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How 'You've Got Mail' predicted the worst of the internet

You thought this 1998 movie was just Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in a cuddly rom-com? Wrong! It's a warning from history, people.

This is part of CNET's "It's Complicated" series about the role technology plays in our relationships.


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The '90s were a simpler time. We were so excited about the internet -- as soon as your sister got off the phone, a landline, of course, you could dial back in to the World Wide Web through your soul-crushingly slow modem. If only we'd known about the horrors to come. We even had a warning: "You've Got Mail."

"The Net" had already hinted at the nightmare of a connected world. But it was "You've Got Mail," the first rom-com about online dating, that really rang alarm bells.

Directed and cowritten by Nora Ephron, "You've Got Mail" was a 1998 update of the classic 1940 movie "The Shop Around the Corner." (Bonus trivia for film nerds: a musical adaptation called "In the Good Old Summertime" came out in 1949.)

Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, the lovable stars of "You've Got Mail," play anonymous pen pals named Joe and Kathleen who meet in an AOL chatroom. They fall in love through instant messages and emails without knowing who the other really is. But here's the catch: They actually do know each other IRL, and they're bitter business rivals!

What are the chances?!

Bittersweet hijinks ensue, obvs. There is rom. There is com. But this is no frothy confection. And for "It's Complicated," our series on love in the digital age, we look back at the grim warnings inside "You've Got Mail." Mild spoilers follow, in case you've spent two decades carefully avoiding finding out what happens.

Catfishing and gaslighting

After falling in love online and falling out in real life, Joe learns his email paramour is also his real-life rival. So what does he do? Gracefully end the correspondence? Come clean about the whole thing?

No! He catfishes her. Catfishing, or pretending to be someone else online to reel in unsuspecting romantic prospects, has in the intervening years became a big enough problem that it even spawned a TV show.

In the film, Joe continues to email the unsuspecting Kathleen, creepily using his knowledge of her life to manipulate and gaslight her. I think this behavior is meant to be charming. It's really not.

Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan warn us of the horrors to come in "You've Got Mail."

Getty Images


The real-life conflict between the two pen pals involves Kathleen's independent bookshop taking on the might of Joe's corporate retail chain. But like today's online "slacktivists" who sign digital petitions and share memes rather than, say, donate money or volunteer their time, Kathleen is all talk. Instead of supporting her local coffee spot, she's shown treating herself to a Starbucks every morning.

Honestly, there's no genuine commitment to causes. That's the problem with today's activists.


"Do you ever feel you become the worst version of yourself?" Joe asks in one email to Kathleen. "That a Pandora's box of all the secret, hateful parts -- your arrogance, your spite, your condescension -- has sprung open? Someone provokes you and, instead of just smiling and moving on, you zing them. Hello, it's Mr. Nasty!"

It's got rom! It's got com! It's got catfishing.

Ronald Siemoneit/Sygma via Getty Images

Yes, Joe, we do feel that -- and so does every Mr. Nasty out there. The Pandora's box of hate springs open every second of every day in YouTube comments, on Twitter and elsewhere across the internet.

Complete strangers, safe behind their keyboards, target people with cruel abandon. Arrogance, spite and condescension explode into abuse and harassment across the board.

And speaking of Mr. Nasty...

It's not easy being a woman on the internet

"You've Got Mail" sent a clear warning to women of their role in the digital age. When he's not mansplaining "The Godfather" to anyone within earshot, Joe and his all-male cabal of callous fat-cats mount a coordinated campaign to drive out Kathleen and her predominantly female staff. Today, women face constant harassment, abuse and threats online. "Ghostbusters" star Leslie Jones is just one of the high-profile women who's been hounded with horrifying sexist and racist abuse.

To add insult to injury, the film ends on a twist straight from the fevered imagination of a deluded pick-up artist. Even after driving Kathleen out of business, lying to her, catfishing her and generally behaving appallingly, our "hero" gets the girl. Shame on you, Tom Hanks.

They're all doomed

Joe and Kathleen bicker over their bookshops, but what the film doesn't mention is that they've both lost. Back in 1995, a little company called Amazon started selling books online and was already working on killing bookshops, both big and small.

And it wasn't just booksellers who were in trouble. Kathleen's boyfriend, a newspaper columnist, writes his columns on a typewriter and rails against technology, blissfully unaware the internet is about to take his job and his girlfriend.

See? And you thought "You've Got Mail" was just a charming little rom-com. Tom and Meg warned us, people. Why didn't we listen?

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