I can judge my grandmother’s health by the number of chain e-mails she sends me per day. On days when she’s feeling particularly energetic, she’ll send me four or five. The subjects of these emails, when they’re not cut off by the browser on account of the “FW:FW:FW” that precedes them, are exercises in persuasion: “MUST READ: UNBELIEVABLE SANDCASTLES” or “Staircase vs. Elevator: BRILLIANT-MUST WATCH!” or “SISTERHOOD- Let’s see who sends this back to me, don’t break the chain!” These emails make my inbox look like that of my AOL account circa 1999.
My grandmother first started sending me chain emails three years ago, when she was introduced to the internet and email. Unaware of advanced email capabilities like Bcc’ing or copy/pasting, Grandma would simply click “forward” and blast the chain emails to her entire address book. It took me several minutes to scroll through the previous email headers to finally get to the real content of the email. After a few months, when it became clear that Grandma’s forwards would be a daily occurrence, I began to ignore them. If she wanted to speak to me, or share something with me, wouldn’t she send it to me directly, instead of everyone she had ever emailed? Who really expects responses to mass-emails, anyway?
Grandma did. When I called her, she would ask if I saw her email about staying safe in parking garages or the hidden cleaning powers of Coke. She actually expected me to not only read, but respond to her emails. That’s when I realized that chain emails are my grandmother’s social media.
Think about it: when you post a You Tube video to your wall on Facebook, you’re instantly distributing it to hundreds of people. Surely you don’t have your friends list memorized, but you might have a few people in mind who you believe might find this video particularly funny. When they don’t respond—or when no one responds—don’t you feel disappointed, or even slighted? Despite the mass distribution, you expect a response. So did my Grandma. What’s more, my Grandma considered the content of those chain emails her content. By taking ownership (authorship?) of the content in the email and sending it out to her friends and family, she was making a statement that the content was a representation of herself and her ideas. We perform the same re-purposing when we share on Facebook. We post funny quotes or compelling news stories because we hope our friends will enjoy them, but we also hope the masses will see the content as a reflection of ourselves, of our humor, of our interests.
Grandma, despite her late debut into the virtual world, understands that online media is social. She expects, she demands, that social interaction will accompany her media. She propels her chain emails out into the world as a projection of herself and is unsatisfied when the world doesn’t respond. Her attitude is testimony to the increasingly social, collaborative nature of online media of all kinds. It’s no longer enough to read a news article– we want to read it, comment on it, read others’ comments, and then share it with our friends (both real and virtual).
I’m interested in how the social element of online media affects our language, our expectations of the results of language, and the way we employ language to persuade others. What do you think