On this week’s episode of Reply All, we do a Yes Yes No with Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller of NPR’s Invisibilia, and we discuss the one message you’ve sent across the internet you wish you could take back.
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ALEX GOLDMAN: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m Alex Goldman.
PJ VOGT: And I’m PJ Vogt. So we have a segment on the show called Yes Yes No. Where our boss Alex Blumberg comes to us with some confusing piece of the internet and we explain it to him.
ALEX: Well normally it’s Alex Blumberg but today we’ve kicked him out of the studio in favor of some friends of ours, the hosts of the NPR podcast, Invisibilia: Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel.
PJ: Yeah, if you’ve never listened to Invisibilia, it is sort of a show about science but it’s really about ideas and people and their brains and just the weirdness of human behavior. It’s really good.
ALEX: Guys thank you so much for doing the show with us.
LULU MILLER: Heck yeah.
ALIX SPIEGEL: Thanks.
ALEX: So we heard a rumor that you guys have a Yes Yes No for us.
ALIX/LULU: We do.
LULU: So a tweet came to our attention. Should I read it to you?
LULU: Okay so Maddie Seraphin wrote, “2:25 AM researching the Berenstain Bears conspiracy theory and wondering if my entire life has been a lie.”
LULU: Okay so do you guys know what the Berenstain Bears conspiracy is?
ALEX: Do you guys know what the Berenstain Bears conspiracy is?
ALIX + LULU: No.
ALIX: But I kind of have a theory.
LULU: I have a theory.
ALIX: What’s your theory, Lulu?
LULU: Okay, I’ve been wondering about it now for a week so I keep thinking it’s the Berenstain Bears controversy, and if it’s the Berenstain Bears controversy I think that there was a cigarette in the treehouse which in subsequent publications of the book they have removed but then I’m like, No it’s the Berenstain Bears conspiracy theory, so then I’ve got to go deeper and then I think that the author whose name I cannot recall, and I wished I could do research but I didn’t let myself do any. So I think it’s that the author, who in my head is a woman, I think that she implanted nihilistic, depressing, messages into Berenstain Bear chitter chatter, such that everyone who read it in the late seventies and eighties, grew up with like low-lying, underlying depression and that’s why Americans are so depressed.
ALIX: Well can I tell you my theory?
LULU: Yeah what’s yours?
ALIX: Okay so my theory is that Berenstain, the author created-
LULU: Wait is the author’s last name-
ALIX: I don’t know. Berenstain, the author, created a race of really highly intelligent bears, like super intelligent, just like the Rats of Nimh and those bears create the internet and then –
PJ: With you so far.
ALIX: – to mask their role in the internet, they create the Berenstain Bears children’s books because who would possibly believe that somebody like in a children’s book would create the internet.
PJ: So in this world the author of the Berenstain Bears is in fact a highly intelligent bear and the books themselves are just a diversion.
ALIX: No. No.
ALIX + ALEX: The author is a brilliant mad scientist.
ALIX: Who then creates the children’s books as a diversion.
ALEX: Well good news guys, you’re both right.
PJ: Okay so as far as I can remember the Berenstain Bears were written by Stan and Jan Berenstain.
ALEX: Yeah, a couple named Stan and Jan Berenstain.
LULU: Okay, Alix is closer so far.
ALIX: One for Alix.
PJ: Well, so wait. You guys, how do you spell Berenstain Bears?
ALEX: Yeah, how do you spell Berenstain?
ALIX: I think it’s like bear B-E-A-R, en E-N, stein, S-T-E-I-N.
LULU: That’s what I would do. Yeah, I agree with that.
PJ: Okay so according to this theory, you guys are living in, or perhaps at one point did live in an alternate reality. Because the way that Berenstain Bears and Stan and Jan Berenstain spell Berenstain, is what is it?
ALEX: And last week or two weeks ago the world collectively woke up to the fact that their name is spelled Berenstain.
ALIX: Wait spell it one more time just so that I have it in my head.
ALEX: Alright so the proper spelling is B-E-R-E-N-S-T-A-I-N. Berenstain.
ALIX: Berenstain. Like, a stain on a bear.
LULU: Wait S-T-A-I-?
ALEX: Yeah and a few weeks ago the world collectively woke up to the fact that their name is spelled S-T-A-I-N.
ALIX: And how did this knowledge come to the fore though?
ALEX: Okay so there’s this guy. His name is Rob Schwarz and he runs a website called Stranger Dimensions, which is about like Loch Ness Monster, telekinesis, stuff like that. And he did this article called “Four Weird Clues that Parallel Universes exist.” ANd those gour weird clues were things like deja vu and ghost sightings and one of them was these stories about people who would go to sleep one day and wake up the next day and something in their life would be subtly different but different enough for them to notice it and everybody else acted like it was normal.
