Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Trial by Email

Lucy Gao, a hitherto unknown intern at Citigroup bank in London, is the latest person to learn a painful lesson about the Internet’s awesome powers of schadenfreude. Her apparently innocuous 21st birthday party invitation quickly raced around the virtual world. Two weeks ago Gao, an Oxford University engineering graduate, emailed instructions to about 40 friends who were due to attend her 21st birthday party at the Ritz Hotel that Friday night. But one guest made the mistake of passing it on to a colleague at Citibank. The message quickly circulated among staff. Within days, it was a chain mail that circled the globe.

There was no salacious content in the email. Lucy’s mistake was she gave very rigorous instruction to her guests on what do when they arrived at the Ritz. Probably the single-most important factor in the messages viral qualities was the level of control. Lucy asked her guests to arrive in 15 minute intervals and the email had a roster of suggested arrival times which started with “9:00pm: Lucy, Sophie Sandner, Kajai, Mandeep, Preet, Sanami, Su, Lisa, Kate” and went on until 10pm when all the guests were present. Other than a slightly overbearing demand on a rostered punctuality, the email was not really any stranger than thousands of others of its type. But Lucy’s email took on a life of its own and quickly became a pyramid seller’s dream. Within a week, the story was in the English and overseas press. Lucy Gao was said to be hurt and in hiding. She emailed a friend “"My original email was supposed to be a joke between me and my guests but hey, ppl kinda interpret it wrong once it got fwded to the World and out of control . . . never mind”.

She was not the first person to be a victim of public humiliation in this fashion. Hers is the latest in a line of e-mails which have found their way on to a global stage. Fellow Londoner Claire Swires was one of the earliest victims. Her predicament started in December 2000 when she sent a joke around the office about a man robbing a sperm bank who forces a nurse to swallow the bank’s contents at gunpoint. The punchline has the robber removing the mask and announcing to the nurse “"See honey - it’s not that hard." A guy called Bradley responds directly to Claire alone saying the joke was ‘cute’. Claire then emailed him back to say “lucky I swallow so that wont be happening to me!” After another exchange where Claire compliments him on the quality of his sperm, Bradley then made the fateful decision to share this information with his mates. Within 24 hours, the “Claire Swires” virus has spread worldwide. Swires sent out an exasperated APB a few days later, castigating all the ‘sad bastards’ that sent the email on, and criticising the girls for their hypocrisy.

At least Swires didn’t lose her job. Unlike yet another Londoner Trevor Luxton, dubbed “Claire Swires Mark II” a clerk at Credit Lyonnais, who in 2002 sent an email to five friends giving precise details of how he had sex with a girl while simultaneously talking to his unsuspecting girlfriend on the telephone. Within hours the email was circulating around the hyper-world. Luxton was forced to resign.

It is not only Londoners that want to boast about their sexual exploits. In May 2001 Peter Chung, a 24-year-old Princeton graduate had just started a new job with Carlyle in South Korea and sent an email boasting of his sexual conquests to eleven friends at the New York office of Merrill Lynch where he previously worked. One of these friends passed it on others in Wall St. Soon Chung's private message had done the rounds of the financial world, eventually reaching his bosses at Carlyle. They didn’t see the funny side of it and sacked him.

New Yorker Mary Callahan made the mistake of talking about a prospective date but by pressing ‘reply’ rather than ‘forward’ she sent the email to him rather than the female friend she intended it to go to. Thus the date found out, that because they hadn’t yet slept together “he will of course be trying to impress me and will, therefore, do anything I ask”. The email also revealed how her ex fell asleep during sex. Although amusing, the entire sequence may be a fabrication. Those debunkers of urban legend at Snopes describe the status of the Mary Callahan myth as “undetermined”.

Meanwhile, London was still not learning from its mistakes. Richard Phillips was a City solicitor specialising in computer law and electronic commerce. Phillips, a senior associate with the world's biggest law firm, Baker & McKenzie, was at lunch when a secretary accidentally splashed tomato sauce on his suit trousers. A few days later he sent the secretary, a mother of two in her fifties, a polite but insistent email which read Hi Jenny, I went to a dry cleaners at lunch and they said it would cost £4 to remove the ketchup stains. If you cd let me have the cash today, that wd be much appreciated. Thanks Richard”. Jenny responded to him and copied the 250 people on their office floor in which she said “I apologise for accidentally getting a few splashes of ketchup on your trousers. Obviously your financial need as a senior associate is greater than mine as a mere secretary”. The email exchange quickly whizzed around the City. A prim spokesman for their employers Baker & Mackenzie said: "It is a private matter between two individual members of staff that has clearly got out of hand. The matter is being investigated and we cannot comment further." Phillips eventually quit his job.

Berkshire man Joe Dobbie’s gushing invite to Kate Winsall to a date on 11 July this year also resulted in his global humiliation. Dobbie, described by the BBC as a ‘cyber Romeo’, sent an email to Winsall asking her out for a date after the two had met at party. Unfortunately Winsall - whose smile he said made "time stand still" - sent it on to her sister, who forwarded it to friends. Dobbie has since received hundreds of e-mails and calls from many countries and he has had to change his land and mobile numbers.

Lucy Gao now joins this illustrious company of unwary people outed by the viral power of e-mail. Tim Soutphommasane, an Australian PhD student who happens to be in Ms Gao's old college at Oxford told the Sydney Morning Herald “the phenomenon shows the destructive potential of email as an instrument of social ridicule. If anything I wonder whether email has made it easier for us to become more sadistic, since there's so little effort - and, it seems, responsibility - involved in forwarding an email to someone else."

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