Modems without manners

ffw-1105-coverLater this month, Amy Alkon, author of The Advice Goddess column that runs in the Free Weekly, will release her new book “I See Rude People: One Woman’s Battle To Beat Some Manner Into Impolite Society.” The book will be published by McGraw-Hill and will be on bookshelves Nov. 27. Modems without Manners is excerpted from the book.

Modems Without Manners

By Amy Alkon

I am not one of those hairy-toed neo-hippies who’s renounced indoor plumbing and White Cloud for a stack of leaves next to a freshly dug toilet hole in the backyard. I don’t think our lives would be better if only we could go back to a simpler time, before nasty developments like running water, the History Channel and reliable birth control. In fact, for me, communing with nature means walking down a city sidewalk with grass growing up between the cracks, and camping is staying in a hotel that doesn’t give you Aveda toiletries and a lighted magnifying mirror. As somebody who is decidedly not into pre-modern inconveniences, you could say I not only appreciate technology, I worship it. Still, I get that advanced technology often brings with it advanced side effects.

Just a couple decades ago, there was no such thing as an Instant Message; there was only the rather delayed message, chiseled out in longhand or typed on a typewriter and painstakingly corrected with cross-outs or Wite-Out. After getting it down on the page, you’d have to find your address book, dig up your recipient’s information, find an envelope and a stamp … you know the drill. Maybe a week later, the postman would deliver your message. Because corresponding took time, supplies and effort, you didn’t write just anything to just anybody; for example, it’s unlikely you would’ve mailed somebody you’d never even met a letter informing them “I told you to stay the f*** out of my inbox, you low-life, dried-up twa*.”

That message came to me by e-mail from a total stranger after an exchange in which I responded, rather politely, to a rather minor criticism he’d e-mailed me about one of my advice columns. Thanks to the growth of the Web and the affordability of computers, he and billions of other ordinary people suddenly found themselves in possession of the extraordinary ability to lash out at others extremely fast, practically free and with little effort.

That said, the Internet has changed my life and so many people’s in amazingly positive ways, and it would be stupid (and futile) to suggest we turn back the clock. I’d just like to shine a light on a few areas where the global village seems to be populated by a bunch of club-wielding troglodytes, and see if we all can make an effort to bring a little more civility to the place.

In a column in the summer of 2008, I wrote a response to a girl who signed herself “Chicken.” She wanted to dump her boyfriend using Slydial, a service that sends calls to a mobile phone straight to voicemail. “Chicken” had been dating the guy for five months and longing to break up for two, but said she’d been stalling because she didn’t have the guts to hurt him.

The core of my response was this:

So, two months ago, you knew it was over, but instead of ending it, you let him get two months more attached. Maybe you wanted to avoid hurting him, but, clearly, what you wanted even more was to avoid feeling awkward while hurting him. If you’ve dated somebody for any length of time, it’s cruel to dismiss them with a phone message. You owe it to this guy to end it face to face.

A reader, whose name I’ll change to “Kevin Jones,” took issue with my response, but signed his e-mail “Respectfully,” a conciliatory touch suggesting he had some manners.


I think you seriously missed the boat on this one. The only, sole purpose and reason for being of SlyDial is to accommodate C-O-W-A-R-D-S.

It is by far much more cruel and egotistical to string someone along (for 2 months!) then to be open and honest about it so that the poor guy would have known where he stood with him/her.

You should have hammered Chicken as the gutless wonder that he/she was and is.

Respectfully, Kevin

I wrote back:

Dear Kevin,

Thanks, but I made that point — that she let him get two months more attached. And per Adam Smith, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” evoking sympathy is probably the best way to motivate somebody. It’s a hammering, but more effective than just making her defensive. Anyway, thanks for the e-mail and for reading me. Best, Amy

“Kevin” and “Respectfully” had apparently parted ways:


You’ve lost just any credibility you might have had — quoting a book from 1759. What a load of crap.

It’s no wonder we only see your scratching-the-bottom-of-the-barrel drivel online (cheap!) instead of print.


Nasty. And surprising, since the guy’s e-mail included his full name, e-mail address, home address, home phone number, cell phone number, and his Web site — more information than I usually see from anybody but PR people. I could’ve let the guy’s nastiness go unremarked, but to me, that’s tacitly condoning it. I wrote back:

Wow. First of all, how rude.

Secondly, are you really of the opinion that because books are old they are valueless? Do you likewise think the work of Aristotle and Shakespeare are shit?

