"Now, maybe you'll find someone who's so taken by a single dance with you that he's willing to negotiate by e-mail for a chance to trek to your suburban hideout to plead his case. But you might not. And if such a person does exist, and you do happen to cross paths with him--what do you imagine a guy that desperate would have to offer?
-- Bryan Winter"
The last word belongs to one of the early forwarders:
In the hopes that this e-mail might get back to him after being seen by countless thousands of young women along the way . . . please send this on to a friend!
Which is exactly what happened. And along the way, a Greek chorus swelled.
freak! anybody know him???
And watch out for dc men like brian winter!
And oh, you gotta love dc men. . . .
Within hours, Bryan Winter was the sneering talk of break rooms and happy hours across the region. For a brief moment, he was almost the male Monica, breaking out of the city's faceless mob of young career-starters and bar-hoppers to become a symbol of his generation and class.
Bryan Winter's name was sullied not through mass media but through a characteristically small-town strain of old-fashioned gossip, of the kind that once could shame someone into exile from the community.
But unlike in the typical small-town gossip circuit, Bryan Winter's name was not being bandied about by people who knew him, or even knew of him, but by educated young professionals--lawyers and policy wonks and consultants and meeting planners who didn't hesitate to fire the "send" button.
It could be the anonymity of e-mail. Or the credibility that seems to accrue to a piece of e-mail when you get it from a friend, who got it from a friend, who got it from a friend, so it must be for real.
Either way, we may be seeing a lot more Bryan Winter situations, says Tara Lemmey, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
"The Internet changes the nature of community or social circles," she says. "We frequently pass judgment or gossip around among social circles; but social circles have never been so apparently interlinked. The normal degrees of people you talk to becomes amplified."
With the Internet, she adds, the normal flow of gossip undergoes a powerful time compression. "You can do the kind of information transfer in a couple of hours that would have taken a couple of weeks in backyard and hallway conversations."
Some of them feel bad about it now. A little.
Even if they didn't personally call the MacArthur Boulevard Bryan Winter or e-mail the Wisconsin Bryan Winter, they know they played a small role by forwarding the e-mail and spreading the name.
With a week or two of hindsight, some sheepishly speculate the letter may have been a hoax, another urban legend making the rounds.
And yet: It rang so true.
"I could picture it taking place in some bar on the Hill, with a bunch of snotty little [Capitol] Hill interns," Melissa Lipton says.
Lipton, who is single, admits she hasn't run into anyone that obnoxious lately, but "the arrogant tone in it wasn't too off-base from some young men I used to encounter."
But why did so many women feel the impulse to forward the e-mail to so many friends? Freelance writer Jennifer Mendelsohn, 30, who happily forwarded the letter, understands.
"Dating is usually a solitary experience--there's nobody there to see how mismatched the guy at your doorstep is," she says. But the Bryan Winter e-mail was proof. "You didn't have to just say, 'This guy did this awful thing to me,' " she says. "It was documentable and replicable and forwardable."
Many people have noted one particular unfairness of the chain: It doesn't include the e-mail from the young woman who kicked it off. Perhaps she was overly coy, trying to string along a vapid e-mail flirtation. Perhaps she was overly prying, trying to gauge his social and career status before making a date.
In some circles, the letter is a sexual Rorschach test--women see one thing, men see another. Some men were perplexed by the female outrage: Gee, at least he's being straightforward with her. Isn't that what women want?
But even men unsympathetic to Winter are reluctant to step into
this minefield. One young lawyer who said he was deeply troubled by the male-bashing aspect of the e-mail chain declined to speak for attribution, calling it "dating hara-kiri."
For the battle of the sexes being waged in his name, Bryan Winter has little patience. "If that's what you believe about men," he says, "you shouldn't be dating in the first place."
After a few days of harassment, he started screening his calls and put a new message on his answering machine.
"This is Bryan Winter," it begins. "I buy my coffee at Safeway, I only dance in my kitchen, and I don't even have an e-mail address.
"But if you would still like to leave a message for me--or my wife, Deborah--please do so after the tone."