Don't get me wrong, I think that email is a great thing, but the way we're using it is turning a useful tool into a carving knife stuck in our backs.
The biggest problem with email is that it's too easy to use.
Yes, read it again. I'm writing it and I had to read it again. But that's exactly the problem. It sounds confusing because it should be its biggest advantage, and it is. And is also its biggest problem.
Not only is easy to the final user. The rules of the email system, its protocol, are simple and easy to understand. We, as users, don't have to deal with it. But if we had to, believe me, anyone with a couple hours of instructions would be able to do it.
Let's take a look at some of the consequences of the easiness of email.
Spam is the first one to come to mind. Spam does exist because mail is easy to use. One spammer can send millions of messages pressing one button, no sweat. Of course he has to produce the content, the ad, but he has to do it anyway. Before email, the ad was produced too and the printed, folded, put into an envelope, closed, posted, stamped, etc. There was a considerable number of mechanical procedures and materials involved. Not only it took time and effort, also money. The typical spam ad is under 100 Kbytes, a 1 Mbaud DSL connection may transfer 100 Kbytes per second, assuming that the overhead of the communication is 4 times the size of the data (no way), you can send one message every 4 seconds, 21600 messages if your program run nonstop all day.
And this is a very conservative estimate. The overhead is not even close to 4 times the data volume, no decent spammer is working with 1 Mbaud bandwidth, using CC or BCC fields you can send one message one time to a huge number of destinations, and some other factors that increase the estimation to the levels we're seeing this days.
No effort, no cost, is like a dream. The worse part is that nobody cares if its efficient, and it's not. But is so cheap to do it and so easy to reach millions that wasting 99% of them is affordable, just getting 1% positive response from the 1% that is actually opened and read is worth the investment because the investment is worth nothing.
The first attempts to fight spam was based on black lists of senders, not a very successful strategy, and didn't last for long. Today is totally worthless, you don't get a real mail address from the sender and if you do it doesn't belong to the sender, most likely is one taken from the same list where your own mail address is, maybe you own.
Then the content analysis method appeared, software to check the content looking for telltales of spam. Words like sex, viagra, pharmacy, that showed up on most of the spam messages were compiled and rated in databases and used to rank each message. For each match, the message gets x points depending on the rate assigned by the database and z less points for each word that doesn't have a match. If the message gets more points than a previously established threshold, is spam.
The system is sheer genius, I have to give credit to the guys who invented it, but is not the real solution. The spammers then started to change the words, v14gra, s3x, ph4rmacy. Or cut them like Via gra, s.e.x, phar ma cy. You can read them but for a computer there's no match on the database. Or they sent pictures as inline attachments, no words in the message to rank but you still get an ad that you can read. Or they fill the messages with passages from Shakespeare, Whitman and other authors to decrease the rank of the message.
All this tricks were addressed by new versions of the spam filters but the tricks keep changing and the size of the databases of banned words will eventually render the system useless. But that's what we've got today.
One thing that you should never do with spam is click a link or answer it. This is a NO-NO-NO. Not even if you're interested in the product or service. Most of them are tagged, they have a code linked to your mail address. That option at the bottom you should click if you don't want to receive more, it's a lie, it's a way to confirm that your mail address is good, that is real, that someone is checking it frequently. Same for the links to the product, whether you buy or not they'll know that your mail address is good. Then, your mail address will be ranked higher and more likely to be spammed.
A scam mail is a message with a tempting offer. It's always someone who has money for you that can get just by giving your consent, use your bank account, pose as the heir of the fortune or just take the prize you won on a lottery you don't have a ticket from. The reward is always huge, my personal best was an offer of 425 hundred millions, about the debt of a third world country. And it has to be, because once the small fees and charges start to surface they want you to keep going to get your gold pot at the end of the rainbow. Is not easy to understand how people fall for this but they do.
Sometimes the offers don't look that good but they're good enough. Lately is common to see job offers that requires a fee to cover resume processing expenses or that requires you to have a bank account. The first one is pretty obvious but the second is not. The goal is always to get money from you, they'll try anything to make you send some. But the worst of all is when they actually send you a payment, a check or a transfer, because in the USA you're credited that money because you're good for it, not because the check is. This means that the money will be available almost immediatly but the check will keep going its way through the system. With the money at hand, you're supossed to send it to the scammer and keep your cut of the deal. Days later the bank will find out that the check is a fake or stole or something like that, and you'll have to give the money back. The bad news are that you don't have it and that you've just commited a crime because it was you who deposited the check and you can't prove that you received it legally.
This trick was (and is) very popular in auctions, the scammer buys your stuff and sends a check in excess of the price agreed. He blames his secretary, assistant or himself and asks you to send the difference to someone else. Different story but the same ending.
Email brought us scams because it's so easy for the scammer to reach us now, but also because it's so easy for us to jump in just by answering an email. And that's the next item, not what we get but what we give.