Are you typically a mean guy, or did you maybe have a bad day and decide that trying to be hurtful to me would be a way to make yourself feel better? Amy Alkon

I knew what was coming. Usually, when I make that last point — why lash out at me? — the reader writes back, all embarrassed, and apologizes. In fact, I can almost count on it. Kevin, it turns out, was an exception:

Oh, sweet Jesus — you tired old cun*.

You haven’t seen or heard rude, yet.

I’m in touch with the publisher of the paper — a personal friend — regarding your asinine behavior.

Get some treatment, toots, FAST! — you need it desperately.

Well, that, and extensive plastic surgery, according to another e-mail-equipped troglodyte who dashed off his thoughts of me and hit “send”:


Whats that black thing crawling up your neck, looking like it wants to overtake your chin? Oh, thats a Turtleneck??? Whoo wears those anymore? In summertime? Im not sure you have the kind of face you want framed liked that anyway. You might want to have that birdcage liner paper post up a fresh pic. But I do enjoy your (column) once in awhile when I dont feel like poneying up .50 cents for a real newspaper. It must make ya feel good being quen of the idiots. — Derek M.

Yet another trog wasn’t satisfied with sending me nasty e-mail; he anonymously signed me up for a slew of Internet mailing lists — about 30 of them — everything from the John Birch Society to the NRA to Omaha Steaks and some lobster company.

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Unluckily for him, I decided it would be wrong to delete these messages as spam since the companies didn’t actually spam me. (Getting deemed a spammer can cause subsequent messages to subscribers to get trapped in spam filters.) It was a pain, but I set about unsubscribing my e-mail address from every mailing list — and, to my surprise, was rewarded for my effort.

On one of the unsubscribe pages, up popped a short string of numbers and the message “The IP address you subscribed from” (meaning “Internet Protocol,” the unique numerical address of a particular computer). Bingo!

I ran a search of that IP, which traced back to an Adelphia subscriber. Since the IP finder didn’t list the subscriber’s name or e-mail address, all I could do was report my spammer to After I did, I noticed an unopened e-mail in my inbox — one that came in just before all the subscription notices.

I opened it and looked for the IP. Yep, shore enough, it was the guy who’d subscribed me to the newsletters. It seems he was steamed about an article I’d written critical of unecessary SUV driving — aircraft-carrier-sized gas-guzzlers that aren’t being used by contractors to haul steel beams across town, but by Hollyweasels, to ferry around a script and a latte. Here’s an excerpt from his e-mail:

I just bought my wife a HUGE Suburban. Lovely, 11 miles to the gallon in the city! MMMMM! As for me, I just can’t give up my 1973 Jeep and 2002 Ford 250!!!! I had a 2001 Corvette but just got tired of it — sorry! When my kids are 18, they get whatever they want as long as it has a V8! Ahhhh, Capitalism!!!!! Support the economy that has given us all so much!!!! — RJ p.s. Don’t fret, someday you will get laid and find something worth while to occupy your time with instead of vulgar insults! Oh, and please remember, always Give War a Chance!

This proud supporter of OPEC signed his e-mail with his initials only, so I took a closer look at the section of the e-mail with the IP and other technogibberish. Most helpfully (and probably unbeknownst to him), it happened to include his company name. I hopped on Google, and in about 20 minutes rounded up his full name, Web site, and cell phone number, which I called, pronto. After he recovered from the shock of it being me on the line, I chewed him out and told him he had to be accountable for what he’d done.

He just kept saying he was sorry. Not good enough, I told him. He’d taken my time, and he owed me for it. I asked for $50. The guy bragged that he charges $250 an hour (classy!) and said he’d send me the $50 in “a couple weeks.” Right. After I hung up, I typed out a blog item about our encounter, speculating as to whether he’d pay me, and posted it before I went to bed. The next morning, the first comment was from him:

Good morning all — I am the inconsiderate jack@ss. No excuse for my actions, suffice to say, I will put my money where my apology is for Amy’s time ASAP.

And he did. The guy actually came through!


Again, in pursuing these Web-powered offenders, I know I’m going against the conventional wisdom that when the going gets nasty it’s best not to engage; or, as George Bernard Shaw put it, “… never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.” Well, I’m not afraid of getting dirty. And every time I pig-wrestle some Internet jerk, I’m telling them, “You didn’t just send your meanness off into the nebulousphere. There’s an actual person on the other end.” And just maybe, by doing that, I can persuade a pig or two to move out of the sty; perhaps to a cozy little one-bedroom apartment.

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