Stanley Alcorn ’07 no longer underestimates the power of e-mail.

“In ninth grade my friend got this e-mail that read, ‘I want you. Wear a blue shirt to school tomorrow if you want me too,'” he said. “My friend was an idiot, so he did. But he didn’t know that [the e-mail] was BCC-ed to everyone in my English class. That was a riot.”

BCC, for the uninformed, stands for blind carbon copy. In most e-mail composition programs, a field labeled BCC contains the e-mail addresses to which a copy of the e-mail will be sent. In this way, it is similar to the CC, or carbon copy, field. The trick is that the people in the “To:” field do not know that the e-mail is being received by anyone else. Because of this, blind carbon copying carries the potential for disaster. In addition to embarrassment, distrust and broken friendships can result.

“This BCC thing really can be abused horribly,” said Alcorn. “I can think of a dozen ways to use it to hurt somebody.”

In the past, blind carbon copying was generally not malicious. In its earliest form, blind carbon copying involved manual typewriters. Documents were typed onto carbon paper in order to make several copies of the same document. If the recipient of the document did not know who received one of these particular copies, these copies became a “blind” carbon copy. Since mostly businesses used typewriters and carbon paper in the days before the internet, such practices were understandably business-like in nature.

“Actually, in those days we used [blind carbon copies] to keep track of things,” said Jane Preston, a receptionist at the ESSEX Industries plant in New Haven. “If someone wanted to give a document and keep a record of the document elsewhere, or give it to a boss, you could do that with blind carbon copies. It was just too much trouble to list everyone who would get a copy sometimes.”

Blind carbon copying became such a popular practice that it has made the transition into e-mail. Today, employees are likely to use the blind carbon copying of e-mail at work – except a little differently.

“I’ll use it when I want to show my boss that I’m getting on someone’s ass,” Justin Cohen ’04 said.

However, blind carbon copies have become more common as a social than as a business practice, satisfying peoples’ urges to play pranks, remain anonymous, and, most importantly, gossip.

“I’ve heard people using it to show their friends their e-mails to people they are dating to show what the relationship is like,” Emily Isaak ’04 said. “I’ve personally never done it though.”

It is easy to see how the practice of blind carbon copying can be hurtful. Still, many people use it for a legitimate reason, and it does have its advantages.

“It’s used a lot when sending an e-mail to lots of people,” Rachael Barish ’04 said. “It makes it easier sometimes.”

With an extremely long list of addressees, blind carbon copying makes the e-mail easier to read, as the addressee list will only list one person. Or, if you want to have a copy at your other e-mail address of the e-mail you are sending, but it’s too much trouble to explain why you are sending it to yourself, BCC lets you send the e-mail with no questions asked and no harm done. Furthermore, say you are inviting many guests to a party. With the BCC, you can invite all the guests without letting any of them know who the other invitees are. A perfectly legitimate reason, right?

“I don’t know,” Alcorn said. “Secrecy just equals unfairness in my mind.”

Yet sometimes people have a right to remain confidential. If you send a party invitation via old-fashioned mail, the recipient of each invitation does not get a list of all the invitees – perhaps e-mail should be no different. In a situation in which you have to send an e-mail to many people at once, some would rightly prefer not to have their e-mail addresses given to everyone in the “To:” field. Maybe BCC can indeed protect privacy.

In any case, since blind carbon copying has been around since the mid-20th century, it is unlikely to vanish anytime soon. Like anonymous calling, doorbells, and toilet paper, BCC is useful enough to the general public that it will continue to embarrass, enrage, and harass in the hands of pranksters. For now, Alcorn has this bit of advice:

“Be careful,” he said. “That’s all I have to say.”