Everybody’s heard of penis envy, a concept that our favorite psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, invented back in the 19th century. Freud’s idea was that women had penis envy because, quite simply, they wanted to be men. Why would gals want to leave piss all over the floor of bathrooms and deal with ejaculation on a daily basis? Because in Freud’s time, men got all the cool stuff, like voting and jobs and political power and ownership of property. So, according to Freud, women were jealous. They envied men because their penises were like anatomical e-tickets to groovy places all over the world.
These days, with all our medical and social innovations, you can buy a penis — metaphorically and literally. Having a dick isn’t such a big deal anymore. So we have to invent new categories of envy, new talismanic objects to represent all the things we most wish we had.
Hence, the contemporary phenomenon of email envy. You know you’ve had it — it’s that shiver of desire and defeat when you see an email address you wish you had, just because it seems to radiate so much power. Maybe it’s a particular domain name that tickles your fancy. A friend of mine, for example, has been known to pursue women purely because their emails are @burningman.org (“Gee, what a great email address!” he tells them). And many years ago, when I first began my writing career, I practically peed in my pants when I got an email from somebody @randomhouse.com. Of course, that was nothing compared to the day I discovered two addresses @fbi.gov nestled in among all the .orgs on a leftist email list I ran. Well, maybe that wasn’t email envy — more like email anxiety.
But, like penises, domain names now come cheap. I just bought techsploitation.com for 30 bucks. My soon-to-be-married pal Lucia has loathesomecouple.com, and my sweetie Charles owns godhatesfigs.com (a rather fruity parody of godhatesfags.com). And, annoyingly enough, Adobe owns splatterpunk.com. Then there are the fake email addresses, which don’t even come from a real domain. A lot of places will offer you free email @crackdealer.com or @trannychaser.com or @whateverthefuckyouwant.com.
But then there are also the email addresses that signal a lack of imagination, a lack of taste … indeed, a lack of class. It’s just like the pundits say: your email address can be as significant as your physical address. You don’t want to get trapped on the wrong side of the virtual tracks with a trailer trash address @hotmail.com or @yahoo.com or in the tacky, aspiring-to-be-bourgeois @aol.com. After all, as the SUV-owning class might say, if you don’t own your own domain and have to stoop to free, web-based email, you must be a digital sharecropper.
There’s a whole other category of email envy which I haven’t even addressed yet: the sinking feeling of social inadequacy that comes when you get an invitation or group mailing which hasn’t been blind cc’ed, so you can see exactly how many cool, famous, intriguing people the sender knows. Before the days of evite.com, which creates its own kind of email neurosis, people used to send electronic party flyers to me with what seemed like literally hundreds of email addresses cramming the cc: field. Green with jealousy, I’d peruse each name or handle, wondering how the sender was able to know so many people.
From those experiences, I learned the artful, quiet use of the cc: field in business correspondence. When I got my first editorial gig, I sent out an email to all my old mentors and friends in academia to alert them about my new status. There were enough famous people among my circle of acquaintances that I was able to engage in what was no doubt an unethical burst of self-aggrandizement — the mail about my professional success was contained as much in the cc: line as it was in the body of the message itself.
At one of my low points a few months ago, while suffering from heartbreak and romantic betrayal, I actually took a picture of my computer screen as it displayed the contents of my in-box, just to remind myself, Stuart Smalley-style, that I was a swell person. And my swellness could be measured by all the cool email addresses in there.
Confessions of envy, class privilege, and inadequacy are always ugly things. And yet I can’t stop myself from wondering twitchily, What does my email say about me? Sometimes I’m such a sucker, letting my culture persuade me into caring about crap that I don’t need or want.
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who does in fact have an account @yahoo.com but should be reached at [email protected]
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