Public space and private confusions: the problems of handling email petitions

Attar, Dena (2006). Public space and private confusions: the problems of handling email petitions. a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, 21(1) pp. 32–43.




This article examines the text and circulation of a well known email petition on women in Afghanistan sent to personal inboxes, email lists and discussion threads. Drawing on collected examples and interviews it considers readers’ and writers’ responses, which were often considerably more complex than either simple deletion or simple forwarding, and reveal a range of orientations towards mass email campaigns. While some referred rhetorically to this form of Internet communication as potentially empowering and a way of changing the world, others referred to formal or informal regulations in order to influence others to stop circulating the petition. A third group were unable to opt confidently for either of these positions. These varied responses are related, firstly, to the features of the petition which derive from the specific affordances of email, and secondly to readers’ experiences and circumstances, both online and offline. It is notable that the majority of the readers and writers in this study were women, and the petition itself focuses on women’s rights. Responses to the petition, which is itself a text about women and public space, show that the activities of sending and receiving emails are perceived as crossing boundaries between private and public space, raising issues of exposure and vulnerability, as well as uncertainty about the “right” way to handle this new type of mail.

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