One Nation, Under BlackBerry

David Shipley

David Shipley is the op-ed page editor of The New York Times and the author of Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better. Elena Seibert hide caption

itoggle caption Elena Seibert
Obama's BlackBerry

July 7, 2008: President Obama checks his BlackBerry back in his days as a Senator, before the device became what is now known as "BlackBerry One." Jae C. Hong/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Jae C. Hong/AP

So there's been a lot of change in Washington.

Historic events.

We now have a president ... with a BlackBerry.

A BlackBerry hand-held device.

It's been called BlackBerry One.

I'd like to call it something else: a "teachable moment."

Given the crowds on the Mall for the inauguration, I think it's pretty safe to say that lots of people admire President Obama. Many are trying to heed his example. They're volunteering. They're befriending people whose views may differ from their own. They're shopping at J. Crew.

The eyes of America are on this man. And most Americans seem ready to do just about anything he wants them to do.

So perhaps he can set one more example for us to follow ... and lead us out of BlackBerry temptation. He can usher in not just a new era of responsibility but a new era of responsible BlackBerrying.

This is not a comment on the previous administration, but the past eight years did see the growth of a certain digital lawlessness. Really bad hand-held etiquette.

With BlackBerrys, Treos, iPhones and the like, we learned that we could e-mail anywhere. Anytime. And we did.

Society unraveled. People pulled out their BlackBerrys during weddings. Parent-teacher conferences. School plays. Confirmations. Bar mitzvahs. Funerals. We BlackBerryed while we walked; we BlackBerryed while we drove.

Mr. Obama knows how to stay on message. Here's the message — the instant message — he should send:

Those days are over.

We're toggling to a new page.

What can Mr. Obama do to be an electronic role model? Well, Mr. President, here are a few tips.

No White House photos of you e-mailing while someone is talking. Bad example.

Observe the crossword puzzle rule. Those situations where it would be rude or inappropriate to do a crossword? Well, it would probably be rude or inappropriate to use a BlackBerry, too.

Make it clear that you're writing from a hand-held. Put in a disclaimer. It helps for people to know that you're typing with your thumbs. It explains brevity and spelling errors. Otherwise, they might be offended when you respond to their 20-page, 50-point bailout plan with an "OK." Or a "Nope."

Remember: Your BlackBerry is not a Game Boy. Too many of us e-mail when we don't have anything to do. We're on a bus without something to read, so we e-mail. You're in the limo heading to Andrews Air Force Base ... you get the picture. Remember — every e-mail you send is an e-mail someone has to read. It's also an invitation for someone to e-mail you back.

As the boss, you have to be especially careful about this kind of casual e-mailing. You don't want to muse on e-mail to a subordinate about invading a country ... it could be taken as an order.

And even though it's really easy to do this with a BlackBerry, you don't want to be emailing at 4 a.m. (after that 3 a.m. phone call); if you do, people will start staying up all night because they think you expect them to. Lack of sleep could interfere with their decision-making skills.

And finally. Most of all. Show us that you can put that thing away. Turn it off. Lock it in its holster.

Presidential e-mailing comes with a lesson for the rest of us, too.

Most of us get into e-mail trouble when we don't think before we send. We e-mail too quickly. Too casually. Too carelessly. Too often.

Which is why we might want to engage in this thought experiment.

Next time you're about to fire off something from your BlackBerry, stop for a moment. Pretend you're the leader of the free world. Imagine that your e-mail will receive the same sort of scrutiny presidential e-mails are sure to receive.

And then decide whether it's really wise for you to have your finger on the button.

David Shipley is the op-ed page editor of The New York Times and the author of Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better

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