April 12, 2015

#20 I Want To Break Free

by Reply All

Background show artwork for Reply All

Yes Yes No returns, and the story of two people who created a company designed to ghostwrite people’s emotionally difficult emails. Don’t forget to participate in 

Email Debt Forgiveness Day! Leave us a voicemail at (917) 475-6668 about your most anxiety inducing unanswered email. All will be forgiven, we promise. 

The Facts: Our theme song and scoring is from 

Breakmaster Cylinder. Ad music is by Build Buildings

Further Reading:

Matt Farley's Website! Joyce Carol Oates' Twitter feed. Chuck Grassley's Twitter feed


PJ VOGT: Hey Matt Lieber, Gimlet co-founder, can I interrupt you for a sec?


PJ: So we have a bunch of cursing in this week's episode and we were just quickly trying to figure out whether you thought we should do a language advisory.

MATT: There's a bunch of cursing in it?

PJ: Yes.

MATT: Yes, you should do a language advisory.

PJ: You've been advised.

PJ: From Gimlet, This is Reply All, a show about the internet. I'm PJ Vogt... with Alex Goldman and Alex Blumberg.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Welcome to another edition of Yes, Yes, No--the hotly contested, much loved, slightly reviled segment on...

PJ: Wait, slightly reviled?

ALEX: Some people really hate it.

PJ: Why? Who hates it?

ALEX: There are a couple people who've been like, “No more Yes, Yes, No, it's stupid. It's a waste of time.”

PJ: Oh, and people feel like we're making fun of them for not knowing about dumb internet stuff.

ALEX: Oh, no no, we're on your side.

PJ: Yeah, we don't feel good about knowing stuff.

ALEX: Yeah.

PJ: And if we didn't know this, we might know like other stuff.

ALEX: How to, like, do laundry.

PJ: You don't know how to do laundry?

ALEX: I'm kidding. Of course I know how to do laundry. I'm a parent.

PJ: When do you put the salt in?

ALEX: That's a trick question, because you use the salt to help dry the clothes.

PJ: (laughs)

PJ: Ok, so Yes, Yes, No is the segment where Blumberg brings us things from the internet that he doesn't understand and we try to explain them to him. What have you got?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Alright so I have a couple of tweets. I did an experiment where I crowd sourced some Yes, Yes, No’s, just 'cause I figured this was so exciting for me, I thought maybe I'd open it up to the rest of the internet. Or at least the rest of the internet that reads my Twitter feed... which is 25,000 people.

ALEX: Are you trying to make us feel bad?

ALEX BLUMBERG: How many Twitter followers do you guys have?

PJ: Well, two different numbers actually.

ALEX: I have 6 something. I have 6 thousand something.

ALEX BLUMBERG: That's pretty good, you should be proud of yourself.

ALEX: Oh, how patronizing.

ALEX BLUMBERG: I have 25,000 followers.

ALEX: Yeah, I heard.

PJ: So, what have you got? What did the crowd... what questions did they churn up?

ALEX BLUMBERG: So the crowd... it was amazing. So, I've got a lot of things that I found utterly mystifying. So, I'll start here. Ok, so here is a, here's a tweet, and it's a tweet from Joyce Carol Oates, which right away is confusing because Joyce Carol Oates is a famous American author, part of the canon. She's been writing forever and she doesn't seem like the kind of writer who would have a Twitter presence, although maybe she does.

And the tweet is: "'Land' phones ringing in the wilderness"... and that's it. And the guy who sent us this is a guy named Chris Scott and he wrote--and this is sort of what makes this mystifying to me is the thing that he wrote when he tweeted this at me. He said, "This tweet has haunted me for a long time and I would like it explained." So to me, it's like, it's a confusing tweet, but I don't know why it's haunting. So, why is he haunted by it? What's going on here?

PJ: This is a hard one.

ALEX BLUMBERG: So, Alex Goldman, do you know what this tweet means?

ALEX: Are you ready for this? I hope you're ready.



PJ: (laughs)

ALEX: I do not.

ALEX BLUMBERG: PJ Vogt, do you know what this tweet means?