We saw that people fall for scams, not everyone but enough to keep the business running. Email contributes to this lapses of judgement because of its easyness, we have the urge to move on with it now, we feel compelled to answer every single one as they pop up in our mailbox. People don't take the time to think about it and when they type the answer there's no time either, we go so fast through it. Many years ago when mail was almost an art, we took our time reading every letter and writing an answer. Enough time to think about it and ponder each word, I'm sure that the scam business was a lot harder. While people were writing the answer, the excitement of the first impression started to fade and eventually find out the real nature of the offer. Now, we suffer the email fever. And not those who fall for scams, almost all of us do, we answer messages in the heat of the moment. No time to think about it, from reading to writing in a nanosecond, and just a few seconds to type and be ready to send. We can do it all in one breath and regret it for the rest of our lifes.
Answering email in haste is a big problem for both personal mail and work mail. I'm sure that any company with hundred of employees are suffering it right now. I know companies with less than 10 with this problem right now.
The mail replaces face to face communication. People try to avoid confrontation by using email, in a way they feel detached from the mail they write. Dealing with confrontation in person involves emotions, email somehow has become something totally impersonal. Maybe because the old style letters have material existence, we feel that they can convey our feelings, our moods. Email is not even thin air, it has no material form.
We have the feeling that, being physically away, we can do a better job of expressing ourselves. And maybe we can if we try, that's what we used to do with the letters. But there's one big difference in time, the time it takes to write, the time it takes to send. Time that we used to think, to carefully choose words, to go back and re-read, evaluate and correct.
We don't do that with email and I think that's the rule number one of email should be take your time. Never answer an email in haste, never start answering right away, never answer in less than one minute. If you take sonetime before answering, you may find a better way to do it. Maybe a more positive, organized, informative answer. Maybe a phone call. Maybe a direct face to face oral answer to the senders who's in the next cubicle.
I'd like to see new features on future releases of email software to deal with this problem. It could be a client application that blocks the send button for a period of time after you open a message or a server that sends you back every message with a huge sign saying "Are you sure you want to send this?". It can also check how much time you take from reading to sending and act accordingly, the fastest you do the longer it keeps sending it back for confirmation.
It's a joke, but I can imagine a corporation doing it. The bottom line is: take your time, be glad is not a face to face conversation, seize the opportunity. You can take as much time as you want or need without annoying the other party. We regret what we say frequently because we let our mouths open before our brains start to process what we've just hear. Now that we have the chance of revert the situation, we keep making the same mistakes.
To make matters worse, another nice feature comes in the picture. Back on the days when a xerox wasn't a part of our everyday life, each letter was unique. If it was addressed to more than one person, it was written or typed many times. If the sender wanted to inform someone else about the content of the letter, carbon paper was used to make a copy during the writing process. It was customary to indicate in the footer how many letters were done and how many copies, even the copies were numbered indicating how close they were from the original, something you could tell easily just by looking at the intensity of the print. This number set the hierarchy of the employees the way cubicle to window distance does today. And, if the sender wanted someone to be informed and nobody else to know, it was just a matter of adding another carbon paper and omitting that copy from the count.
With email you can address your letter to as many as you want just by adding them in the "to" field. Then copy as many as you want in the "cc" (carbon copy) field or in the "bcc" (blind carbon copy) field. All of them will get exactly the same message. That's why we need different cubicle positions now.
But the point is that before it wasn't easy to choose who will get the letter. Making extra originals took time, the number of carbon copies was limited and blind carbon copies were even more limited, because those who were to get one always got the first one.
Now, it doesnt' matter. People add and add, anyone on any field. The more, the merrier.
In the personal level, this easiness produces chain mail, long messages with one thousand forwarding headers and one silly comment at the end. People use to forward anything, and I mean ANYTHING. Whatever it is that fall into their mailboxes is automatically forwarded to all the contact list, friends, family, ex-anythings, co-workers and the plumber. They feel the compulsion to share those things that move them in any way. Power point presentations with puppies, silly two line jokes, infalible diets and hoaxes of all kind. And send to all the contacts on their lists, lists that haven't been checked in ages. Half of the people in there is dead, half of the rest are out of their life, half of the rest are unkown persons that were listed for unknown reasons and the one that's left is the one who sent the message originally.
Besides the use (waste) of resources, like bandwidth and storage, there's a lot of undesirable consequences from this behavior (I could mention annoying me but I doubt it will change my friend's habits). Spreading hoaxes creates the feeling that those stories are real, people are gullible, they want to believe. One probably wouldn't believe one message, but after reading it and hearing someone else talking about it the perception changes. Add to that a reunion where the subject arises and almost everyone is aware of it, and now it has turned into an incontrovertible truth. Of course everyone knows about it, everyone gets the same message, everyone sends it. Nobody is paying for each message you send, not to you not to anyone. All those kids and teenagers are not lost, and if they are, nobody is doing the search through email. There's nothing wrong with all those products that you've been using for ages, and if there is, it has nothing to do with all the things mentioned on the message. It doesn't matter how many keys you press in your cell phone, you won't get more free calls that those allowed by your call plan.
