evidence that the other person does not now and never has cared about you.

- Make the irrelevance of the subject header inversely proportion to the urgency of the email. That way, the most urgent emails are the most likely to be ignored until it's too late.

- Be inconsistent. In fact, if you want to drive anyone nuts, that's the best way to do it in any medium.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).