PJ: Not really.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh my god, are we at No, No, No?

PJ: Unless you're holding something back...

ALEX BLUMBERG: Has this ever happened before?

ALEX: No, never. I mean, I understand Joyce Carol Oates is a Twitter phenomenon. 'Cause she is a Twitter phenomenon.

PJ: And there's useful context that we can... we can bring some clues into the investigation.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Ok, so what can you tell me?

ALEX: Ok, so Joyce Carol Oates, as you sort of mentioned, she is a renowned writer. She has both literary cred and genre cred. She's been writing for a very long time, I think she's in her seventies. And one of the surprising things about her is that she is A. An incredibly active Twitter user, and B. Kind of a troll. She makes politically provocative statements across the spectrum and seems to kind of like thrive off of and grows stronger from the anger that comes at her.

PJ: Um, so Gawker wrote a piece at her telling her she should delete her Twitter account and they had some examples... So, she tweeted in May of 2014: "Cat food is China actually is."

ALEX: Meaning food is China is made out of cats.

PJ: Right. It feels racist. And whether or not it is, it's just not the kind of thing you expect a celebrated American author to tweet.

ALEX BLUMBERG: So what's up with that? Is that just like... Joyce Carol Oates, is she just making dumb jokes? Is like, I don't know, explain please.

PJ: I have a theory about it, which is like sort of crazy. But I've thought about it a lot. Because there's like a couple people like Joyce Carol Oates who are pretty, they are either beloved or gently liked until they got Twitter and you just wish Twitter had not been invented in their lifetime because they've ruined your ability to enjoy their work, or at least like changed the context in which you think about their work.

But Joyce Carol Oates besides being famously a good writer, she's famous as a prolific writer and she just tried everything, like a chilling mystery and then like a historical thing and she seems very agnostic to what the relationship is between the next thing she's going to do and the last thing. And so maybe she's just incapable of censoring any thought that she ever has that she wants to write down and maybe Twitter just increases the velocity of that in a bad place.

ALEX: Got it.

PJ: Does that make any sense?

ALEX BLUMBERG: It does. No, it's a good theory. Ok so, we've established some things but we still have the central question of the tweet is unanswered... I now have a lot more context about Joyce Carol Oates. I have and I understand some things about the tweet but the essential question of the tweet is still unanswered, so I guess we're Maybe, Maybe, Maybe.

PJ: Yeah. I don't think this is a completely solvable one.

ALEX BLUMBERG: So I have one more thing, which I guess is sort of within the realm of Yes, Yes, No. I don't think it's a traditional Yes, Yes, No. Have we been doing this long enough to break tradition already?

PJ: Yeah. Let's break tradition.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Okay, so this guy Dave Weiner, who is the editor in chief of digg.com. He didn't send me just individual tweets, he sent me the entire Twitter streams of certain people and one of those people was the Twitter stream of Senator Chuck Grassley, the senator from Iowa.

PJ: Oh boy.

ALEX: Ah, yeah. Chuck Grassley. He's like a legend. He's a legend.

ALEX BLUMBERG: It's amazing and it's amazing because it's confusing in a way that none of the other Yes, Yes, No’s have been confusing.

PJ: What do you mean?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Well, it doesn't...it's confusing in a way just because he's not using language in a new internet way that I don't understand, he's using the regular old language to talk about regular old things that I know, but they're just utterly confusing. Like, it's impenetrable.

PJ: But it's like poetry.

ALEX BLUMBERG: It is. Okay, so his Twitter account, it just seems to be sort of like here's where I was and here's who I talked to and here's what we talked about. But it's just like very listy. This is a totally sample one. Chuck Grassley, six days ago: Quioto high school issues: interaction with president. typical day. ISIS. Gov't shutdown. Obamacare. Budget. Farm bill. Gas prices. IRS. #99countymeetings

PJ: That's not a hashtag.

ALEX: That's not a hashtag.

ALEX BLUMBERG: And then here's another one: "Chariton town mtg Issues: cannabis, Iran, patent trolls, SCOTUS, doc fix..." it's just like that over and over and over again.

