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Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017 12:13 am

Meme streets

Amy Alkon
My girlfriend of six years is breaking up with me. My question is: How do I let our friends and my family know? I’m thinking a mass email telling my side of the story. Then I wouldn’t have to have the same conversation over and over with different people. – Glum

Sending a mass email is a great way to get some piece of information out to everybody – from your best friend to 1.4 million people on Twitter to three random drunk dudes who really shouldn’t be on their phones at their boss’s funeral in Estonia.

The ability we have online to dispense a little information to a whole lot of people, immediately, effortlessly, is about the coolest thing ever – and the Frankenstein monster of our time. As I write in Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck, because all the groovy new digital tools are so fun and easy to use, we often “fall back on what’s technically possible” as our behavioral standard. Our chimp-like impulse to just click already derails picky-wicky concerns we might otherwise have, such as “Hmm, wonder whether sending that might get me, oh, you know, fired, ostracized and sleeping in a refrigerator box on the corner.”

Consider that anything you email can be rapidly shared – and shared and shared and shared. For example, novelist and professor Robert Olen Butler emailed five of his grad students the sad (and rather creepy) details of the demise of his marriage, asking them to “clarify the issues” for other students who wanted to know. The email quickly made the rounds in the literary world and ended up in The New York Times and on Gawker, where they “clarified” that his wife had left him to become one of four women in “Ted Turner’s collection.”

But even a less tawdry, less tycoon-filled breakup email may go more viral than one might like. Anthropologist Jerome Barkow, who studies gossip, explains that we evolved to be keenly interested in information that could have some bearing on our ability to survive, mate and navigate socially. As Barkow puts it (and as is borne out by others’ research), gossip about how soundly somebody’s sleeping is unlikely to be as spreadworthy as whom they’re sleeping with.

However, our propensity to spread gossip may be both the problem with emailing your news and the solution to getting it out there. Consider going old-school: Ask a few, um, chatty friends to put the word out to your circle, answer any questions people have, and let your wishes be known (like if you aren’t ready to talk about it). All in all, you’ll get the job done, but in a much more controlled, contained way – one that reflects this bit of prudence from political writer Olivia Nuzzi: “Dance like no one is watching; email like it may one day be read aloud in a deposition.”

© 2017, Amy Alkon, all rights reserved. Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon, 171 Pier Ave, #280, Santa Monica, CA 90405, or e-mail ( Weekly radio show:


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