No Reply Needed

[23 April 2008]

By Jennifer Byrne

“WAKE UP, PEOPLE!!!”  This stentorian cry, leaping out at me from Yahoo-land like some sort of twisted Jack-in-the-Inbox, assaulted my weary eyes during a recent email-checking session. I understood its urgency by its strident all-caps and multiple exclamation points, as well as its use of the word people.

It’s an interestingly versatile word, this plural noun for the human race. When tacked onto the end of a declarative sentence, people almost always signifies impatience, disapproval, and the blissful imposition of dictatorial power upon its captive audience (the people being called ‘people’, you see, are ironically relegated to a kind of sub-human status). I don’t think I could ever bring myself to call an assemblage of individuals ‘people’ with a straight face. It is a usage for drill sergeants, corporate team leaders, and show-off-y mass emails. This case, obviously, was the latter.

It was one of those annoying REPLY ALL emails in response to an equally annoying forward. Mathematically, one might think that annoying + annoying would have a cancelling-out effect to equal not annoying, but this is rarely the case with mass email. Apparently, this guy, a stranger to me, had seen fit to address a lengthy list of strange @s and .coms on a topic that he felt urgently needed his input.  The subject of his email: whether or not the Starbucks coffee franchise, based on some fancy liberal ideology, had cruelly begrudged our troops in Iraq the mochaccino lattes they had politely requested. 

The wholly fictitious email forward that had sparked this weighty debate had come courtesy of a 60-something aunt of mine, whose retirement goal is apparently to spend her time sending as many neoconservative, urban legend-type forwards as she can possibly find. When faced with one of her forwards, which often feature the subject line “PLEASE DON’T DELETE THIS!!” I recognize my cue to immediately delete it.

But this guy, apparently the son of one of Auntie X’s friends, had not been content to leave it at that. Instead, he’d thought it best to send a rambling screed about war and cappuccino to 37 strangers people.  He had simply hit “reply all” to Auntie X’s initial annoying email, and capitalized on her already-generated, instant audience.

“WE HAVE MORE TO WORRY ABOUT IN THIS WAR THAN COFFEE, PEOPLE!”
Did this really need to be said? I wondered what sort of reaction he had hoped for when he’d decided to share this illuminating wisdom with a mass audience. Did he hope to finally get through to that frustrating segment of the population that persists in believing that coffee is, in fact, the crux of the current international conflict? I doubted it. No, he just wanted to say something to a lot of people – he wanted to ‘express’ himself. 

In this first decade of the new millennium, it seems that the obsession with achieving Andy Warhol’s promised 15 minutes of fame is becoming the sole mission of entire lifetimes. No longer content with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, Americans now insist on multimedia outlets for self-expression, mass exposure, and therefore, some degree of fame. And in the noble pursuit of that fleeting quarter of an hour, it seems there are more options than ever before.

For those of us who don’t make it onto The Amazing Race or even Flavor of Love, there’s the option of fabricating a memoir about one’s drug-addled, dysfunctional past and abusive family. Or, if we’re too lazy or unimaginative to even make up lies, we can just co-opt someone else’s poverty and suffering and sell it as our own, as did “Margaret B. Jones”, aka Margaret Seltzer. When Seltzer sat down to pen her life story, she presumably decided that her own chilling tale of occasional shopping failures in the San Fernando Valley (the exclusive private school she attended probably provided uniforms, anyway) was not sufficient to catapult her onto Oprah’s interview couch. Instead, Seltzer authored a harrowing memoir, Love and Consequences, about all the gang-banging, drug-slinging and foster care living that surely someone else experienced, somewhere. Ultimately, this yanked-from-the-shelves debacle yielded more “consequences” than “love” for Seltzer, but who cares? It got attention

So writing a “memoir” is always an option for getting attention—no matter how boring our real lives may be. If a reputable publishing house won’t pick it up (but c’mon, why wouldn’t they?) we can always self-publish on Lulu.com or CafePress, where we can also conveniently acquire pro-Obama T-shirts for dogs. But if even that proves too much for us, we can blog, write eloquent product reviews on Amazon, post disturbing videos of ourselves on YouTube, or chronicle our moods via emoticons on MySpace. For example, by inserting a smiley-face emoticon, one tells the world that we are “excited”, which is not to be confused the more nuanced “flirty” emoticon, or, my favorite the “frowny”, “utterly bereft of even the most fleeting capacity for original thought”  (I may have made that last one up).  But believe it or not, even those of us too lazy to put forth such minimal effort can still get the attention we deserve: when we receive a mass email, we simply insert our opinion and hit “reply all”.

REPLY ALL is an attention-seeker’s dream: within seconds, we find that our reach and impact has spread like the first sneeze in a second-grade classroom. Providing the recipients bother to open the email – and read it—our voice is being heard not only by friends and coworkers, but by utter strangers around the world. With a simple click from someone who’s bored at their day job in the cube, looking to kill some time, the spot – er, computer-light—is cast upon us.

It is our moment, so we had better make it count; we may as well use all capital letters, you know, THE SHOUT – let’s not forget multiple exclamation points, too. And hey, may as well tell our best jokes, perhaps show off our erudition and cultural savvy with a few well-chosen references to the latest books, movies, or a phrase gleaned from news coverage of international politics.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. The fact that REPLY ALL messages are not necessarily wanted, appreciated, or even read need not diminish the painstaking care that often goes into them.
I have seen so many REPLY ALL messages that were clearly crafted with exquisite care; each word carefully chosen. For example, I received this poetic turn of phrase from a stranger recently: “At long last, the curtain is drawn back to reveal the duplicity and hypocrisy of this man, the elaborate smoke and mirrors that he bandies about like a ping-pong ball.”