PJ: You make him sound like an ecstatic poet. Really happy about bureaucracy.


ALEX: There are moments that are so much more poignant and bizarre in his Twitter feed. That's not even the craziest of it.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh really, like what?

ALEX: I've got some of his most popular tweets ever up here, let me read one to you: "Fred and I hit a deer on hiway 136 south of Dyersville. After I pulled fender rubbing on tire we continued to farm. Assume deer dead"

PJ: (laughs)

ALEX: Here's another deer related one: "U hv herad saying:"deer in headlight look". It is a frightening xperience when a real deer is there".

ALEX BLUMBERG: Wow. And these are really, so it also gave me the impression that Chuck Grassley is actually tweeting these.

ALEX: Oh, yeah, yeah.

ALEX BLUMBERG: There's no way any social media staffer would ever think...

ALEX: And I think that's part of what makes him so singular in the Twitter universe, is most people have a social media team that manicure their tweets for maximum impact and his is just like, the unfettered ramblings of Chuck Grassley. With all of the weird shorthand and hashtags that no one else would ever use.

PJ: I don't think it's terrible. I think it's great.

ALEX: Here's another very good one. It's like, what he does is he tried to compact, he tries to tell a story that in no way can fit in 140 characters in 140 characters.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah that's the other thing, like half of his tweets end in ellipsis. Like the sentence gets interrupted and you're like, okay, I guess there's more here.

ALEX: "Work on farm Fri. Burning piles of brush WindyFire got out of control. Thank God for good naber He help get undr control PantsBurnLegWound".

PJ: Wow.

ALEX: So in order to fit the 140 characters, "pantsburnlegwound" is one word with no spaces.

ALEX BLUMBERG: So I don't really have a question about the Chuck Grassley account, other than... I think we all understand what it means, but it's just like... I didn't know it was out there and now that I do, it's really...

ALEX: You feel like you want to celebrate it?


ALEX: His most popular tweet ever which I think is probably his most inscrutable tweet ever, is: "Windsor Heights Dairy Queen is good place for u kno what".


PJ: No one knows what.

ALEX: Don't you want to know so badly what the Windsor Heights Dairy Queen is a good place for?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Well I think knowing what I know about Chuck Grassley, he's probably talking about ice cream. That's the only thing he could be talking about.


PJ: So it turns out we didn't actually have to call the Dairy Queen because an Iowa political reporter named Samantha-Jo Roth actually caught up with Chuck Grassley and found out what it was he was talking about:

CHUCK GRASSLEY: I meant this, I wanted to give Windsor Heights Dairy Queen some credit for making good Dairy Queen and doing you know what. And what do you do at Dairy Queen? You eat Dairy Queen.

SAMANTHA-JO ROTH: (laughs) What were you eating?

CHUCK GRASSLEY: Well normally I have a blizzard. Reese's or Snickers, but this particular time I had just plain vanilla and chocolate ice cream.

PJ: After the break we hear from two people who tried to rid the world of shame and instead just end up setting their lives on fire.


PJ: So, Alex?

ALEX: Yes?

PJ: Remember when we announced the holiday last week?

ALEX: I do.

PJ: I have some news about it, but actually I guess I should catch any listeners up who missed last week's episode. We invented a holiday--Email Debt Forgiveness Day. April 30th. It's the day where you’re allowed to respond to emails you’ve been putting off responding to because you were too anxious and you're allowed to respond without apologizing for all the time that's passed. So we invented this, we got a lot of feedback, mostly letters of support. A little bit of flack. One person yelled at us for not saying International and then a couple people were like, get over it, you babies. and then other people just ignored it anyway and people are celebrating the holiday in other countries and they left us messages about it.

MORIEL IN TEL AVIV: Hi, PJ and Alex, this is Moriel calling from Tel Aviv. I'm riding my bike to work and I actually stopped and did a fist pump in the air when I heard about April 30th.

PJ: The dude did a fist pump when he heard about what is now apparently called International Email Debt Forgiveness Day.

ALEX: You say that like you’re mad about it being international.

