Mails behaving badly

(Originally written 1997)

There’s no doubt about it, electronic mail is a truly wonderful thing. Using it, I can sit at my desk all day sending trivial messages to my friends, colleagues and family, whether they’re across the world or across the room.

But I have the feeling that some people just don’t quite “get” e-mail. There are people out there who, it seems, don’t quite use it in a logical way. Or at least a way that I think of as logical, and I generally consider myself to be a reasonably logical person, although some of my friends would beg to differ.

This illogical use of e-mail especially seems to be the case in the corporate world, where so often few objections are made to the over-enthusiastic obliteration of time, disk and paper resources.

Take, for example, those people who for no good reason, will not read e-mail on a screen. Yes, there really are people in the world who have to print out all their e-mail onto what remains of a dead tree before they’ll read it. In fact, I knew a guy who, having to clear out his e-mail, printed it all out onto paper. I’m not sure what he did with it – perhaps he hired a truck to take it home, or bought a new filing cabinet to store it all in.

Maybe it’s just me, but doesn’t printing out the mail defeat the purpose somewhat? Once it’s on paper, okay, you can read it, but after it’s filed away somewhere, how are you ever going to find it again? If it’s still in the e-mail system, you can file it, sort it, search for it, reply to it, forward it, and even chop out a bit that contains a really good idea and send it to other people claiming that you thought of it. Not that I’d ever do that, of course.

Another thing that some people do is to send every single message, big or small, important or trivial, as “high priority”. High priority on mail systems doesn’t actually send the message any faster; it simply flags it to the receiver to try to indicate what is important and what isn’t. I’m not sure why these people flag them all high priority, but I’ve seen them do it, and I think it’s almost a subconcious thing. They write their message, and clicking on the high priority icon or button seems like second nature – it’s just something you do before you click Send.

At one job I had, we used an e-mail system that allowed an “extra extra high priority” flag to be set. I got my mail program to automatically bump messages with this flag down a priority point. What could possibly be THAT important? The building burning down? The imminent arrival of the Queen Of England? Chocolate biscuits in the biscuit jar? I don’t think so. News that important never travels by e-mail.

People in corporations also tend to send mail to far too many people. Okay, so there are the times when everybody might need to know about a meeting or something. But sometimes it’s just something that’s come down the line from above, and they feel they have to tell absolutely everybody they can – no matter how irrelevant it is.

Some people feel like they have to make elaborate use of attachments, because they think, for whatever reason, that their message has to be written in Word, or some other application. Most of the time when I get an attached Word document in my mail, I open it and find a message that is completely plain text. No bold or italics, no superscript, no fancy fonts, nothing!

Fact is, these attachments increase astronomically the amount of stuff being flung around the network. You can see the LAN and Mail Administrator guys sweating every time that somebody does something like this.

At one job I was at, someone decided that everybody needed to see a new freeware screensaver that he’d got hold of. Did he put it on a shared drive, then notify people where they could find it? Heck no. He mailed it – all 7 megabytes of it – to everybody. A masterstroke, I’m sure you’ll agree. It clogged up the entire mail system for hours, as I recall.

But the ultimate in irony was a document somebody wrote detailing how to use the mail system in such a way as to avoid overloading it. It was a beautifully prepared masterpiece, with colourful illustrations throughout, and the file came out to about half a megabyte. [At the time, a lot.] The author then sent this to all 200 people in the organisation, once again, clogging up the mail system.

So there you have it, a whole range of ways to misuse your e-mail system and harrass your Mail Administrator. Which will you choose?

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1 thought on “Mails behaving badly

  1. Titel

    Actually, you’re wrong; high priority e-mail travels with rocket-propelled pigeons instead of regular ones, so it really does travel faster. Just like second day delivery for snail mail, but this one costs… a click. 😉

    Joke aside, I can add a couple of situations to the ones you mentioned. The first is when you’re part of a mailing list, and someone sends a pertinent e-mail to the list. Then someone else on the list gets the e-mail, reads it, ignores the fact that it came through the list, thinks “Oh this is so interesting, I’d better share it with the others” and forwards it to the list again. Makes you want to walk over and cut the mouse cable with a pair of scissors — the challenge of using the PC with keyboard shortcuts will keep them away from the Forward button for a while.

    The second is about forward-happy but too-busy-to-read people. I’m sure you’ve seen the type; someone will forward you something they didn’t actually read further than the subject line. Sort of a “Here, someone sent this to me, it must be something great because people always send me great stuff. But I don’t want to deal with it, so you figure it out.” Here goes: A college classmate was member of the Students’ Senate. As a result, she was receiving all kinds of notifications about upcoming activities or opportunities for students. You think she’d act responsibly, according to her position, and read them before forwarding to hundreds of students. Wrong. Her Senatorial time seemed to be more precious than “common people”‘s time. One time I asked her why did she send me an announcement about a special scholarship for freshmen when I was a senior, and about an European Commission-sponsored competition for teens aging from 12 to 16, when all college students are older than 18. She rolled eyes and pffft-ed. She didn’t get the hint even when I asked her to delete my contact information from her address book and not e-mail me ever again, ever.

    Thank God for blacklists.

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