The Perils of E-Mail

What's wrong with e-mail? After all, it's good for so many things. It can keep you in touch with grandma when you're away at college. It can connect you with electronic pen-pals halfway around the world. E-mail "info-bots" deliver instant information. E-mail discussion lists build connections and spread important fast-breaking news. And using e-mail instead of "snail mail" (that's what you call paper correspondence when you become a jaded Internet hipster) saves time, money, and fossil fuels. Or so they say. But e-mail is so new to most of us that its more troublesome aspects haven't really sunk in. They will. Oh, they will. Rare is the user who hasn't seen the dark side of at least one of e-mail's charms. Consider:E-mail is fast. So fast, in fact, that it's easy to write and send a message without fully engaging your brain. On e-mail discussion lists with many participants, this can stoke knee-jerk arguments, or "flame wars," because the rapid exchange doesn't give anybody time to cool off. Being a fast typist is not always a good thing. E-mail addresses are easy to remember -- and misremember, which can have amusing and mortifying results. Even if your memory is fine there are your fingers to worry about. E-mail diatribes between embittered ex-spouses have been routed to innocent strangers just because of careless digits typing instead of combines the richness of letters with the speed of the telephone. This fools us into thinking we have the best of both worlds when really we have entirely new territory to map. Even at its fastest, an e-mail dialogue is more like a rapid exchange of answering machine messages (something we normally find quite frustrating) than a phone conversation. And while the slow pace of physical transport gives postal mail its own pace, e-mail has no natural pace at all. E-mail doesn't waste any paper. This is an environmental boon, but a mental bane. As tools for managing heavy correspondence, even the best current e-mail programs leave much to be desired. There's no real equivalent of sticking an important letter on the fridge to remind you to reply soon. If you deal with every message as it comes in, you're OK. Otherwise, most e-mail programs encourage a file-and-forget mentality.E-mail is free, or nearly so. With e-mail, you never run out of stamps, and sending a note to ten friends is a cheap as sending it to one. This characteristic is especially exciting for people who send out unsolicited commercial e-mail ("spam") to thousands of people at once. If you haven't received any EXCITING BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY offers lately just let me know, and I'll send you the 434 specimens in my collection.A few months ago, I got a message from an old college friend with whom I'd been corresponding occasionally. Though we had previously been discussing old computers, this message had a more serious tone. He talked about his new marriage, future plans, growing older. Then, in consideration of the medium, he posed an interesting question. He asked if I thought that via e-mail people generally "don't communicate as deeply and personally."I read it, thought about it, then went on with whatever else I was doing that day. I wanted to write back later, when I wasn't in the middle of working.Six weeks later, I realized to my dismay that I had never responded. In effect I had put the message -- this personal e-mail about the flaws of personal e-mail -- into a drawer and forgotten to open it again. If that's not an illuminating irony, I don't know what is. ***Sites in my SightsEducation can help minimize the sticky interpersonal problems of e-mail. The idea behind "netiquette," as it is called, is that common misunderstandings can be avoided if we teach new users about the customs of online communication ( Kind of like reminding people that they can't say "Look at that!" when they're on the phone. Don't Just Sit There, Sit There and Do SomethingLegislative action relating to unsolicited commercial e-mail is heating up. Though I have some doubts about legal solutions, many respectable spam-fighters are hard at work on them. Learn more about what might become law at the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail site ( a nice, tangible, honest-to-goodness paper letter in care of this publication, drop a line via e-mail (, or visit the Cyberia website (©1997 by Paul Bissex


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