Awkward. That’s what it was. Painfully awkward.
I was a senior associate at one of D.C.’s biggest law firms, and I was running the defense of a local law school against claims of racial discrimination by a former professor. Well, this professor was trying desperately to make sexual contact with students an issue in his case, and my job was to run this puppy to the ground.
As it turned out, we eventually cut him off at the pass, getting a ruling keeping all sexual issues out of the case. But for the time being, we had to prepare our defense, and I was tasked with acting as father-confessor to every faculty member who’d nailed one or more of his students. And that is why this professor was in my office, sobbing like a little girl.
You see, this particular moron had spent months writing e-mails to his “beloved” from his office computer -– e-mails the law school, of course, retained, and could be compelled to produce during litigation. E-mails detailing in extravagant specificity all of this “man’s” lustful dreams, desires, and, most painfully to him, his rather poor opinion of his current spouse.
I had read every single one of them. Unfortunately. So this guy was embarrassed enough just to walk into my paper-filled office. But the prospect of having these e-mails produced -- potentially for public consumption -- just drove this professor into hysterics. And although I didn’t actually hit him, I was forced to perform the verbal equivalent of bitch-slapping the creep, just to keep him in line.
Of course, I did my job, and his pathetic indiscretions never saw the light of day. The boy was lucky.
Ask any litigator. Ask them what is the one thing they fear the most in discovery. I’ll tell you.
Why? Simple. People, for some reason, have decided that they can speak as informally on e-mails as they might on IM’s or on the phone. They feel as though they can say what they really think –- usually unvarnished, unpolished, and often un-spell-checked -- as though nobody will ever see what they’re writing for all posterity. They couldn’t be more mistaken.
I was a litigator for fourteen years, and I did over a dozen jury trials in that time. For those of you who don’t know, that’s actually quite a bit for a big-firm lawyer. But in all that time, there’ve been only three times I found a so-called “smoking gun” document.
Every single one was an e-mail.
They’re the terror of the people at the top, for the simple reason that the rank and file can’t be trusted to figure out for themselves what’s appropriate for e-mail traffic at work. That’s why I spent so much time developing so-called “document retention” policies for my clients, which were really nothing more than elaborate electronic shredding plans. At the end, I was coming up with “rolling retention” policies that allowed sys ops to search the e-mail database on a real-time basis for suspect keywords, the idea being to allow them to delete bad e-mails as they occurred.
And people wonder why defense lawyers hate e-mails.
So imagine my horror when I first discovered ascorbic.net. I mean, people had told me that there was a catbox archive, but I thought they must have been exaggerating. There was no way someone was cataloguing all of the words written in the immensely informal, often indiscreet, and definitely irreverent catbox. That was just too much, I thought.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I enjoy the catbox immensely. I don’t write much in it, but I like reading it -– safely on the right-hand side of my browser -- as I’m looking through my messages and nodes on e2. It’s a pleasant diversion, and helps me to understand the culture of the site.
But when I found out that someone was saving all of the words in the catbox for posterity, my viewpoint changed immediately. You see, when I became a lawyer, I learned quickly that every word I wrote or spoke could be used as an exhibit against me. Every letter was a potential exhibit. Every e-mail. Even every phone call, if my opposing counsel was enough of a sleazeball.
When you start looking at your words as exhibits, rather than simply a means of communication, they start to look entirely different. High-pitched, angry letters I might otherwise have written got tossed in the trash, for fear that my words would come back to haunt me. E-mails never got sent. Phone calls were made with another friendly attorney on the line.
This is the way you have to think when all of your words are being recorded. It’s not fair, and it’s not fun, but it’s true.
Who knows when our words will come back to bite us in the ass? As for myself, I’ve made a conscious effort on e2 to weigh my words carefully, and only talk about things I want to talk about. That’s why it hurts so much when someone crosses the line, and reveals things about me that I never intended to reveal.
But I suspect that most people on the catbox aren’t even remotely thinking about this when they’re chatting. For most people, it’s a friendly chat amongst partners in a like-minded endeavor. And that’s the way it should be.
The problem is that the mere fact of archiving the catbox renders it available to the world. Anyone can find your words. Do you have any enemies, or potential enemies? Do you have any friends who might be offended or hurt by your catbox chatter? How about employers, or potential employers?
I did a quick check on a friend of mine on e2. He has approximately 45,000 entries on ascorbic.net, many of which are so raunchy as to be plainly inappropriate for polite company. Now, that doesn’t mean that it’s not proper catbox fodder, but what about his daughters? What about his ex-wife? Does he really think they don’t know his e2 handle? And if they do, it will take all of 2 minutes for them to dig up every word he’s ever said in the catbox, and to lose all of their faith in him.
So where am I going with this? I’m not trying to be a wet blanket, although that’s what lawyers, even former lawyers, often do, unfortunately. I definitely believe that the catbox is an integral part of the e2 culture. The place wouldn’t be the same without it.
But do we really need an archive that potentially exposes every single catbox user in the future to questions and recriminations for statements made without thought, in the heat of the moment? I’m not trying to bust on ascorbic.net, but if e2 were my client, I’d advise getting rid of it as soon as possible.