Recently, I crafted an email. It began like this: "Dear highly curated list of people I always want to see more of... if you can come to this book event I have on the 30th by any chance, please do?" I then put the email addresses of 40-some "highly curated" (I know, ugh) people in the bcc: line, put my own email address in the to: line, and pressed send. And then I felt ashamed.
I had thought long and hard about this blind copying. These were all my friends, many of whom know each other, many of whom even communicate with each other without me. Maybe they'd like to know who else was invited. Maybe it would even entice them to go. Maybe there was someone on the list they really needed to avoid. Maybe they'd like, at the very least, the opportunity to talk about me behind my back for inviting them to yet another book event when I still hadn't thanked them for coming to the one I had a year ago. And maybe there's something about including actual emails in an invitation that helps get those people to actually show up — kind of like pointing to an individual in a crowd and saying, Hey, you, help me out here — instead of mass-mailing an anonymous list, the digital version of shouting into the wind: Can somebody, anybody, come to my book event? (And in the end, the only person who hears is ... you.)
Then again, had I put everyone in the to: line, I might have been shamed for not following the established protocol. ("For the love of God, bcc!" a friend recently exclaimed via gchat when another acquaintance failed to do so.) Bcc, after all, protects my pals from public outing and a cascading series of horrible reply-alls. But it also protects me.
If each of my highly curated people saw who was invited, my choices could be judged. What if friend X hated friend Z? What if friend Q couldn't believe I dared to consider myself "friends" with acquaintance G? Would the listees rank themselves among my friends? Would my family be mad they didn't get their own email? And what if all of them started talking to each other, grumping about what a loser I was? Better to keep it anonymous, and just hope that someone would show up.
We live in a time in which very little is private. We post relationship statuses and intimate details about our lives online; we share pictures of ourselves in various states of life and dress and duckface. And sometimes we inflict our failed notions of privacy upon others, tweeting overheard statements and even photos of strangers. Yet in one area we are stalwart. That is with regard to the email addresses you may find in group emails. If you don't bcc, you are a boorish rube, ill-equipped to sit in front of a MacBook. You are to be mocked and shamed. You are even dangerous, allowing your friends' email addresses to get in the hands of spammers, or worse, people who might choose to email them! How dare you expose them like that?
At the same time, we're just a little bit self-conscious, maybe even defensive, about our bccing — after all, there's something a wee bit creepy about this sudden discretion or lack of full disclosure, particularly in a time in which transparency is so touted.
And so: Here are a few reasons why we should cc more, and bcc just a little bit less.
1. Bcc is antiquated, literally
It stands for "blind carbon copy." That's right — in prehistoric times, people actually used to make copies of things they wrote with carbon paper! The earliest reference to the term, according to the OED, appeared in the Fresno Bee in 1968: "When typing letters that require blind carbon copies to be sent, don't remove the original letter and then type the names of those who are to receive the blind carbons." (Full disclosure: I can barely understand what that means.)
By the year 2000, bcc was used to refer to email, as per the helpful sounding Internet Marketing for your Tourism Business: "Make sure that you know how to use the blind carbon copy function in your email program." Since carbon paper is not really office standard nowadays, bcc has since been redefined as "blind copy circulated," or "blind courtesy copy," but most of us still just say bcc, and if anyone still doesn't know how to use that function in their email, they need not read further.
2. A good reply-allpocalypse is actually awesome
No one likes getting spammed. No one wants to have a million emails shooting back at them, especially if there's some horrid punster on the list. No one wants to be beholden to their inbox. BUT! Two simple facts: 1. You don't have to read all those reply alls. You can, in fact, delete them. (Or ignore them! It's crazy, I know.) And, 2. What would we do for humor in an office or collegiate environment if occasionally someone didn't make an ass of himself by replying all? It's a gift that gives back 33,000 or even 40,000-fold. (Plus some lucky journalist gets to write that story up after the fact; it's a win-win.) One pal wrote back longingly, after I sent an email, "Ah man I wish it wasn't a bcc cuz WHAT A CREW." What other conversations have been lost to bcc? We can only imagine.
