A Few Thoughts on E-mail

I came across the home page of a computer science professor who's given up on e-mail while searching for information on Facebook.  (It's not that he's switched completely to Facebook as you might think though – he's actually become 99% snail mail and 1% fax from the sound of things.  He doesn't use e-mail or other Net-related communications at all and did I mention he's a CS prof?)

His decision was made because he needs time to study issues in great depth and he finds e-mail extremely intrusive (and you know what?  He's right!) 

Still, I don't think I'll be giving up e-mail anytime soon.  In fact, it's reached the point around our house that we check our e-mail on a regular basis throughout the day but if someone calls and leaves a phone message, there's a chance we might not even notice!

Here are some random thoughts on e-mail, the original “killer app” of the Internet:
– spam is obviously a huge problem but the spam filters usually do a pretty good job these days in catching most of it (it's always a leapfrogging contest though between spammers and spam-blockers.)  I probably get 5-10 pieces of completely unsolicited spam per day which isn't too unmanageable.  (Wondering why you still get spam?  Who could ever believe the stuff those messages contain whether it's stock tips, earn-a-degree at home programs or penis enlargers?  Well, it's almost a zero cost proposition for spammers to send out millions of messages.  So if they get a 0.001% response rate, that's still 1000 sales which is significant, especially if you're selling something with a high profit margin like perscription drugs or whatever.)

– to me, just as bad as the unsolicited spam, is being “spammed” by organizations or individuals that you allow to e-mail you.  Why do some organizations feel the need to send you a weekly update of the progress on conference planning for months leading up to the event, especially when nothing new is happening?  My personal belief is that you have to put the responsibility on people – send one e-mail really early, one e-mail really late with details and otherwise, let them know a web site/blog/wiki that they can check out on their own if they want these regular updates.  Or set-up a specific mailing list for those who want to now the incremental details.

– a similar type of spamming is the dread forwarded e-mail messages – jokes, prayer wishes, funny pictures, humourous anecdotes, amazing “did you know?” lists, frantic tips & alerts, etc.  These are worse than spam because they're usually from someone you know (who probably doesn't know about Snopes – the best place to find out about Internet hoaxes and chain letters.)

– my biggest pet peeve is people who don't respond to e-mail messages.  I know the etiquette is a bit uncertain – when do you stop replying “Okay, thanks!” then you write “thanks for saying thanks” and it's hard to know when the communication is over.  But I've had many occasions in my life when I write to companies or individuals with specific questions or concerns and never received a response.  Frustrating! 

– what is the proper timeline for expecting a response?  That's a personal preference thing again but there's no doubt that e-mail has shortened the length of time people are willing to wait.  I would suggest that most people tend to expect a response within a day or two at most.  Personally, I like a response within that timeframe as well but will usually wait up to a week before re-sending a message or trying to contact via an alternate method if it's something urgent.  The oldest message in my in-box that I feel I should respond to is April 9 so I'm not doing too bad.  My oldest message is March 20 for a link to an article someone sent me that I never got around to reading yet. 

– how do you archive/file your e-mail?  Maybe it's the archivist/librarian in me but I keep virtually every single message I receive.  I figure that hard drive space is practically unlimited (I'm still using Thunderbird locally although Gmail and other web-based services are pretty much the same thing.)  Why do I keep everything?  You just never know if you might have to find something from a few years ago (I recently dug up a complimentary e-mail I'd received for some web site work I did about five yeras ago to use as part of a job application package.)   My personal classification system only makes sense to me but roughly, I have folders for categories of friends – UWO, Indian Head, my high school graduation class, working librarians plus folders for other topics – work-related, house-related, website related, newsletters and listservs and so on.  It's not perfect and I often forget – did I classify somebody as “work-related” or “library contacts” but, in conjunction with Google desktop search, it's not bad. 
I know one of the big advantages of Gmail is tagging rather than folders but I grew up with folders and still haven't been converted to tagging messages.

– one suggestion if you do use a local e-mail program like Thunderbird or Outlook Express.   Don't leave all your messages in your in-box (and replies in your Sent folder.)  This can really hurt the performance of your e-mail program and possibly even lead to errors once the index gets too large.  Take a couple seconds every time you send a message to file it or do it at the end of the day or whatever. 

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