PJ: I'm not mad about it being international. It's amazing to watch something take on its own force and grow bigger you could have ever possibly imagined.

ALEX: Yeah. I agree. But i knew one you came up with this that it was going to be huge. I knew that it was tapping into everyone's darkest places.

PJ: Yes, but then we got an email that just read: oh god be careful, it’s a terrible pandora’s box you open.

CHOIRE SICHA: Yes that’s right.

PJ: And of course that is the guy that I wanted to talk to.

PJ: So what did you mean by that?

CHOIRE: So back in the day, this was 2011? June-ish? May-ish?

SARA VIKLOMERSON: It seems to be summer 2011.

CHOIRE: Yeah, this seems like a million years ago now by the way. We, Sara Viklomerson here and I got it in our heads that we were going to start a service to help people.

PJ: This is Choire Sicha, he’s a writer, as is his friend is Sara Vilkomerson, and back in the summer of 2011 they had a big idea.

SARA: So, this all started because we had a friend, one of our really close friends, who we were all out together one night talking and he was having a horrible time trying to decide how to send an uncomfortable email to someone he had been blowing off for years, basically.

ALEX: What was the email about?

PJ: It was so, so not a big deal. Like, it was a friend of his had gotten in touch and said, oh it's been awhile, just want to see how you're doing, like nothing emotionally complicated and he just felt like he couldn't do it, so Choire and Sara took a crack at it. They wrote the email.

CHOIRE: It was just like, "Hey, I'm so sorry I've been so swamped lately, it’s been really busy over here, thanks so much," you know--blah blah blah blah blah.

PJ: So his friends send the email, everything was fine, that should have been the end of it. but instead, they realized--hey, we’re good at this.

SARA: wouldn’t it be great if like we’re professional writers, we can help people get out of these uncomfortable situations.

PJ: This ridiculously simple email favor prompted them to think the four words that have gotten more people into more trouble than any others...

CS: Let’s go into business.

PJ: So they did. They made a website. Shamebegone.com.

SARA: And there was a Queen song that played when you logged on

CHOIRE: Oh right, we played a Queen song when you submitted.

PJ: Which Queen Song?

SARA: “I Want to be Free.”

CHOIRE: “I Want to Break Free.”

SARA: Yeah that's it.

[Queen’s “I Want to Break Free” clip]

PJ: So you’d go to the site and there’s a form.

CHOIRE: And the form would ask you, what’s your problem, what’s the unanswered email, what’s the goal you want?

PJ: Do you want to patch things up? Do you want get laid. Do you want express anger?

ALEX: How much did this service cost?

PJ: Well it was a sliding scale and it was pay what you want, they said they wanted it to be like the Met like the museum.

CHOIRE: And they would tell us like, “Yeah, ten bucks?” And then we’d be like, “Great.”

SARA: Sounds good.

PJ: What was coming in, like, who was writing to you, what were the first ones?

SV: Here is a satisfied customer--so this woman was saying that a year earlier, she had sponsored a little boy in Africa. She said, “I picked one with the same birthday as my son. I'm a single mom. And I was really excited to get to know him. My plan had been to send him a letter, some toys and a picture of me and my son.”

PJ: But, of course, time passed…

SARA: “This happened. His birthday went by, Christmas went by, perfect opportunities to send something. But I never knew what to say. I feel like the worst sponsor ever. Until now, I was too embarrassed to ask anyone else what to do.” See? So, she was happy to hear from us.

PJ: So what did you guys tell her to say?

CHOIRE: So you said, “I think you need to send a note of introduction, don’t worry about the bells and whistles for the first one, keep it simple.”

SARA: I still feel this way.

CHOIRE: Right. “Dear name, this is a very late letter of introduction, one which I'm sorry I've waited so long to send. But I did now want to say hello and let you know a little bit about me, as I hope to be more in regular touch with you. A sentence or two about you.”

PJ: Wait was the sentence or two about you...

SARA: That was me writing to her what to include there.

CHOIRE: Yeah, she should do a little filler on the cake.

SARA: Just throw it in.

