An Ethics of Email?
I am wondering if readers can recommend any interesting ethical discussions of the uses to which email can be put. I have in mind particularly the use of the "blind carbon copy" (or "BCC") function that is included in most email software. I first became aware of the ethical dubiousness of the BCC when I was BCC'd several years ago on a personnel matter among university administrators, with reference to a fellow professor. To be frank, I was honored to be "let in" on the matter and felt the secret "importance" that I was likely intended to feel about it all. (Yes, it typically takes very little in academic life to either wound or elevate the ego. There are many aphorisms about this.) I began using BCC occasionally myself.
It turns out that this feeling of special acknowledgement through the BCC-experience started to fade over time, especially as I began to realize that it was likely that others were being BCC'd on emails to me. (This was confirmed more than once when a colleague would say something to me reflecting the contents of what I had thought was a singular and confidential email.) I started to imagine the totality of the email experience as a potential BCC.
It is clear to me that in the economies of virtual status, BCCs play a special role. I suspect that someone has invented software that allows one to decode whether one has been BCC'd, and as interesting as it would be to see the results, it's probably better if I did not. (On a related note, on one email system at a university where I taught, we could see when our emails were "opened" by the recipient, or if they were "forwarded" -- and it took a savvy colleague to show me how to trick that system so it would not actually reveal to colleagues or anyone else when we had opened emails sent to us.)
There is also the related issue of people carbon-copying ("CCing") others on a reply to you, in a message which was never intended to be seen by anyone other than the original recipient.
These are, in some ways, very small matters, to be sure. But they seem to me to go to the heart of the ethics of how one conducts one's everyday work life in our culture--no small matter. Especially for those who must, like me, spend about an hour a day on email. I know many spend much more.
There are some basic lessons here: only write over work email what you wouldn't mind lawyers reading; consider that what you write might sit for months or years in someone's account, to be parsed later beyond your expectations. But what about the ethics of the BCC or the CC? Some of us in academic life need some guidance.
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States