The Social Leveler

Love him or hate him, PBS's Robert X. Cringely is one the industry's leading pundits. What sparked my interest this week, however, was not his insight into the industry, a call for civil disobedience on the P2P scale, but his comments on e-mail.

Specifically, Cringely was attempting to address some of the "fan" mail he'd received from his last article, a look of how the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is being enforced. Apparently, many people responded to that article, attacking Cringely for the comments made by the people he interviewed. Of course, this is a common mistake people make when reading a journalistic piece, just as people seem to always assume that the lyrics in a song refer to the singer or song writer's life.

Cringely managed to transcend that argument, however, and analyze the brazenness with which some people approach e-mail. I've always found it odd that some of the sweetest old ladies will swear like a drunken Irishman (no offense to drunk Irishmen intended) in e-mail. I don't know exactly what brings about such behavior, but I get a lot of irate e-mail from people who are all smiles when I see them in the grocery store.

The good side of this behavior is that everyone is equal in e-mail. It doesn't matter if you type slow, if you needed someone to proof your message, or even f you are a horrendous speller (as I am). And it certainly doesn't matter if you are a bad public speaker or if you can never seem to think of that perfectly witty retort at exactly the right moment. As such, e-mail is a social leveler.

Cringely also rightly points out, however, that brazen e-mail numbs us to the fact that there is a person on the receiving end. It deadens our sensitivity to anger: "it embrutes us, making us less sensitive to our own harsh words." As such, it is important to remember the human on the other side of the message, the person who may or may not be having a bad day, but certainly deserves your kindness and respect.


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