PJ: Wait, what was after a thing or two about you?

CHOIRE: That was literally like, “I hope all is well with you and I hope to hear from you soon.” It's literally like that. Like, all she had to say was, “Hi its me, I’d love to be in touch with you more. How are things? I’m great.”

PJ: Case closed. They make it look easy. And they're answering all sorts of letters. ”How do I get out of this weird obligation I’ve committed to?” “How do I tell someone that I like them?” “How do I yell at my former co-worker for not doing her job the last week before she left?” And as they’re whipping out these helpful responses... Choire and Sarah start to pick out patterns.

CHOIRE: There was a couple genres of emails we noticed.

SARA: And easily divisible between the two of us.

CHOIRE: Oh, that's also true.

PJ: You guys had specialties?

SARA: Yes. Mine was weddings.

PJ: Say, someone forgets to RSVP.

SARA: People who don’t RSVP to their wedding and just never let them know whether they're coming or not, it’s like a friendship ender.

PJ: Sara had a lot of experience patching up those kinds of situations and then Choire’s specialty was boundaries and complicated family dynamics.

CHOIRE: Like, “I can’t talk to my sister,” like, there’s a lot of that stuff.

PJ: And 'cause they were great at answering these emails, people start to take notice.

CHOIRE: The reporters came at us hot, that was the scary thing.

SARA: Yeah, so people started to write about it, like good did something on it...

CHOIRE: Gizmodo did something about it, MSN...

PJ: They were a hot commodity. So because people started writing about them, they started getting more letters, and the letters started to get more intense... like there's this one from somebody who had a suicidal roommate and they needed to send a letter to that roommate saying that they didn’t want to live with him anymore.

Or this one, “My father is in kidney failure and I'm a donor match. I'm 28 and I already have health issues with my weight. And I know that giving up a kidney would most certainly reduce my lifespan if I remain heavy. I love my father, but I don't want to give him my kidney. I'd like to have someone find the words for me that can explain that I love him but I can't give him my kidney. There's an option for him to keep looking on the list, but at 63, most organs don't go to the oldest in our society and using a dialysis machine is not an option.”

And then there's a place where they can say what outcome they'd like and he says, "I'd like to keep my father's love," and what they're willing to pay and he says, “100 bucks.”

ALEX: God, I have no clue how I'd respond to that.

PJ: Yeah. Somebody else wrote to say that they were worried about their sister. That she was an alcoholic. She'd get drunk and then walk her dog in the neighborhood and then she would ask them if she could come inside just so that her dog could get water and while they were getting water for her dog, she would raid their liquor cabinets.

ALEX: Oh my god.

PJ: And they wanted, the letter writer wanted to know, “What is the email I can send to my sister so that she'll stop doing this, so that she’ll hear understand that she's an alcoholic, so that she'll understand that I love her and that I'm worried about her and that things have to change, so she'll hear it?”

ALEX: Wow.

PJ: Yeah. So in the most dire cases, they would refer people to professionals but overall, they were starting to feel in over their heads. Kind of lost. Because in the beginning, they'd been answering emails that were really simple. The way other people's problems can seem really simple. But these problems they were getting now, were not problems that could be solved by a simple email. They were personal and hairy, and not at all what they'd signed up for. And so they started to feel like their problems. And the thing is, when it comes to their own problematic emails, Choire and Sarah are by their own admission pretty bad at answering emails.

SARA: We’re not just, like the Hair Club for Men, I’m not just the president, I’m also the client. I have all these problems. This is partially why we wanted to do it. But then I couldn’t get past my own personality I guess.

PJ: So Sara decided to just embrace her true self.

SARA: I started blocking all my shamebegone emails

PJ: You started blocking the email?

SARA: He told me to.

CHOIRE: We got in bad. It was so bad. It added to my email debt load astoundingly.

SARA: And you know, in fairness, we had full-time jobs that involved writing, so it wasn’t you know... It’s still super lame

PJ: And for Choire, the emails just piled up unread. They bothered him.