I'm sure that you can mention that one exceptional message that was real and useful and important, one in a million. And you're right, maybe that one was worth to be forwarded. But if it was so important, why didn't you erased the forward header? do you realize that after two page downs without finding a message most people trash it? why didn't you choose who to send to? why didn't you read it with enough attention to understand that that one made sense and the other ten thousands didn't?
Forwarding aimlessly is a lazy behaviour. If you want to share with a friend, go get some coffee with him and tell him about the message you've just received. Take a copy with you to show him, print it, copy to a floppy, whatever. Send it to him later if that's what he wants. Trust me, it's a better way.
It's a lot worse in the work environment where the email has turned into a lethal weapon.
Without email, written stuff was final, people met and discussed issues just like today but the written version was for final decisions, things that rarely changed. And it was done that way because writing was expensive in time and resources. I'm sure that meetings were a lot more productives for the same reason, it wasn't like engraving in stone but compared with email it was close to it. Everyone wanted to reach an agreement and that agreement to last forever. Imagine what a change would have meant at that time on a hundred pages specification or a blueprint. Even the smallest changes required all to be written or drawn again.
Today, talk is cheap and email is even cheaper. It's not even worth the paper is written into.
Drawings, specifications can be changed in minor details and printed over and over. Meetings are not so critical and issues are left to be disscused over email. Almost anything is disscused over email.
And, again, email is a wonderful tool but, as most sharp tools, it may turn into a weapon.
Discussing over email allows participants to express their ideas more clearly, without interruptions. Those who read have more time to understand the idea entirely, they can go back as many times as needed, take more time to ask for clarification and answer or not. At any time, all the participants can go through the whole discussion in detail. At the end, the messages can be archived for future reference.
Sounds nice, doesn't it? However in real life it doesn't work like that. Instead people babble endlessly about anything totally unrelated to the point in discussion. They write like if they were talking with total disregard of grammar and punctuation. It doesn't matter because nobody reads, each participant tries to impose his own ideas. Without face to face confrontation, people feel they can be more assertive, stand their grounds even if they're wrong. Because once you said X, X it is. Otherwise, two of your messages saying opposite things may and will be used against you. We have a natural resistance to acknowledge our mistakes. In oral communications is easier to blame a misscommunication, a missunderstanding. Nobody can really quote you literally and even if he can it's always arguable.
With email whatever you said is on everyone else's computer.
This is not a typical case. This is an enumeration of all the bad things we do with email. I wouldn't want to see all of them together. Because there are a lot more.
Every message includes the previous message which includes the previous message which...
Exactly like the aimless forwarding, this conversations grow with each intervention. So everyone has every single message as it was received plus every previous message included on it.
It gets worse. In the middle of the conversation, one participant takes the opportunity to add a personal message to another. Just because his name was there, his mail address at hand, the message is sent complete with all its content and on top a comment totally unrelated, an invitation to play tennis or a side comment on the tune of "can you believe this jerk?".
And if the receiver is not careful, the conversation may be continued from this message and distributed to everyone. The odd comment may remain unnoticed for a long time, maybe for ever, and if found it may be harmless. But what f it's not? What if the jerk finds out?
Sometimes this deviation occurs as part of the same conversation. Like when the input of someone not included initially is required for a particular topic. This person receives each and every single message from the conversation, all in one, with a question addressed to him on top.
This is a great opportunity to add to the confusion. Because he's not going to focus on the issue he should, he may or may not answer the question, but he won't limit his intervention to just that. For starters, he's going to read everything from top to bottom. Every single message not meant for him. Because they're there, because he wants to be updated of the situation, because he wants to be sure he's not being set up. After that he may answer only the question he's been asked, comment on any other issue from the conversation, raise any other issue related or not to the conversation or any combination of these. From now on, whatever his intevention adds to the conversation, everything will be kept circulating on every sinlge message among all the original participants plus the outsider who will remain included until the end.
Nobody wanted him included on the discussion from the start, whether there was a reason for it or not, and, for the same reasons, nobody would want him to remain included. However, nobody wants to cut him out either.
And that brings another issue. As we know, sending one message is the same as sending one thousand in terms of effort. Taking names from the address book is simple, is easy, is fast. No wonder nobody wastes much times trying to figure it out who to send to. When in doubt, add, unlike previous ages when one more copy was expensive and the default choice was don't. As a consequence, a lot of people is included that has nothing to do with the issue in discussion. Not only they get messages they shouldn't, wasting time and resources, also the door is open for them to actively disrupt the conversation with negative input or divert the attention of the group raising totally unrelated issues.
Nobody really pays attention to how the message was addressed. If you're listed on the "To" field, the message is meant for you If you're listed on one of the copy fields, the intention of the sender is to keep you updated but your input is not expected, maybe not even desired.
It should be a matter of common courtesy, at least, to contact the sender and ask for permission to participate before jumping in. Even by mail, but on a personal message to that person.
One would think that, being all this problems so evident, corporations have thousands of professionals dealing with this situation as we speak. And they are, they've been trying to define the problem clearly enough to write the proposal for a specification with rules and procedures to guide users on good and efficient practices in the use of email... over email. The last message I've received was 100 Mb of quotes from the last 5 years and I don't even work for this comitee.