This email left me a bit dazzled, as though I’d been an audience member in a mixed-metaphor magic show. It made me wonder whether my overall scorn for this burgeoning publishing trend is perhaps unfair. Maybe the proper etiquette dictates that I compliment them on their artfulness. “Fine job on the coffee reply, George,” perhaps, “your mass replies really show a lot of promise. I hope to see more of your work in the future.

To that end, I have an idea: I propose that we begin to recognize people’s efforts and artistry in the fine craft of mass email replies: the REPLY ALL Awards. The judging committee would consist entirely of elderly great aunts, mothers and grandmothers, whose grasp of mass electronic communications (if not of technology itself) is without peer. These ladies, whose address books are teeming with unwilling recipients and whose tirelessly capable hands are always poised at the “send” button, are clearly the best arbiters of the art of response. After all, it is often their forwards about dangerous plastics, guardian angels, and the conspiracy to take the word “Christ” out of “Anti-Christ” that engender animated group discussions in the first place. The awards ceremony, as I envision it, would occur entirely over email. After all, email is the only way poor Aunt Helen can get in touch with us, since we never, ever call.

Photo of Andy Warhol from DePauw University

Photo of Andy Warhol from ©DePauw University

Since there are subtle and nuanced differences in the types of reply-all emails, I feel it would be convenient to break them down into categories. They are as follows:

•  Best REPLY ALL, Serious Subject: The aforementioned WAKE UP, PEOPLE!  manifesto could be a shoo-in for this category. Candidates for this award generally set somebody straight on something, tell them what’s what, preferably on a topic of a controversial or divisive nature. These brave souls, whom, it appears, really do know better than anyone else, do not stop at opening the can of cyber whoop-ass only on the one has offended them. No, they insist on opining and emoting to the entire list of recipients, who are the email equivalents of innocent bystanders. Extra points to reply-all provocateurs who can prompt an all-out flame war of apocalyptic, hard drive-crashing proportions.

•  Best REPLY ALL, Comedy:  When most of us think of stand-up comedians, we think of those who go out there night after night and try out their punch-lines and monologues on merciless crowds. But what about those silent-but-deadly funnymen and women of reply-all comedy? Those who put their virtual necks on the virtual line every time they hit ‘send’?  Oh, how underappreciated is their incisive wit about how much Mary L. drank at the office Christmas party, their caustic one-liners in response to Susie’s Tupperware party invitations? Oh, and think of the brilliant reaction emails to that “2 girls and a cup” video! It’s time to give up some much deserved LOLs to these trailblazing comedy vanguards.

Best REPLY ALL asking to please stop sending mass emails: It sounds tricky, but this category is all the more poignant for its irony. Few of us enjoy receiving insipid forwards about how criminals are waiting to besiege us with chloroform in the Wal-Mart parking lot, but most of us simply delete them rather than prolong the ordeal. Whereas “please remove” visionaries take time to try to make a difference: they earnestly email the sender, as well as everyone else on the list, to express their distaste for forwards and mass emails. They invite everyone to check the veracity of the information on Snopes.com. These are truth-seekers ablaze with the spirit of journalism, but not the proper training.

Best REPLY ALL, Group Effort: If there is one thing that’s even better than receiving an inane email from a stranger discussing “25 Reasons Why Alcohol Should Be Served at Work” (with the email itself conveniently supplying a 26th reason), it’s having one’s inbox jammed up with two dozen emails from strangers on such a topic. No one is ever quite prepared for the experience of returning from lunch and discovering 20-plus unfamiliar dispatches greedily vying for their kilobytes. At first, the recipient might falsely perceive this glut as indicative of a sudden uptick in their popularity. They might even experience a faint thrill, a vague hope that one of these strange addresses might come bearing wonderful tidings of some kind. But then comes the inevitable sinking feeling when they realize that every last message was spawned by an email with three “fwd”s in the subject line. To elicit such a complex range of emotions in the reader—all within a few seconds—requires a skilled collaborative effort, indeed.

What would the prize be for such awards?  Well, I see no point in bothering with a statuette in this case; for this crowd, the best things in life are virtual. I think the best prize would the bestowal of the all-important “high priority” exclamation point (!). This exclamation point, which would be attached to any email sent by this person for life, would confer upon their communications a sense not only of validity, but of urgency. This symbol carries a double-dose of importance, as it is not just an exclamation point, but also a red exclamation point.

Of course, it’s true that anyone with the proper software can attach an exclamation point to their emails, but there is nothing quite as rewarding as being deemed important by someone else.  After all, this type of affirmation, this sense of acknowledgement, is probably a large part of why REPLY ALL artists get up in the morning, ready to reply their hearts out to every last one of us. Each day, they take up the challenge, convinced that perhaps this will be the day that their illuminating and pervasive replies will win them the recognition they deserve.

C’mon, people, I would reply to this, if I were the replying type, Wake up!

Jennifer Byrne does not actively seek out pop culture, but instead absorbs it involuntarily, as if through a semipermeable membrane (actually, she gets it from her computer and TV). In Pop Osmosis she explores her own deeply conflicted reactions to will explore my own deeply conflicted reactions to many high and low pop culture phenomena to which she is exposed, from the genuinely intriguing to the stuff that might involve accessory dogs. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The National Ledger, and in various clever emails.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/no-reply-needed/