PJ: Like what?
ALEX: Like someone would got to sleep and then the next day they would have a different job at their office or their apartment would be located on a different floor of their apartment building. And in the comments of that story someone said to him you need to look up the Berenstain Bears problem and so Rob explains that he remembered Berenstain Bears being spelled S-T-E-I-N. And he basically puts forth this theory that we were born in a universe where Berenstain Bears was spelled S-T-E-I-N and at some point our universe forked into another universe that spells it S-T-A-I-N.
LULU: Is there anyone who thinks it was -stain, really?
ALEX: It is -stain.
PJ: But is there anyone who thinks that it always was?
LULU: But is there anyone who really remembers it that way? Actually now I do want to see a picture of it. I want to see a picture of a book cover.
ALIX: The Berenstain Bears? Wow.
LULU: Alix, it is weird, wait sorry, can I just.
LULU: Alix, you should look at a book image of the Berenstain. It’s unsettling.
ALIX: Oh you’re right. But what’s the conspiracy part. Is the conspiracy-
PJ: My guess is that the conspiracy, are you guys, oh man, let’s make this more complicated. Are you guys familiar with the concept of Retconning?
ALIX: Of the concept of who?
PJ: Okay. So retconning is when you’re on season three of a tv show and they’re like, Oh yes this is my brother, who I’ve always had who you’ve never heard about before on the show. It’s like retroactive continuity.
ALIX + LULU: Ohhhhhh.
PJ: It’s a way to pretend that information happened in the past that never did. And so in fiction they’ll be like oh they retconned it, they went back and changed their story but in real life sometimes it can feel like someone’s retconning you. Like they’re pretending you have information that you don’t have. Or perhaps on a more conspiratorial level, they’re re-illustrating an entire run of children’s books and changing the last names of the people that wrote them for reasons that do seem conspiratorial and nefarious.
ALIX: Huh. Okay so the conspiracy is the whole S-T-A-I-N thing is like, that’s a huge retcon.
ALEX: Yeah like there’s some sort of mass psychosis which has been wrought upon the populace by some powerful force. You know maybe it was the Rothschilds or something.
ALIX: Yeah that makes sense. I can see that they might have a hand in this?
PJ: Okay do you guys feel like you have it, do you want to say it back to us?
ALIX: So like, Lulu do you want to give your version of what the Berenstain Bears-
LULU: Okay so Maddie Serafin,“2:25 AM: researching the Berenstain Bears conspiracy theory and wondering if my entire life has been a lie.” Okay, so, what that means is that Maddie had just heard about this idea that Berenstein is actually spelled Berenstain. She went back, she started looking at children’s, image googling the book and she saw it written as STAIN, she got prickles on her arms, she started googling some more to see, did some little gnome, a little Rothschild gnome, go and take every single book and repaint it and/or was she living a lie, was she living in a different reality and/or the far least likely she just misremembered it and she’s freaking out and she can’t even fall asleep because as though it’s a seemingly inconsequential tiny change in one letter it is somehow so emotionally powerful that it makes her feel like the universe isn’t what she thought and so she can’t sleep.
PJ: That is awesome.
LULU: But I have a question. Can you, I still am dubious that anyone thinks that, remembers it as Berenstain and like if someone does can we interview them and put them in an FMRI and try to find where the outlet in their robot head is?
ALEX: Uh, this feels like it’s a job for Invisibilia, not Reply All.
PJ: I would want to hear though if there is a kid who grew up, everything else the same but Berenstain was normal, I would be very happy if they emailed us at least.
ALEX: So we’re at YES YES YES YES.
ALIX: Yeah, one more yes than you usually do.
PJ: Thanks guys.
LULU: Alright you guys, this was so fun. Thank you.
ALEX: That was fun.
LULU: Okay, bye.
PJ: Coming up after the break a desperate man looks for the undo button on his life. A desperate man named Alex Goldman.
ALEX: Welcome back to the show. In our second half, we’re going to start with one of my favorite comedians. His name’s Max Silvestri and it’s about making a mistake online. Just a warning, if you are listening with kids, now would be a good time to stop. Here’s Max.
MAX SILVESTRI: Ok. So, this is kind of sad. I mostly use my email for notes to myself. Probably fifty percent of my email is reminders to myself or grocery lists that I take to the store and things like that and I use it a lot for standup. I never carry paper with me because I’m a standup comedian, things happen in life where you want to remember, what I do is I write myself an email if like something weird or funny happens with the subject line “to-do” so that I know that when I am sitting down to write stand up I go through all the emails from myself with to-do, I have a little label for them and I go through and I try to write out the bit.
