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I-net 101 - Electronic Mail Basics - Part 2/4

Written by Marco J. Shmerykowsky P.E.


Part1 Part2 Part3 Part4


Last time I briefly reviewed the history of the development of the Internet. This time I'm going to start discussing various internet tools. So let's get started by looking at the ins and outs of e-mail.

The latest communication tool to join the workforce along side the ubiquitous telephone and fax machine is electronic mail or e-mail. Like all electronic gadgets, it has its own unique strengths and weaknesses which must be understood before the tool can be used safely and effectively.

An important characteristic of e-mail which must be understood is its "state of formality." The basic concept states that an e-mail message may be viewed as being equivalent to an "informal" telephone conversation or to a "formal" written document.

A telephone conversation is typically a spontaneous communication process which is embellished through the use of vocal inflections, phrases, volume, and tempo. A simple word such as "what?" can be spoken in such a way as to indicate a polite request for clarification or an angry statement questioning the speaker's rationality. E-mail, as a text based medium, lacks this ability of assigning "feeling" to a statement. As a result, it is very easy for a message to be misread.

For example, a sender could write the statement "that's a great idea" in response to a suggestion. As written, the message sounds like a positive affirmation. The sender, however, wanted to convey a frustrated sarcastic comment. This meaning is lost. In order to simulate "feeling," Internet users have developed icons and tags such as :) ;) :( or <GRIN>. Although not perfect, they help to indicate that a certain statement should be read from a different perspective. The intended "feeling" of the sample message could have been achieved by adding <GRIN> to the end of the line.

E-mail messages have also taken on the characteristics of a telephone conversation due to their ease of use. (This, of course, is dependent on the fact that you consider typing easy <GRIN>) An original message or a reply to a message can be crafted and sent within minutes. Furthermore, this message has the potential of reaching it's destination within seconds of being sent. This quick responsiveness can serve to simulate tempo of a real conversation. The problem with using such a relatively quick communication system is that it is easy to send a message without carefully considering its wording.

Is this really a problem? People typically do not prepare their exact statements prior to initiating a telephone conversation. Ambiguities are usually resolved during the conversation.

The reality, however, is that a rapid e-mail "conversation" can create problems. Although a quick exchange of e-mail messages can lead to a resolution of ambiguity, the fact of the matter is that each unclear statement is recorded. Both the sender and receiver of the e-mail message keep copies. Additionally, just as real mail or "snail mail" doesn't travel from point A to point B directly, neither does e-mail. Messages typically pass through a number of computer servers prior to reaching the destination. At any point during this transmission process, a backup copy of the message may be made. This copying is not necessarily malicious. It could be simply due to a system administrator performing standard system maintenance. The point is that a bad e-mail message is very hard to get rid off.

In general, e-mail messages are equivalent to writing old fashioned letters. Further, if a message is sent from a company address (i.e.., then it is equivalent to writing a letter on company stationary. As company property, employers have the legal right to review all e-mail messages. Employees should not assume that their company e-mail is private because it isn't. The most recent example of the power of e-mail as a written record is evident in the current investigation of Microsoft by the Justice Department. The judge appointed Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor, as a special master for the case. Microsoft successfully used a series of E-mails between Lessig and lawyers at Netscape Communications Corp. to argue that he may be biased against the company. In general, Mr. Lessig's messages expressing frustration with Microsoft's Internet Explorer came back to haunt him.

There are a few more basic rules about e-mail which do not carry the same impact as the "state of formality" concept. These include the following:

Do not send messages which are typed exclusively in capital letters. This style of typing is considered SHOUTING and should be used with care. No need to upset people needlessly. Avoid using fancy fonts and colors to convey meaning. There are numerous e-mail clients on the Internet and not all of them support the same features. I happen to use windows based Microsoft Exchange, OS/2 based MR/2 Internet Cruiser, and an text based Unix application called elm. My messages are typed in a single font and color more or less insuring that the receiver will get exactly what I intended. In general, "keep it simple." Avoid attaching large files to your messages. Common convention is to limit files to 1.44 Mb per message. If you can't limit the size, then look for an alternative such as FTP. The reason for this is that mail servers were configured for small messages. Some machines, including a person's dialup connection, may not be equipped to effectively deal with very large files. Do not rely on the "notification of receipt" or "notification of reading" messages that some program offer. This service is not guaranteed. The administrator of the receiving mail server must enable these features. However, since this service typically results in a large number of unnecessary messages which negatively impact the speed and efficiency of the computer network, most administrators disable it. Include a tag line with your name & e-mail address. You'd be surprised how many people actually print messages to paper for easy reference.

In general, e-mail is a powerful tool which should be used with intelligence and caution. If used improperly, it can create more communication problems than it solves.


Well, that concludes an overview of e-mail basics. Hopefully the topics and "basic rules" I discussed lead to a few more "internet friendly" e-mail users. Next time I'll tackle the use of FTP.