About to send a furious email? Consider this first

From: Susan

To: Frank

Subject: Mylk

! This is a draft message

Dear Frank, I'm sorry you were upset to find your exercise-ball chair deflated this morning. However, I have been given to understand you have been liberally helping yourself to my gluten-free, activated, specialty mylk wrought from harvested psyllium husks.

Not only have you remained incriminatingly unresponsive to my CC-all-users "Cease and Desist" memos, but – to add insult to injury – you feigned compassion when I told you in confidence about my need for soluble fibre and ongoing health issues, including the latest flare-up of my psoas major and its minor counterpart.

I'm not sure what's worse – the betrayal or the criminality – but if I find one more drop of my mylk missing, I will be forced to continue to deflate your personal effects. Most of Sales, and at least some of User Interface, will gladly join me.

Regrettably,

Susan

‘A draft message is a kind of thought experiment, an idea we can only entertain in our most private moments.’Credit:Stocksy

Susan never sent that email. It sat in her drafts folder, along with all the others addressed to recipients and written in the knowledge that they need never be read. Susan was clearly in the throes of a particularly heated interpersonal drama.

More or less inflammatory communications are being drafted all the time – to colleagues, partners, lovers, family. Imagined break-ups, rehearsed resignations, confessions.

For many of us, the drafts folder offers a sort of transitional space, the threshold between one's inner world – an intensely private area of experience – and an external world, with its boundaries, laws and prohibitions. To write and not press "send" is to experiment without being terrorised by the risk of exposure.

Shame needs an audience, so if ours is only imagined, if we never intend our drafts to be sent, we should feel radically free. Free to transgress social boundaries and speak the unspeakable: "Do her chin hairs bother you?"; "I love you but there's an emptiness at the heart of us that is devouring me"; "I know it's wrong but I can't stop thinking about you"; "I can't make it into work today because I hate you all." And so on.

Of course, an overflowing drafts folder may not, in fact, be a widespread condition; it might simply be the preserve of the obsessional neurotic. But an empty drafts folder might equally be a symptom of a disturbed mind – one so sure of itself there need be no pause for thought, no transition from draft to sent, no agony.

For most of us, our relationships are a source of intense ambivalence. Where we feel love, we feel hate; where there's dependence, there's anxiety; where we want attention, we want to hide. It would be hard to find a better instrument for ambivalence than the digital world, with its expanding platforms from which to speak and its proliferating dark corners in which to hide. The draft folder offers both: an intermediate space where we can speak without speaking, so to speak. We can have relationships without the attendant risks of love and desire.

Flirting with the unutterable is hardly a new phenomenon. Modern technology brings fantasy and reality into thrilling and dangerous proximity. Unlike an unsent letter – the fulfilment of which involves the prosaic process of finding a stamp, walking to a mailbox and dropping it into a deep well of others' aspirations, debts, demands and condolences – pressing "send" (or its social media counterpart, "post") is disarmingly easy.

A draft message is a kind of thought experiment, an idea we can only entertain in our most private moments. Shame can only happen afterwards. And, as any fool who's ever sent a draft would know, shame is never far off; the moment we send it, it arrives like a flood. Better, then, to keep our drafts to ourselves, holding on to them anxiously to avoid what might happen should they be relinquished. If we keep our drafts, the world is held in suspense and our desires kept intact, safe from frustration, disappointment and judgment.

The problem is reality; the drafts folder is not a hermetically sealed safe space, to use today's parlance. It is porous and what is written in the drafts folder cannot be trusted to remain there. One way or another, there's leakage. We are not, even in our most private moments, alone. We are, tragically and ineluctably, with ourselves; and once the draft has been written, even if never sent, the world has changed. Its very existence begins to nag.

It's hard, in other words, to delay our gratification, even if we don't quite know what it would mean to be gratified. This tension between compulsion and inhibition feels particularly unbearable today. It's increasingly difficult not to press "send", not to speak. But maybe this temptation ought to be resisted. The drafts folder, after all, is a kind of tear in the fabric of modern life – a small space for us to imagine what we want from one another without ever having to get it.

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