ALEX: Do you have any of these that you can read off your phone? I just like want an idea of what you write to yourself.
MAX: Yeah, totally. One is, “two hospital beds, instead of a couch.”
ALEX: That’s funny.
MAX: That is like about how my girlfriend and I were talking about getting a sectional couch, you know like an L shape because we just watch so much TV that we want to actually lie down, but then we were arguing about well who will get the lie down part and she was like, I’m always going to get it, I’m sorry. And I was like, Well maybe we should get a U-sectional so that we have like two chaises so we can always both be lying down and then she’s like, I don’t even know if that’s a thing and then why are we getting the little connecting part in the middle, what I realized we were arguing for is two hospital beds. We want a sectional with no middle part which goes up and down and you can change the sheets and has a guard rail so you don’t fall off. So, my home office is my bedroom and I live right next to an elementary school and when I say right next to I mean like I’m on the second floor in the back of a building, probably ten feet away is their playground and it’s like all I hear all day long while I’m trying to write is kids at play and what kids at play sound like is just, “Ahhh!” Constantly. Constantly. And it doesn’t seem negative. I don’t think it’s a bad school. But it’s kind of like bird song. I think it’s how they talk to one another. Because they’ll all be just screaming and looking. They’ll be touching involved but sometimes I feel like they’re like telling each other things. So they’ll be like “Ah!” “Ah!” and then two kids will switch groups and it feels like something has been accomplished. And then after like forty-five minutes, the bell goes off, they go inside and another class comes out. So, they just start screaming again. So like during the school year, from basically September and June, when I’m trying to write and work in my apartment, all I hear is kids screaming. And if you’re a freelancer and spend a lot of time alone in your apartment, sometimes you take breaks. I take a sort of break often where I masterbate. I have nothing to be ashamed of, Alex.
ALEX: Uh, I agree.
MAX: But so when it comes time to take this break, and I’m not saying it’s scheduled but you know, it’s a mid-afternoon thing, these kids are always outside screaming. So I realized I had this ritual to prepare the room for blocking them out. So I would put music on so I wouldn’t hear the screams and then I would close the curtains. So I was doing these two things: the noise and the curtains with startling regularity and I was like, This is ridiculous. I need to make a joke out of this because this is so embarrassing that I have a little routine before I masterbate. So, I took my phone out and I sent myself a quick email that was the subject line, To do. And then the body was “close curtains before jerking off in front of children.” And that’s a brisk sentence but it’s just for me to remember, you know? So I sent it and I was like, I’ll hopefully make a story out of that. And then a few days later I was like looking through all my to do things to write a bit. So I searched and it did pop up in my sent items but this has never happened before, I had not sent it to myself – Gmail, I guess in my hurry to get this email sent, had not autocompleted my own name, Max Silvestri, it had auto completed another Max that was in my contacts, who I don’t even really speak with…
ALEX: This makes me feel, I feel so queasy right now. I feel sick to my stomach.
MAX: I couldn’t even, even if I was like “No! I was just writing a joke about how I close the curtains before I jerk off in front of.” Like that’s not a, you wouldn’t be like, Oh no no no no, yeah, totally. I get that. We all do that. And he did not do me the courtesy of replying. And then I realized he’d unfriended me on Facebook.
ALEX: Have you written drafts of the email that you want to send him?
MAX: Exactly! I could have just replied to the one I sent being like, Hey! But I got as far as, Hey!
ALEX: So he’s out there in New York, you could run into him at any moment.
MAX: Oh absolutely, yeah. I’m moving to Los Angeles soon and I feel like probably a large reason is so that I never run into him ever again. Cause I think maybe I’m willing to tell the story and put it out there. I feel like this is the only way to dissolve the tension with him, to just be like, Hey this is where the misunderstanding comes from. I can’t handle emailing you directly about it and having to explain my thought process but now I’ve worked it out and I’ve used this mic here as therapy.
PJ: So that was very bad.
ALEX: I mean it was worse than bad.
PJ: Okay yeah, it’s worse than bad. And it actually reminds me of an alex goldman story. That I don’t think you’ve ever talked about on the radio.
ALEX: Yeah it’s a little painful to talk about on the radio to be honest, which is, I assume, why you’re bringing it up.
PJ: That is partly true. but also, I think that the same way that max’s story feels like a real life waking nightmare, yours has that same quality. And we’ve been working on this new segment called Undo Undo Undo, where we want our listeners to send in stories of the worst single accidental moment where they sent an email that they shouldn’t have or posted something that they shouldn’t have, the thing that they most want to take back. And I don’t think it’s fair to ask other people to give us the stories of that if you’re not willing to tell your story of that. So I think you have to tell your story of that.
