In an otherwise routine e-mail message I wrote this morning, addressed to a student who was anxious about missing class due to illness, I told her that she could turn in her assignment late with no penalty, and closed with a few words of comfort: Walker, Wisconsin, Madison, Maddow, Tea Party, Obama. I have no doubt that she found those words reassuring—really, who wouldn't? But she might also have been a tad puzzled.
It is my hope that she will not be the only one. The list of nouns appended to my e-mail could be considered fighting words, or at least words to conjure by: They conjure intrusive, politically motivated Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests by the Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy for online correspondence of labor-studies professors at three Michigan public universities. The requests are for e-mails that specifically mention Wisconsin, Wisconsin's Gov. Scott Walker, the city of Madison, and Rachel Maddow, and "any other e-mails dealing with the collective-bargaining situation in Wisconsin." These requests are blatant fishing expeditions. As the Mackinac Center told The Rachel Maddow Show in a written response to her reports on the controversy, its purpose is to generate more narrow, targeted searches that may somehow show malfeasance and/or political bias promoted on the taxpayer's dime.
So far, the response by concerned academics has been heartfelt, predictable, and all but useless: e-mail petitions, op-ed denunciations, and appeals to the sanctity of academic freedom (see under "chilling effect on").
I respectfully submit that we are fighting the wrong battle, because it is one we are unlikely to win. Surely the Freedom of Information Act was not originally drafted to monitor the communications of public-sector professors, but I suspect this is one area in which conservative activists will be uncharacteristically indifferent to the framers' original intent. No matter. The Freedom of Information Act's very name suggests a much more appropriate realm in which to respond: that of information.
As a longtime student of meme theory and, more important, a compulsive technophile who gets twitchy when disconnected from the Net for more than half an hour, I've been fascinated by the ways in which our intended online signals get overwhelmed by noise. Peering into the contents of a spam filter is a truly educational experience: The strategies spammers use to get past our attempts to tune them out display just the sort of ingenuity we need in dealing with these FOIA requests. The Mackinac Center's fishing expedition is like fake messages from PayPal trying to get our credit-card information. To combat it, we must adopt the strategies of a different Internet predator. Instead of fighting fire with fire, we must fight phishing with spam.
Which brings me to my proposal: All concerned academics should add the words "Walker," "Madison," and "Maddow" to their sig. files. A sig. file, you will recall, is the automatically generated boilerplate that can be attached to the bottom of your e-mail messages ("Professor Xavier, School for Gifted Youngsters, Westchester, N.Y."). Its main function is to convey basic contact information, but it is often much more personalized. The addition of the Mackinac Center's primary search terms is meant to make such broad FOIA requests unworkable. If enough of us put those words in our sig. files, searching for them will be barely more productive than searching for definite articles.
For this to work, of course, we have to adopt the flexibility of spammers, modifying our sig. files to reflect the evolving preoccupations of those who want to spy on us. There are certainly some obvious technical ways to circumvent our efforts, but I'm not going to do Mackinac's work for them by listing those tactics here. That's why I've added more general (but still inoffensive) hot-button words such as "Obama" and "Tea Party."
One might object that these words do not belong in a sig. file. Arguably, it's a waste of bandwidth, but on nowhere near the scale of a much more common breach of netiquette: always quoting the entirety of a previous e-mail in a reply (a bad habit that only furthers our cause by copying the search terms from our sig. file).
Another objection is that our sig. words might be seen as unprofessional. But a sig. file is a strange workplace compromise between the professional and the quirky—many of them include allegedly edifying quotes, while others are attempts at wry humor. (A former administrator at my university used to have the words "Hamster Hag" repeated again and again at the bottom of her messages—I still don't know why.) Having a slightly odd closing to a sig. file is the equivalent of posting a Dilbert cartoon on a cubicle wall: It's not really subversive, but you can pretend it is if you want to.
So let's use the simple tools of e-mail to raise the cost of spying on it. At the very least, it's a small political gesture, and at the most, it might slow down the invasion of our privacy.
Oh, and before I forget: Walker. Madison. Maddow.