The psychology of mass emails

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Washington -

Almost every day for the past 30 years, “Dan” and “John” have penned mass, 10 000-word missives to a hodgepodge of journalists, politicians and other public figures. They write to Oprah. Barack Obama. The United Nations. University professors and poetry presses. Think tanks, non-profits and NGOs.

Their letters - now emails, to keep up with the digital age - number in the tens of thousands, much like the word counts of the messages themselves. One edition, “Fait Accompli 320”, stretched past 25 000 words. By comparison, George Orwell's Animal Farm had roughly 29 000.

That may seem crazy - and quite possibly is crazy, judging by the duo's frequent invocations of the devil and the “old world order”. But ask anyone who works in media, politics or policy... or anyone with a zany uncle or neighbour, for that matter: Untold hundreds of people send unsolicited mass emails as a matter of course, even (especially!) when there's no hope of ever seeing a reply.

“It takes a certain type of person,” laughs Sam Sommers, a social psychologist at Tufts University who has written widely on the science of everyday social behaviours. “I mean, it takes a certain type of person to call the radio hotline every day for 100 days until he gets entered in a contest. But at least in that case, there's a contest. With email - what does he gain?”

That question is actually at the crux of understanding mass-email psychology... or pathology, as the case may sometimes be. Sommers points out that American culture has long enshrined perseverance, even when it reaches unreasonable, obsessive proportions. We value the aspiring actress who spends 20 years in off-off-Broadway plays before getting discovered at a community theatre. Or the baseball player who's still trucking away in the minor leagues at 37, determined he'll hit it big one day.

When you think about it, many of our cultural icons have done the contemporary equivalent of send-a-pointless-mass-email-everyday: Van Gogh painted 2 000 canvasses in his lifetime but sold only one; JK Rowling sent Harry Potter repeatedly to publishers before eliciting even a nibble of interest; Lady Gaga danced go-go in a Manhattan dive bar for years rather than give up on the remote possibility of making it big in music.

“So here's an interesting question,” Sommers said. “Where's the line between being the American ideal... and being crazy?”

There isn't a clear one, frankly. Part of it lies in that idea of motivation or intention: Why perform X pointless, self-defeating behaviour every day? What do you stand to gain? And part of it also has to do with the tone and the style of the emails themselves: “Anything north of a few thousand words, and you've probably crossed that line,” Sommers jokes.

There's an intriguing flip side here, as well: Why does no one answer mass emails, even when they get them every single day for years? Even when they're tens of thousands of words long? Even when there's clearly some kind of keenly felt passion or drama or frenzy building on the other side of the line? That, Sommers says, is more easily explained: It has some of the same roots as bystander apathy, that infamous psychological phenomenon that stops people in a crowd from assisting another person who clearly needs help. In a nutshell, sending an email to a group of people diffuses responsibility among all of them, so that no one feels personally accountable for acting on, or even replying to, the content of the message. (This particular bit of social psychology has salient real-life applications, too: If you ever want your friends' or co-workers' help with something, ask them individually.)

I tried to ask “John” and “Dan” - the mass emailers making my personal inbox hell - if any of the big-name journalists and politicians on their list had ever taken action based on their emails. It's worth noting that neither John (who appears to write the messages) nor Dan (who distributes them) took me up on my offer to discuss their real-life identities; per public records, John would appear to be a 70-year-old man living in an apartment complex in Dallas... and Dan is completely off the grid.

I also asked the men - vainly, as it turns out - what they wanted to achieve with this whole thing. Their emails don't make it entirely clear. Each edition circles the same semi-coherent principles: truth, power, the new and old world orders. But Dan and John don't make demands. They don't ask for any specific actions. They never even say, straight up, what the “truth” they're preaching is - and when I inquired to that effect, I got a stern lecture about narcissism, cover-ups and pretending I don't know things when I do. (Oprah and several dozen of my colleagues also were copied in.)

“Thank you so very much for your email... As you will see, it has become a part of what goes out to those on these lists, unless or until you would ask that not to happen... but then why would you ask that? Because you have now done something that no one has done in all of this time by simply doing this,” they wrote to me, and the entire list.

So in 30 years, it would seem, no one has responded. And yet John and Dan persevere. Every day. Even weekends. A new batch of many thousands of words, only some of them intelligible. Today's email, at 25 174 words, mentioned “truth” 246 times, more than any other word. Are they crazy? Are they just devoted?

Sommers posits a different scenario: Imagine a man whose child was killed in a shooting and who wrote a daily, 500-word email denouncing gun violence to a group of politicians. Even if no one ever responded or acted on the man's emails, we wouldn't see him as crazy - to some, in fact, he'd be heroic.

“There's a certain amount of perseverance we value, even celebrate, as a society,” Sommers said. “I'm not sure exactly where the line lies.” - The Washington Post


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