ALEX: Alright so, I had just broken up with a girl who I’d been, that’d been dating for okay, let me start over.
PJ: How old were you when this happened?
ALEX:: So I was twenty. I was in my early twenties. It was the AOL instant messenger era. I was living in a college town. And I had just broken up with a woman and I had started dating a new woman fairly shortly afterward.
PJ: Like a few months?
ALEX:: No. Like a couple weeks.
PJ: Oh jeez. I knew that.
ALEX:: So, I was doing what I always did at the time which was log into AOL and chat at my friends and if my friends weren’t there, leave them long soliloquies that they could respond to when they show up. And I went to chat one of my friends and tell him sort of, you know, my psychological status at the time, like how I felt about my previous relationship, how I felt about this current relationship, all the complicated emotions I had about having broken up with someone and all the excitement I had about dating someone new.
PJ: And how were you feeling about your ex and how were you feeling about the person you were currently dating?
ALEX:: I was feeling guilt about my ex-girlfriend, I was feeling very excited about the current relationship. And you know, it’s all complicated. It was one of those complicated situations where you feel sad about something ending and simultaneously excited about something beginning. And I dumped all of this information onto AOL, onto AIM. I got up, I went to get something from the fridge or use the bathroom or something, I don’t remember. I sad back down and looked at the screen and realized I had sent this not to my friend, but to my ex-girlfriend. I had sent her all this information about how I’d felt about her, about this new relationship she had no idea about, and I thought I was going to have a heart attack.
PJ: Jesus Christ.
ALEX:: And, it was just sort of hanging there. She had not responded to it. It was like a bomb in free fall that had not yet detonated. But at any moment she could just walk to her computer and she would see all of this.
PJ: So how did you come clean? Like what kind of email did you send her apologizing?
ALEX:: Oh my God. Why are you doing this to me? This is the worst. This makes me want to die. So, I lived in a college town. And it was small. And she did not live far away. So rather than being a normal human being and coming clean and maybe having a conversation that might have brought some closure to our relationship, or at least made me seem somewhat respectable, I just, I ran over to her house. I knocked on her door. And for the life of me, I cannot remember what I said, but I basically got into her house on false pretenses.
PJ: Did she let you in or did someone else let you in?
ALEX:: She let me in. She lived alone. So I knocked on her door and I told her, and I said we need to talk and it was clear to me by her demeanor that she had not yet seen this IM. Like I was okay. I came in. And I talked to her for a minute and then I said I needed to use the bathroom. And I went to the bathroom. And on my way back from the bathroom, I went into her study, turned on her monitor, and closed the IM window.
PJ: That’s amazing.
ALEX: It’s not amazing. It’s like such a chump move. The whole thing is so bad. Like it just makes me feel so terrible.
PJ: Like you wish that you’d been more straightforward or whatever?
ALEX: Either I wish I’d been smarter in the first place, or if I had done it, I could have just owned up to it and not been such like a weasel that I had to sneak into someone’s house.
PJ: So we’re kind of on the hunt now right? Like we want to find out if there’s a story that is as bad or worse than either of these. Like, the world is vast and infinite and people’s capacity for mistakes is even larger. I just want to know there’s anybody who listens to the show who can say, Something like this happened to me but it was much much worse than a message that causes you to break and enter and commit computer crimes.
ALEX: Yeah, so we want your stories of a mistake that you made in an instant online. It doesn’t have to be sexual or about a relationship. it doesn’t even have to be about an email that went to the wrong place. If you’ve had one of these moments, you already know what we’re talking about. So, if you do have one of these, record a voice memo of yourself on your phone and send it to email@example.com. That’s our preference only because the sound quality is better. If you don’t have a smartphone, call our voicemail at 917-475-6668. I never even considered that I was committing a computer crime. Do you think the statute of limitations has passed on that?
PJ: How long ago was it?
ALEX: Over ten years ago. probably twelve, thirteen.
PJ: Statute of limitations, Computer Fraud and Abuse act. Oh there’s a two year statute of limitations.
PJ: Reply All is me PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman. We were produced by Tim Howard, Sruthi Pinnamaneni, and Phia Bennin. Production help this week from Sylvie Douglis. We were engineered by Rick Kwan. If you can not get enough of me and Alex we dropped in on Buzzfeed’s Internet Explorer podcast this week. it was really fun. You should go give it a listen. Matt Lieber is a night to yourself just long enough so you remember you like other people. Our theme music is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music is by Build Buildings. Our Matt Lieber this week is from Lulu Miller who sent us an email full of great ones. YOu can find more episodes of our show at iTunes.com/replyall and at replyall.rodeo. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next Wednesday.