3. We must help the violators learn
"I still bcc for parties and such in the rare event that I actually have them, only because people CANNOT BE TRUSTED with cc'ed emails," says Tyler Coates, deputy editor of Decider.com. "There's always at least two or three people who think that Gmail is IM or something and cannot resist an audience of people (people they know, or even strangers) and have to reply back and forth. It's a very basic fact that a bcc'ed email list does NOT spark so many replies, because if you can't have an audience then what's the point?" See trees falling in the forest, etc. Coates admits that probably most people would like to see the list they're on, "but not many of us want an endless stream of email replies from everybody." Well, no need to chop down the whole damn woods. If we don't learn who's responsible for these sorts of email infractions, how can we ever mortify them enough that they never do it again?
4. Party awkwardness is in fact terrible
I brought the question of bccing to etiquette expert Lizzie Post of The Emily Post Institute, sure that she would tell me to arm myself with knowledge because party bccs are a thing of the past, and shouldn't the host want us to feel comfortable knowing what we're walking into? I was wrong. "It's none of your business who else is going to the party," she told me. "Back in the day, a hostess would invite people and one of the rudest things you could say is, 'Who else is invited?' You should focus on do you want to attend, can you? The do you should be based on the host throwing it, not the guest list." Okay, fair. But what if the cost of bccing leads to a terrible event, or less hospitality? For instance, if you simply want to carpool, or to ask someone you think is invited what they're bringing as a baby shower gift but not be in the awkward situation of finding out they haven't been invited at all? Or what if Salman Rushdie is on the list and he's your dream man and you need to practice your winning banter/read his last book before you show up, and not having done so will cost you everything? Plus, how do you invite your friends to a party where they'll have to appear in public if they're so scared of their emails being seen?
Ah, but here is where the tide may be turning. Sometimes it's the bccers who get shamed! One friend was chided thusly by a disgruntled guest after she sent out a party list bcc-style: "How many peeps are you inviting to the point that it warrants you, A. Bcc-ing me and B. Including your #? Ain't no one needing to meet Martha [her mother] who doesn't already have your digits." Valid point.
5. Bccing can be kind of shady
One of the original purposes of bcc, obviously, is to send a copy of correspondence to a third party when you don't want the recipient to know. (Think Mean Girls-esque three-way calling, kinda.) If you're narcing on your coworker by bccing your boss, that is just uncool, and the etiquette experts agree. Post says that using bcc to tattle or show someone up in a workplace scenario is "not appropriate."
6. The internet has changed (and so have we)
Bcc was once recommended "to prevent the spread of computer viruses, spam, and malware by avoiding the accumulation of block-list email addresses available to all bcc: recipients, which often occurs in the form of chain letters." Bad, yes, but even more scary a decade ago. Take this New York Times article from 2001, which carries this ominous sentence: "Critics say the deluge of junk email threatens to undermine the utility of the internet at precisely the time when anthrax fears and cost-cutting efforts have prompted more businesses to use it as a substitute for postal mail." However, nowadays, spam filters are pretty sweet. People can have approved sender lists. And when you do get spam, or a message sent to someone looking for another Jen Doll, in my case, it can actually be fantastic! For instance, a great new zucchini recipe that arrived in my inbox the other day from a woman named Colleen. (I know no one named Colleen.) I don't even think it was spam, and probably not caused by a lack of bccing, just an email misfire, but one that buttressed my imagined life of swanning about and cooking zucchini quite wonderfully.
We're also sort of hypocrites about this whole thing. We want the contacts that we want — and your email address is a handy way to be contacted, and often posted right there front and center on Twitter accounts or personal websites or Facebook, at least for journalists. So why keep it from your friends? Why be so precious about its big reveal?
However, I am still afraid of chain letters.
Look, I know bcc still has its uses. "When I'm introduced to someone over email, I reply and bcc the introducer in order to spare their inbox," says one friend who works in tech. "I feel like it's just customary in my industry and avoids them seeing the entire back-and-forth that then happens as I'm trying to schedule a call or meeting with the person to whom I was just introduced." I agree! And I agree with Post that we should be respectful and keep in mind other people's privacy concerns (even if email is not exactly the same as a mailing address).
But instead of bccing always, how about bccing mindfully? Ask yourself: Is there a greater good that can come of me not bccing this? If the case is yes, dare to cc. Or, as my friend adds: "It is nice to see who else is invited to a party, or who else was asked to give feedback to something, or donate to some cause. And if it's a smaller list, you feel more special." No one, on the other hand, ever feels special on carbon paper.