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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University January 10, 2005 | Vol. 34 No. 17
Thinking Out Loud

William R. Brody

By William R. Brody

Before You Hit 'Send'

We've become addicted to instantaneous communication — whether it is CNN 24/7 (or your preferred alternative), e-mail, cell phones or that infamous device, the ever-more-present Blackberry (known in some circles as the "Crackberry" due to the addictive behavior it induces). We wonder how we got along before we had such efficient media messaging.

But there is a dark side to all of this. Having just watched Bowling for Columbine a few days ago, I was reminded by director Michael Moore of the power an omnipresent media has to distort our sense of security. All news, all the time, increases our sense of vulnerability. It feeds our worries about the likelihood of crime, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods or enemy attacks wreaking havoc upon our lives. The media's constant focus on unpleasant events, no matter how remote or how unlikely they may be, makes those events seem all the more threatening: a clear and present danger to us and our families.

E-mail, on the other hand, is a much more insidious form of media. When I retire, I contemplate writing a book titled E-mails to the President chronicling some of the more interesting and outlandish messages I have received. They range from the truly ridiculous to the sublime.

For example, despite the fact that Congress passed hyper-strict HIPAA laws governing privacy of medical information in order that patients won't have their sensitive medical histories read by others, I often receive e-mails from complete strangers who know me only as the president of Johns Hopkins. They nonetheless send me their complete and unexpurgated medical histories in hopes of finding a doctor at Hopkins who might finally give them much-needed relief from suffering — and HIPAA be damned! I respond by trying to put them in touch with the appropriate-expertise resident in our fine medical center.

Others write to complain, compliment, urge, cajole, commiserate or otherwise lay on the table their favorite issue that should be, in their minds, front and center as the top priority of the university. Sometimes they are right on the money, and occasionally I have been awakened to a point of view or perspective that I was perhaps missing. Other times, they rail on and on about an issue where they believe we are going off the deep end, without so much as taking the time to call someone and get their facts straight first.

These examples are not entirely unique to e-mail — many of these same poisoned pens can just as easily communicate in standard written form through the mails. But in my experience, there are certain unique characteristics to e-mail that make it particularly suitable to negative and even bellicose communication. Almost all e-mailers compose their own messages and send them sight unseen to others. Thus, after a particularly engrossed (and perhaps enraged) writer finishes his or her missive, it is very easy to hit the "send" button and voila! the message is launched irretrievably into the ether (or Ethernet, as is usually the case). With a paper letter, one has to write it out or type it, or assign it to a secretary who does the transcription, then proof the letter, stamp and mail it. There is a deliberateness to the process of paper communication that leads to a certain contemplativeness that I think is quite salubrious to civil communication.

I use the word civil not as opposed to military but as contrasted with uncivil. All too often, when we receive news that makes us angry, or hear about something that upsets us, the ability to communicate electronically while the rush of adrenaline still flows in our veins leads to messages written in a tone that utterly negates any semblance of veracity in the text. The recipient of said e-mail is likely either to discard the e-mail as pure emotional overreaction, or, worse yet, to fight fire with fire. For whatever reason, people will write things in an e-mail they never would commit to a typewritten letter. Certainly, they would not say these things face to face to the intended recipient. I can only guess it's because there is an assumed anonymity to e-mail that, in reality, just doesn't exist.

Dueling flaming e-mails have replaced Derringer pistols at 20 paces. But with pistols, two people at most die, and everyone else goes home sadder and perhaps wiser to the folly of it all. With e-mails, one can take an offensive message and quickly forward it to tens, hundreds or even thousands of colleagues, setting off a battle of divisiveness unmatched this side of Palestine. The content of the original message quickly becomes lost in a war of egos.

Here's my simple solution: I intend to write to Bill Gates to ask if he will refashion the software code for e-mail programs so that when you hit the "send" button, all hostile e-mail goes into a locked file inside your PC and stays there for a minimum of 24 hours. After that obligatory delay, the PC will cough up your draft, ask you to review it and then query you by asking, Did you really want to send this e-mail message? Often in these cases cooler heads prevail, and we will answer in the negative and edit our draft.

While we are waiting for Windows XXP with these new changes, I would ask my colleagues at Hopkins to remember there is a person with feelings as sensitive as their own on the receiving end of every e-mail. Taking time to be courteous, and civil, in e-mail correspondence is likely to make communication more effective, and Hopkins a better place for all.


William R. Brody is president of The Johns Hopkins University.


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