(Language not safe for work, children, or the easily offended)
So, here's the problem. It's occurred to me that a good deal of e-mails appropriate for the subject matter of this blog aren't, well, appropriate. In the interests of good taste and decency - so common on the internet these days - and moreso in the interests of not getting fired for running an explicit blog - I'm just going to link to them. Wussy, I know. But I have student loans in repayment, people. Besides, the irony of someone getting fired from work for running a blog that's often about people who get fired from work is so delicious it sounds readily possible.
For those of you too genteel to click through to the link, the e-mail forward over on the other site that has no affiliation with me whatsoever is possibly the first mass-forwarded unintentionally famous e-mail. Sent in 2000, it's a thread from a guy named Bradley and a Woman named Claire, and to be honest, it's not all that interesting. The double entendre that they come up with (hayoo) isn't really half as clever as the average e-mail forward that your aunt, your bored friend at college or your travel agent sends you on a daily basis.
But, circulating as it did, you have to wonder: what's so special about it? Why was it forwarded so much?
Snopes writes about voyeurism, and that's a factor, to be sure. The relative newness of the medium, maybe.
But I think there's more to it. The way the thread goes, Bradley forwards the e-mails to his friends, who then forward it along. There's your "oh, crap" point, in which the e-mail reaches the critical person-who-doesn't-care-who-else-reads-this. It's that person who's the typhoid mary of the original sender's deepest, darkest secrets. Bradley probably never met that person, either.
That person's motivation is key, I think, and there's no way to know for sure what it was. I think the forward had more to do with embarassing Bradley than it did Claire. Bragging about our sexual exploits is a tricky business, obviously, but it may be simpler than that: bragging about anything brings with it the risk of having one's audience turn hostile. Better be funny, or interesting, or at least neutrally not annoying. Otherwise, audiences will boo and jeer to teach a lesson... and e-mail audiences can do so much more than boo.
Which brings me to the real point of this e-mail, as opposed to the billions of e-mails that happened after it; here's the first example of e-mail as a medium of both personal expression and mass communication. Only the distribution method is, for maybe the first time in mass communication (second if you count ham radio), controlled by the audience. The redistribution of the media needs only one producer out of any number of audience members to spread the words. And of their recipients, only one needs to do the same redistribution to keep the virus spreading. And so on.
It's sort of a wonder that Bradleys and Claire e-mails aren't in our collective inboxes much, much more often.