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Articles: Today's E-mail Follies

E-mail has become such an integral part of most people's lives that it's almost hard to remember that its pervasive presence is barely about a decade old (like many things we use today, its "invention" dates back another thirty or forty years, but it didn't get to be such a large part of everyone's lives until the explosion of the internet).

For me personally, my day starts and ends and revolves around e-mail. Information I used to receive through the mail, fax machine, phone and in-person visits now comes almost exclusively via e-mail. If you haven't pondered how to properly manage and organize your e-mail duties yet, you'd better be thinking about it now, because e-mail isn't going away anytime soon.

I do find it interesting that as a society, we tend to rush headlong into new technologies, hoping that whatever problems crop up as a result will simply work themselves out, one way or another. I'm not so sure when that's going to happen with spam.

No matter what system we use to communicate, there will be companies who use that system in order to sell us their products and services. We have junk mail, telemarketers, junk faxes, and even still the occasional unsolicited visit by a salesperson. However, there has never been a communication medium that is easier or cheaper to send to thousands, even millions, than e-mail. So, the spammers have multiplied like viruses in a Petri dish (although lately it feels like the viruses got out of the laboratory and are devouring the world like one of those end-of-the-world movies).

In fact, unless you've managed to keep your e-mail address as private as your underwear drawer, you probably have seen a significant increase in the amount of spam you're receiving lately. The spammers are getting that much more sophisticated in their ability to bypass spam filters, both personal and server-side. This is a much larger social ill than we might imagine if you simply think about this: Let's say your company has 200 people in it. Even with a conservatively low estimate, let's say it takes each of them five minutes to wade through and delete all the spam. That's five minutes times 200 people per work day, or 1,000 minutes, or 16.67 hours of wasted time per day in that company. Per month, that's easily over 366 hours just down the drain. Not to mention the legitimate e-mails that accidentally get deleted, or the misguided employee who spends time perusing some of the offers, or dealing with viruses and so on.


Until someone comes up with a solution that stymies these low-lifes, everyone who deals with e-mail all day should think about how they can otherwise maximize their time and communication via e-mail. There has been improvement in e-mail etiquette over the last few years, but I'm not sure everyone has thought about the overall picture as to how to manage his or her time with e-mail. Accordingly, I've come up with a top-ten list with the hopes that at least a couple of them might be useful even to e-mail power users:

Do everyone a favor and NEVER buy anything from a spammer, no matter how size-challenged you feel some of your body parts are (those products don't work anyway, at least from what I hear), or how great that stock offer is, or how sorry you feel for that lonely gal in your area. If no one ever buys anything, eventually some of these guys will stop. Unfortunately it only takes a few purchasers to make it worthwhile. Just don't be one of them. And don't reply to any of them either. That just confirms that your e-mail address is live.

Carefully reconsider sending jokes or quizzes and the like to a large number of people. Perhaps you have a few friends who might appreciate them, but the few seconds it takes to forward multiplies into many wasted minutes when you send it to a lot of people. Besides, so many of those are recycled that it's becoming rare to find one that's really interesting or funny. Also, most people now understand this, but there is no reward for forwarding any e-mails to anyone. Microsoft never had a program that tracked e-mail forwards, and your luck will not change no matter how strongly the e-mail implores you otherwise. If you wouldn't get on the phone to a friend to read the e-mail, you probably don't need to forward it. I think I'll punch the next person who starts their e-mail with something like, "Just in case this is true…"

If you simply must forward some astonishing fact, consider looking up the issue on first. Both of those are great resources on what's really true and what's probably made up or exaggerated.

Remember that the written word naturally reads much more seriously and mono-toned than intended. The liberal use of smiley faces helps convey a more upbeat tone, but that's not always appropriate in business communications. Mostly, think about what you're saying, and assume the reader will take it more seriously than you might have meant.

Even if you're a good speller, make sure your spell checker is on. No matter how smart you are, you'll look a bit dummer to the reader if you're speling and grammer has mistakes init.

Keep your e-mail organized and the finished stuff deleted. As e-mail volume increases, anyone who treats his or her in-box like a messy desk is likely to annoy someone with a lack of reply, or a reply two weeks too late.

Read your message before you hit "send." Both to correct any mistakes, as well as to monitor the tone. You can't ever forget that e-mail will always be taken more seriously than you intend.

Automatically attached signatures, logos, vCards, etc. are generally annoying.

Always reply with the original message or thread copied below it. When someone is reading 200 e-mails a day, a response from one of them without the original message is only confusing.

Pick up the phone once in a while, especially if you get involved in a back-and-forth e-mail exchange. E-mail is terrific for communicating with multiple people, but if you end up with any emotion or confusion whatsoever, get on the phone or get in person.

Lastly, if you're a spammer, or work for a spammer, I hope you realize that you're about as useful to society as the flu. One of these days we'll conquer you guys, and we'll gain back those precious minutes you're stealing from us.

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