Think Before You Drink and Draft

Google's new program aims to stop you from e-mailing under the influence.

October 7, 2008, 6:04 PM

Oct. 9, 2008 — -- Does this sound familiar?

After an evening sipping cocktails or gulping down beer, your fingers find their way to a keyboard.

You know you shouldn't do it, but that liquid courage convinces you otherwise and, soon enough, you've fired off a hasty e-mail to an ex, a co-worker or, worst of all, a boss.

Many a relationship has been prolonged -- and perhaps many a career has been cut short -- by the dreaded drunken e-mail.

But now, Google's new motto seems to be "think before you drink and draft."

And to help keep e-casualties to a minimum, it has launched a new program to stop users from e-mailing under the influence.

Launched Monday, Mail Goggles (a playful riff on Beer Goggles) asks you to complete a few simple math problems within 60 seconds before you're allowed to send off your late-night missives.

If you can make it through the math, your message goes on its merry way and you can continue to e-mail without further checks, although there's no stopping your text messages.

But if you have difficulty solving "five times two" or "94 minus 33," you're gently chastised by your e-mail: "Water and bed for you" or "Oops. Looks like your reflexes are a little slow," if the time runs out.

Regardless of why you fail the test, a sympathetic Gmail feels your pain and offers you the chance to try again.

By default, Mail Goggles only "breathalyzes" you on the weekends between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. But, once the program is enabled, users can adjust when it's active and the level of difficulty. The program won't reach math of Pythagorean proportions, but it does let math whizzes raise the bar to keep themselves out of trouble.

In announcing the feature on the Gmail blog, Gmail engineer Jon Perlow wrote, "Sometimes I send messages I shouldn't send. Like the time I told that girl I had a crush on her over text message. Or the time I sent that late night e-mail to my ex-girlfriend that we should get back together."

"Hopefully, Mail Goggles will prevent many of you out there from sending messages you wish you hadn't."

For some people still licking their self-inflicted e-mail wounds, Google's new sobriety test is certainly a welcome addition.

Rebecca, a 26-year-old New Yorker who asked to withhold her last name to protect her privacy, told that she's still reeling from a recent e-mail escapade.

About six months ago, she broke off a relationship.

"It was an ugly break-up," she said. "The last contact we had with each other, more or less, was me telling him not to contact me ever again."

But, after a night out with friends a couple weekends ago, she ended up in front of the computer, extending an electronic olive branch to the ex-communicated ex-boyfriend.

After telling him that she missed him and wondered what he was up to, she fell asleep. When she awoke in the morning, she had no memory of the late-night episode.

Until she received a reply with one simple sentence: "Did you mean to send this?"

"It was so mortifying," she said.

What does she think of Google's new program? "I actually thought that's a good idea," she said.

Brian, 29, a graduate student in Chicago, has a similar story.

A little more than a year ago, he tried to end a short-term relationship that was moving too fast. He instigated the break-up but, much like Rebecca, went back to the proverbial well when he'd had a bit to drink.

He said he felt terrible when he realized what he'd done in the morning. But his regret stemmed more from a concern for others than from personal embarrassment.

"For me, it's more [about] not wanting to hurt somebody's feelings than it is [about] being stupid," he said, adding that those drunken e-mails extended a relationship past its prime because he didn't want to admit that he wasn't quite sober when he sent them.

But he emphasized that when it comes to work-related e-mail, he is extra-disciplined.

"My dad always said when you're at work, never send an e-mail that you wouldn't want your mother to see," he said. "I've heard too many stories about the one person who hit the dreaded reply all."

According to John Fischer, 26, a consultant with trend-spotting firm Infinia Foresight, more people should exercise that level of caution on the Internet.

Drunken dialing of the kind made famous by the movie "Sideways" can cause deep personal embarrassment. But, Fischer said, drunken e-mailing can be more significant and socially dangerous than the drunken indiscretions of yesteryear.

"What's interesting about e-mail is that it combines immediacy and indelibility," he said.  "It's almost like these days the things we do online cast a digital shadow."

Electronic messages can go from being unknown to a viral sensation overnight, Fischer added.

In 2002, a 14-year-old high school student went from anonymity to Internet fame (and eventually to court) when a classmate posted a video clip of him wielding a golf ball retriever like a lightsaber online.

The video of the "Star Wars kid" was one of the most popular videos on the Internet in 2003 and made it onto CNET's 2005 list of the Top 10 Web fads.

In 2006, a Yale student named Aleksey Vayner achieved similar notoriety when an 11-page resume and video intended for the Swiss bank UBS made its way into inboxes across Wall Street and then YouTube.

Alcohol was not a catalyst in either of those examples. But, Fischer said, they show just how quickly curious news travels on the Internet.

"The skeletons that were once in your closet are now searchable on the Internet," he said. "We live in the age of the digital booty call."

Despite that reality, there's definitely a gap between people's ability to reach a huge audience and their awareness of this ability, he said.

While Google's new program isn't perfect, he said, it's a step in the right direction because it makes you stop and say, "Do I really want to send this?"

Judging from the attention Mail Goggles has received since its launch Monday -- blogs from Japan to Germany have been bursting with news of the program -- the Internet seems to agree that this is a well-intentioned feature.

But some of the people who might need it most question its effectiveness.

Pamela, a 29-year-old New York-based lawyer, told that she'd been burned by her own drunken messages, but said texting -- not e-mailing -- was the bigger problem for her.

About a year ago, she said she'd gone to a party with a male colleague. When he left because she was too busy to pay attention to him, she let the messages fly.

"I told him [his] butt looked amazing that night and that I had been thinking about him all day at work," she said in an e-mail.

They flirted back and forth over text message but, eventually, she said, he blew her off.

In an ideal world, that would have been the end of their relationship. But, unfortunately, it wasn't.

The next day, she found out that she would be his boss on a project at work.

Immediately after the situation, they laughed about it. But she said, "I would NEVER have texted without some drinks in me and it haunted me until I left the job."

Could Mail Goggles have prevented this situation? Pamela says no.

"It might take me a little longer, but the more [alcohol] I have, the more determined I am," she said. "The only thing that might have worked would be a breathalyzer test!"

Brian is equally doubtful that math problems could have stopped him from e-mailing while intoxicated.

"Every time I sent those e-mails I could tell you what five times two was," he said.

What he needs, he said, is a function that totally blocks one's ability to communicate with certain people -- like exes -- between those dangerous, late-night, mischief-making hours.

Echoing comedian Chris Rock, Brian said, "Has anyone really ever taken $200 out of an ATM at 3 a.m. for a good thing?"