Melissa envy

The virus hasn't landed on my desktop yet. I'm mortified.

Published March 31, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

| I spent yesterday afternoon running down my mental list of friends, colleagues and professional rivals with increasing bitterness.

I bet Josh has got it. Andrea? Probably got it three days ago. Timothy? That little kiss-ass? Oh! You better believe he got it.

"It," of course, is "Melissa," the e-mail attachment virus that propagates itself, essentially, by borrowing your address book. When you open an attached Microsoft Word document borne by the e-mail, you activate a macro that attempts to forward the message to the first 50 people in your list of e-mail addresses, with the subject "Important Message From [your name here]," quickly taxing the e-mail systems of the corporations, institutions and government offices it reaches. To read the rather exercised press coverage about Melissa riding the Internet "on a global rampage," one would think anybody who's anybody has received it by now.

And I haven't.

Why would I be disappointed not to receive a pernicious macro? Because, as we once euphemistically termed the clap, Melissa is, literally, a social disease. Having infected the computers of corporate privilege, its spread via address list traces a trajectory of power: The more often you appear on the better hard drives, it would follow, the more likely you are to receive that "Important Message."

And if you don't? It's time for some serious career reevaluation. Hey, I like to think of myself as a pretty wired, late-'90s guy. I send e-mail all day, correspond with editors -- I write for an Internet magazine, for Chrissakes. To admit that I'm so out of the loop that I haven't gotten the virus yet is not just embarrassing but a career liability. I mean, am I in nobody's address book?

Consider how many generations Melissa has now been through. Not to receive the "Important Message" means that I wasn't among the top 50 addresses of the first person to activate the virus, or the second round of such people, or the third and so on ad nauseam. If you do the math -- that's 50 to some by-now-unimaginable power of people to whom I am unknown -- my loserdom literally increases exponentially. Soon it will require a team of Stanford mathematicians, using a Cray supercomputer, to calculate my lack of influence.

It might be, of course, that like high-profile viruses of the past, this one is not quite as rampant as its press makes it out to be. Or I could tell myself that my colleagues and contacts are simply tech- and media-savvy enough not to open strange attachments.

But I fear that that's false consolation. It's well-known, after all, that the more powerful the individual, the less he or she knows about his or her own computer. (Viz. Scott Adams' dictum that the best way to measure an individual's power is by asking him how much RAM is on his computer -- anyone who can answer that question has no power.) No, if I were on any of the truly hot lists, the Murdoch-and-Redstone, Four Seasons level of media influence, I should have gotten the tap Monday morning. If I got it now, what would it matter? There are too many degrees of separation interposed -- there must be sheepherders in Kazakhstan who've gotten it ahead of me.

In his "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" series, Douglas Adams described the most dangerous invention in history: one that shows the user precisely how insignificant he is in the universe.

We now have that invention. Her name is Melissa. And my life will never be the same.

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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