CHOIRE: It was just the taunting of the inbox. It’s like you knew there were these appeals in there from people's darkest personal selves sometimes and also sometimes totally normal selves, just like, “Hey, this is a little thing I could use a hand with,” and we wanted to help.

PJ: He wanted to bail people out of email debt. He had good intentions but at this point, he was like an insolvent bank, just holding everybody’s email debt and he couldn’t get rid of it. Until one day, he finally saw his exit

CHOIRE: You know what I should really do is just let the domain expire.


[“I Want to Break Free” clip]

PJ: So they shut it down.

PJ: Did you feel guilty?

CHOIRE: No I think we felt so free that we’re like, “Great, who cares? Run run run…”

PJ: Like, just don't look back.

CHOIRE: Oh yeah. We were like, “Shut it down. Get out. Everyone out of the building. Light it on fire.”

PJ: (laughs)

PJ: So Choire said that the main thing he learned from all this is that trick isn’t really what words you use--like the content of the email barely matters. It’s just that you fucking send something.

CHOIRE: I work with a guy, Matt Buchanan, whose emails are like the ultimate in brevity. And I've learned a lot from him. Like, first I was sort of horrified that he would send these emails that would literally be like "Yes." And I was like, “Oh my god, you can’t do that to people! You have to butter them up and ask about their dog and like tell them about the time you were in church when you were 12…” Like, it’s I'm dumb. He’s right. Just literally be like, “Got it, thanks.”

And if people think you’re too brusque and not overcompensating enough for the weird chilliness of email, forget them. Like, just send the email, if it’s three words, fine. Like do you best, try and do it right, but like forget the rest of it. It's going to eat your life.

PJ: How do you apply that philosophy to an email, that’s like, “I always wish I told you that I loved you or…”

CHOIRE: Got it. That's a little harder. I mean, in some cases those are the emails that are least likely to get answered. And here's the other thing--no email you write is ever going to do them justice so you might as well do a decent bad job as opposed to doing no job. You're just not going to rise to the challenge. It's not going to happen. You can't write... we just don’t write emails like letters any more... it doesn’t exist… just give up.

ALEX: What did Choire say to you with respect to our project?

PJ: I don’t think he thinks email is a solvable problem.

ALEX: But I mean, are you reconsidering this grand plan now, do you think this might be a terrible idea?

PJ: No I think it's a wonderful idea. Because I think the nice thing about a holiday is that it gives you one more chance to just do the thing and not try to get it perfect and just say, “Hey, I’m sorry I didn't get back to you before because I didn't know what to say,” but whatever it is, “I do love you,” or, “You have to stop stealing things from me,” or...

ALEX: Also, we don’t have to feign any expertise. Like we don't have to pretend that we know the best way to answer this. We're just giving people an out. And I think everybody is kind of owed that out.

PJ: Yeah. Alex, one more thing... you know Matt Farley? The world's greatest songwriter?

ALEX: You mean that dude who has 17,000 songs on Spotify and also has his phone number on his Twitter feed so you can call him and have him write a song about whatever you want?

PJ: Yeah that guy. He wrote an anthem for Email Debt Forgiveness Day.

ALEX: Oh he's the best.

["Email Debt Forgiveness Day" by Matt Farley]

PJ: Reply All is me, PJ Vogt, and Alex Goldman. We were produced by Tim Howard and Sruthi Pinnamaneni, and edited by Alex Blumberg. 

Matt Leiber is a three-day weekend.

Our show was mixed by the Reverend John DeLore. 

Our theme song was by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music was from Build Buildings. 

We continue to be on a lot of websites. You can hear the show at iTunes.com/replyall and we put up extras from this episode on digg.com. Our website is replyall.limo, which was designed in partnership with Athletics. 

Sara Vilkomerson hosts a great radio show for Sirius called Women on Pop that you should check out. And you can find Choire Sicha's writing at the online magazine The Awl. That's A-W-L. 

Special thanks to our sponsors [...]

Thanks to everybody who helped with that stupid prank last week, Alex got 2760 tweets--it was very hilarious. And we're still taking messages at 917-475-6668 if you've got stories about email debt that you're trying to settle. 

Thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.