Lessons from the sorority-girl e-mail rant

Doug Gross


Editor’s note: This story contains language that may offend some people.

(CNN) — It’s been the rant read ’round the world this week — its prose so gloriously profane and its priorities so shockingly misplaced that the Web hasn’t been able to look away.

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Since first shared a week ago Thursday by Gawker, under the headline “The Most Deranged Sorority Girl Email You Will Ever Read,” an excoriating screed from a now-former officer of the Delta Gamma sorority at the University of Maryland to her sisters has gone viral with a capital “V.”

Which, in this case, could also stand for a part of the anatomy she threatens to “punt” if her sisters don’t stop being “so f—ing BORING” and “so f—ing AWKWARD” at sorority events. Except she uses a less clinical term.

It’s an exercise in digital rage (“I would apologize but I really don’t give a f—. Go f— yourself”) worthy of a Quentin Tarantino curse-a-thon or a David Mamet dressing-down. And it has, in fact, gotten the Hollywood treatment, with actor Michael Shannon delivering a hilariously unhinged version for “Funny or Die.”

But it also hammers home a digital-era lesson that common sense suggests would have been clear a decade ago, but which example after example shows remains lost on many of us: If you share something with anyone on the Web, it’s liable to be shared with everyone on the Web. And the fallout won’t always be pleasant.

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“In this Internet day and age, just assume that everything you put out into the ethers in writing is the equivalent of LiveJournals of yore,” said Brenna Ehrlich, a senior editor at MTV and a CNN Tech contributor who has written about online etiquette. “Someone is going to read it and mock you. Proceed carefully.”

We covered this in 3 of the 12 entries in our own “Rules of the Internet” earlier this year:

— Anything you post will eventually become public

— Anything you post can and will be used against you

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— If you post something epically stupid, it will go viral

To be sure, the Web hasn’t been overly kind to the scribe who brought us such pearls as “News flash you stupid c—s: FRATS DON’T LIKE BORING SORORITIES.” Shannon’s send-up has been joined by other parodies, from a straight-faced version from Alison Haislip of “The Nerdist” to this dramatic reading by a Barbie doll.

Closer to home, the young woman’s sorority announced late Wednesday that it has “accepted the resignation” of the writer. (Note: The writer has been identified online, but CNN Tech is not doing so here).

“The tone and content of the email was highly inappropriate and unacceptable by any standard,” the national organization wrote on its Facebook page. “No matter who released it to the public or how it reached such a mass audience, the email content should not reflect on any sorority woman in general or any fraternal organization at large.”

Of course, she’s not the first to have a private moment of outrage go oh-so public.

There was the profane “counteroffer” from a woman after being denied a job with the San Diego Padres after 30 tries; the mother-in-law now famous for blasting her son’s bride as a gold-digging, ill-mannered freeloader; the guy who takes fantasy football way too seriously.

(On the flip side, reviews may be more positive if you are a professor who tells a rude student, “Get your s— together.”)

So why do folks vent spleen so freely in a digital age?

“Even when confronted with countless examples of offensive, dumb or clueless content that’s gone viral, most people think it just won’t happen to them, that what they say isn’t significant enough to even get attention,” said Michael Fertik, founder and CEO of Reputation.com. “It’s a classic human response, but it’s completely wrong.”

Multiple factors contributed to the sorority rant lighting up the Web, said Fertik: The “mean girls” stereotype. The surprise factor of “something so vulgar and crude being spouted by someone who looks fairly angelic.” The fact that a quick search of her social media accounts revealed other less-than-politic moments.

As with similar cases, a single moment of Greek Week rage could follow our protagonist for years.

“The Internet is forever,” Fertik said. “Unfortunately for her, her ‘online tattoo’ will stick with her for a long, long time — and it will likely color how peers, future employers, grad school admissions officers, etc., regard her as a person. She’s going to have to work very hard to show that she’s taken this experience and used it to grow into a more mature, thoughtful, tolerant and compassionate person.”

That, or maybe parlay her infamy into a reality-TV gig.