Science & Technology

The Lessons Of Email Deceit


A weird thing happened to me in July. The Weekly Standard, a prominent conservative magazine with which I clash frequently, published a letter to the editor signed by Virginia Postrel. The letter defended high-tech entrepreneurs, stigmatized in a Standard article as "cosmic capitalists" recapitulating all the errors of modernism and the French Revolution. It was a fine letter–tight, eloquent, and witty.

Only I didn't write it. It didn't even sound like me.

In fact, it sounded exactly like my friend Jeff Taylor. And I had read it before: in an email from Jeff, grousing about the article. Had I forwarded his note to someone, who forwarded it to someone, who forwarded it to . . . until it somehow wound up in the Standard –with my name attached? How had Jeff's originating email address gotten dropped? Didn't the magazine check these things? What was going on?

Around the same time, I got a couple of emails for my amusement: a fantasy graduation speech that started, "Ladies and gentlemen of the class of 1997: Wear sunscreen,' then a week or so later the same speech, this time allegedly delivered by Kurt Vonnegut at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I read the first copy, smiled, and deleted it. The second time around, I noted the Vonnegut attribution, wondered about it for a split second, then again hit delete. I had no idea the speech would become a famous hoax, giving its real author, Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich, her 15 minutes of fame. Vonnegut, for his part, reportedly found the incident proof of his belief that the Net is not to be trusted.

Email is really an oral medium. It only looks like writing. It is the way we converse with each other, time-shifting across continents, writing in the wee hours of the morning, reaching out when the thought of a friend or loved one crosses our mind. We pass on gossip and flip comments. We repeat jokes. We misspell words and speak in shorthand. We are emphatically opinionated. Email has all the authority of a phone conversation. It is not print. It is not even the Web.

But it repeats things verbatim. That fools people. It gives email authority it doesn't deserve. We're slowly learning, by embarrassing trial and error, not to take it so seriously.

Fortunately, the verbatim nature of email can also help guard against hoaxes and misunderstandings. They're easier to spot in written documents than in gossip and conversation. The clues stay put. Email may yet make us better, more skeptical readers–a good lesson in any medium.

Consider the contraceptive-jelly suit. Several people passed on this alleged news story to me. They believed it. Datelined Philadelphia, the article reported on a woman who was suing a pharmacy where she'd bought contraceptive jelly. She'd eaten it on toast and gotten pregnant anyway. The "news story" had no source and no byline; it punctuated its second paragraph with an exclamation point; it didn't identify key figures, including the drugstore supposedly named in the suit; it claimed the plaintiff was "a former model who was once a cheerleader for a popular professional basketball team." Puhlease. That, my friends, is called satire. I doubt the author even meant it to be believed.

Or take the "Vonnegut" speech. It just didn't sound like the man. In fact, it didn't sound like any man. Only a woman would give graduation advice like "You are not as fat as you imagine" and "Do not read beauty magazines. They will only make you feel ugly." Read carefully, with a feel for the author's voice, and you won't get fooled again. Look for warning signs. Ask questions.

That's pretty much what I told my Washington editor, when I found out what had really happened to "my" letter. Because the post office delivers the Standard to the West Coast a week late, I'd wanted a copy of the article discussed in Jeff's email faxed to me. I had taken the virtual note from Jeff, forwarded it to our D.C. office, and done the email equivalent of scrawling directions across it: "Please fax this to the editorial office." My high school English teachers always told me not to use this as a vague pronoun, rather than as an adjective: to say "this article," not just "this." They were wise women. But I'd gotten sloppy

The Standard didn't get the letter from the Net. It came on stationery, faxed to their office from our Washington bureau and accompanied by a phone call from a conscientious Reason employee. The problem wasn't an Internet hoax at all, just plain bad writing on my part. No more vague pronouns for me.

If we make enough mistakes, the frozen conversation called email may yet teach us not only to read with skepticism but to write with care. Even Kurt Vonnegut should approve of that.