Email Musings: Part 1

by Stephen M. Pribut, D.P.M., F.A.C.F.A.S.

Email is the software I use most often and have given much thought to over the past several years. This month we will take a general look at email as a communication tool and next month look at some special aspects of email.

Communication is the primary activity and reason d’Ítre of the Internet. The Internet is an exceptional format for sharing information. It is a combination of a globally distributed cyber-library, post office and discussion forum. While email is not as glamorous as the web, it is part of the glue that holds Internet communities together. Email is the most important and most often used software on the Internet. Email travels so quickly that users of it call mail travelling by traditional post "snail mail". This cyber-postal service is not affected by distance. It doesn’t matter if you are writing to your next door neighbor or to a friend in Australia, your note will be found in their mail box nearly instantly. You can send along a wide variety of file types with your message including spreadsheets, pictures, word processing files and even video or voice files.

In order to use email properly you should be aware of its strengths and weaknesses. How does it compare with other methods of communication? In comparison with "snail mail" email is much quicker, but the formality is not as readily discerned by context. The cues given by fancy stationary are missing. It is not as fast as the telephone and you can't make a power play by having someone else place the call. Email equalizes, leaving you to be judged by your words and ideas.

Style

Email writers tend toward informality. They rarely seem bereft of words and almost never need a muse. The ease of use encourages snappy responses that are frequently almost conversational in tone. While you may think there is a difference in writing for one person and writing for an audience of hundreds, that one person may forward your email to a large group. Never send anything in email that you wouldn’t want made public. While email itself is reasonably private, there is no certainty that what you’ve said won’t turn up in an unintended mailbox or on a broadcast email list.

Avoid sending abusive, harassing or threatening messages. In the morning's light your hastily sent screed may appear even embarrassingly worse than you meant it. The easy to use "reply" button may end up getting you in trouble. Careful writing will avoid misunderstandings that may arise from the informality of email. Many writers look at email as a friendly conversation, while recipient may look at it as a business letter or contract, cast-in-stone.

You will be judged on what you say and how you say it. Succinct, clear language usually communicates your thoughts best. Even in the relatively informal realm of email, misspellings and bad grammar leave an adverse impression. Be accurate in your email. Incorrect facts can spread through the net like wild fire. A recent example was a supposed commencement address at MIT given by Kurt Vonnegut with the admonition to "always wear sunscreen." This spread through the net, made the newspapers and television and was of course never written by Vonnegut and not delivered as a speech anywhere.

Gentle persuasion will work far better than "flaming" (an Internet term for harsh words). A cogent argument may sway, but flames harden thoughts. While Marshall McLuhan never had to classify email as a hot or cool medium, it appears to readily engender heated arguments.

Lists

For many, the net allows work and communication to take place from remote areas. This holds particularly true for writers and thinkers. All manners of sub-communities exist. An Internet caucus sprang up before last August’s National meeting. In some cases broadcast mailing lists have been used to disseminate information. Message board sites have also been used. I would recommend that a true mailing list such as Majordomo or Listserv to be used. This would allow for immediate transmission of a message to the entire list.

It would also allow ready classification of what is meant for private consumption and what is meant for public consumption.

Email lists can be on any number of topics. In fact there already exist over 71,000 email lists on most imaginable topics. A searchable listing of these can be found at Liszt, the mailing list directory located on the web at: http://www.liszt.com/ .

Troubleshooting:

We'll end by referring you to the "Internet Help Desk" at http://w3.one.net/~alward/etable.html. This page has information on how to trouble shoot undeliverable mail. It reviews how to look at your email headers and how to use finger, ping and a variety of other internet services to try to discover why your mail could not be delivered.

Next month we will examine email security, how to organize your email, searching for email addresses and a few email tricks.

Dr. Pribut hosts a popular web page at: https://www.drpribut.com/sports/spsport.html . Send comments to him at pribut_web@yahoo.com.