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Gen X And The Lost Art Of The Blind Carbon Copy

As we rush headlong into our online future we must not fail to bring along courtesy and respect.


For many in Gen X using Blind Carbon Copy (Bcc) in group emails is an identifying tic of cultural lag becoming as anachronistic as the word carbon in the term itself. Back in the day we were tight with out lists, they were like the Glengarry leads, to us they were gold, and those who received our emails did not get to have them. But sadly, this is changing as exhibitionist Millennials regularly flood my inbox with hundreds of email addresses.

I think there are a few reasons for this change. First, the personal email address is a more public thing in general than it was in the late nineties and early 2000s. This is related to the rise of social media, which makes most of us far more present and reachable online than we were back then. The expectation for and of privacy has been dissolving in our society rather quickly.

Here is a simple rule of thumb, my email address should not appear in the copy line of anyone receiving a group email unless you, they, and I have been in the same physical place together and have had an actual conversation using spoken words. Short of that, for God’s sake, Bcc me. My email address is not yours to bandy about to any and all willy nilly.

There are good reasons for this rule beyond just a JD Salinger style desire to be left alone. First of all, it’s ugly. A jangle of alphanumeric nonsense dotted with weird punctuation. But far worse is the possibility of prying eyes, popping open the entire list and pulling out addresses that might come in “handy.” Who among us has not perused a long list of addresses that we shouldn’t be seeing to spot people who may be of importance or use to us?

There are also commercial considerations. Though social media has displaced it now, email was once the primary form of online promotion for everything from band shows to investment opportunities. At our theater company we would copy and paste every group email list we ever got, throw them in our system and mercilessly hound the poor recipients to come see our plays until they begged us to stop.

This might sound a little hypocritical coming from someone who believes in orthodox use of the Bcc, but business, as they say, is business. It is my own weakness in this regard that makes me protect my friends and associates by hiding the keys to their email inbox. It is a sign of respect, it lets them know I value their importance and privacy.

The broader generational shift here, symbolized by the lack of use of the Bcc is a headlong cultural rush from living to performing. I don’t have a lot of interest in trying to judge this phenomenon morally or aesthetically, since I imagine it is not reversible, but, I do think we need to understand the shift and think about its broader implications.

If we are performing our lives, if we are never alone but always a swipe from contact, if our expectation is that people see our Venmos and Insta brunches, and yes, email addresses on group invites to an art opening, then we need rules and practices to keep us somewhat connected to the actual world around us and its values.

To some degree human beings have always viewed themselves individually as the protagonist of the world’s story, the lead character in the movie. But this is now literally true; you can Google your name and watch yourself perform in the movie of your life whenever and wherever you want.

It’s powerful stuff, the fight for relevance can become addicting. The kind of change needed though has less to do with disconnecting from our screens than it does realizing that the Internet is real life, that the map has become the terrain. The fact of the matter is that do not imbue our online interactions with as much grace, care or elegance as we do in the physical world. We need more of that.

Putting your contacts addresses in a Bcc on a group email is a courtesy. It is a small thing you go out of your way to do to show respect. Email and social media have grown in their uses and applications so quickly that etiquette, guidelines for courtesy and appropriate behavior, not to be imposed, but to be respected have suffered to emerge. The simplest thing to do is simply to realize that what you do online you are doing in reality and seek to treat others as you would be treated. The march to our online future is irresistible, but it doesn’t have to be a classless dumpster fire when we get there.