Making Email Better

Dear readers,

I thought it would be fun to join David Pogue, the guy who writes all those wonderful tech articles for the New York Times — who is himself drawing from a slightly off-putting website called “emailcharter.org” — in pondering how to make email better.

However, in doing this, I’m going to focus less on business emails and more on personal ones. Workplaces put us in close contact with a lot of people, and we’re rarely compatible with every single one of them; as a result, the colleagues who get under our skin also tend to send emails that get under our skin. While bad workplace email is certainly very annoying, I don’t think emailcharter.org is going to improve the situation one bit. So this post is geared more toward people like me, who would like to take the same pleasure in email that they take in literature, and in Twitter, and in blogs, and in all the forums we use to splash around in an ocean of words.

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Unfortunately, this does not mean making email programs better, which could certainly be done on both major platforms. (I have no idea if Linux users are living in some kind of email utopia, but if they are, that makes me vicariously happy.) Mac users have to choose between Mail and Sparrow, both of which have problems, and Postbox, which is too expensive. PC users have only one legitimate choice, Thunderbird. Installing Outlook is like feeding a gremlin after midnight. Even the web interfaces have compatibility issues (MobileMe) or super-annoying, privacy-destroying ads (Gmail).

On the other hand, precisely because this is a discussion about how we use email, rather than about what we use to process it, it’s something in which everyone can participate.

The ten suggestions on emailcharter.org can be condensed into a single rule:

1) Respect people’s time by writing shorter and clearer emails to fewer folks.

Emailcharter does give us some new linguistic technology: the “eom” (end of message) email that says everything in a subject line, and the “nntr” (no need to reply) email. I actually have started adding “(end of message)” to emails that are basically the Internet equivalent of text messages. (“NNTR” is not that useful, unless you use an email intranet that records when other people open your messages.)

Pogue adds more substantive recommendations: don’t use “mailblocks” or include legal privacy notices, use BCC for email blasts, clean up forwards, and intersperse replies. I agree with the first three points; the last one is a matter of taste.

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Without further ado, here is my Email Manifesto, ten principles that look forward to where we might go based on where we are currently @t. Full disclosure: I have broken all of these rules. I have broken some of them in the past week.

1. Don’t forward anything except emails that were sent to the wrong person, or important pieces of information, or stuff you need to forward in order to explain a bit of venting.

Basically, this means bringing the age of the sentimental or entertaining forward to an end. The reason is very simple: we now have other, better means of distributing awesome links — the social networking sites. By limiting the old sorts of “forwards” to those sites, we (a) get more mileage out of them, because friends can make comments that everyone sees, and (b) avoid becoming spammers.

2. Give your emails real subject lines.

Beginning with Gmail, more and more sites and programs have adopted “threading,” an email tracking system that stitches together emails with the same subject lines and recipients. It’s not a very smart algorithm, and it’s hell on personal emails. Not only do they no longer have cool subject lines, something that used to be akin to an art form, but emails about twenty different things get stuck into the same thread, which makes absolutely no sense, and guarantees that email archives will be increasingly bewildering when, in an idle and nostalgic moment, you go back and browse through the year 2009 or 2011.

3. Don’t mix business and pleasure.

It may seem a little depressing or daunting to imagine sending emails to friends that are only about the money you need for the upcoming camping trip, or that only contain a request for them to edit a CV or other piece of writing. I can appreciate the dilemma, but even still, the alternative is to create a very unwieldy double dialogue. Your friends love you and do not mind lending a hand; arguably, when both registers are tossed into a single email salad, the effect is to make the email appear more cold or calculating.

4. Write medium-length letters.

We seem to have reached the end of the rhetorical questions about why people don’t send more “snail mail,” and it’s a great relief. The postal service is very expensive, a lot of people travel constantly for work, and the ability of email to cross continents instantly is one of the great miracles of modern life. We should embrace it without guilt or regrets; meanwhile, if snail mail appeals to you, it of course remains an option.

That said, really long emails are generally difficult to answer. There are lots of great reasons to write personal, private messages via email, while still keeping them no more than a few printed pages long.

5. Don’t create impromptu email lists to resolve logistical issues, and if somebody does create one, don’t add to the thread.

Self-explanatory. Every day, new ways around this problem are being served up by various genius corporations: the newest is the Google+ “huddle,” but there are also Facebook event pages, evite, and so forth. The worst version of this is when somebody can’t join the group for an upcoming trip to Mt. Rushmore, and sends regrets punctuated with attempts at fond jokes about the four featured Presidents.

6. Be a mirror.

Unless there is a really good reason to do so — bad breakups come to mind, or flirtations that kinda cross a line — don’t radically change the length, tone, grammar, degree of privateness, or salutation style in an email conversation. Nothing is odder than having a four paragraph email receive a two sentence, unpunctuated reply, and the same goes for ending an email “xo” and receiving “Very cordially yours.” We don’t do this kind of about-face when we’re actually in the company of a friend or acquaintance, because our natural social programming is there to remind us how awkward it would be.

In truth, if you find it’s going to be difficult to respond to an email in kind, it’s often best to either change the medium (by giving them a call, or sending written communication, or something) or to just file the email away.

7. Use one email address at a time with a given contact.

I know, it seems like all our email addresses will last forever, and we’ll be able to bounce emails from one address to the next, and so this isn’t really a problem. That is a total misperception. To cite just one of many problems, even if you are totally web-savvy and have gotten all of your email addresses talking to one another, your friends still won’t be able to find you on networks like Facebook or Google+ if they don’t know which address to put in the search bar. Thus, in effect, the more email addresses you use, the more addresses they are all obliged to remember, and to use, on a semi-regular basis.

8. Don’t use signatures of any kind, ever.

If you have any doubt about this principle, listen to your current voicemail message. Is it still a hilarious montage of recorded movie snippets, double entendres, and dramatic pauses that make your caller think you are actually on the line?

Exactly.

9. Take charge of chat.

In an effort to boost retention and popularity, sites like Google and Facebook have begun logging you into their chat programs automatically, such that you appear “available” to your frequent contacts simply because you are checking your email. This can be fantastic, or it can be terrible for both parties. If you don’t like chat, and hate having to be accessible at a moment’s notice, go into your preferences and stop it from logging you in. Otherwise a terrible, Neverending Story-like sadness will descend upon them when you don’t answer their chats, and upon you when you miss the update they sent.

10. Don’t diss email.

I still can’t quite believe it, but the 10th rule brought to you by emailcharter.org advises you to “disconnect!” They continue:

If we all agreed to spend less time doing email, we’d all get less email! Consider calendaring half-days at work where you can’t go online. Or a commitment to email-free weekends. Or an ‘auto-response’ that references this charter.

Well, yes. Also, if we were dead, we wouldn’t get any email at all, at least not any that would increase our stress, workload, and unfulfilled social obligations. If email is frustrating, then it’s up to all of us to re-shape it into something that we love. Kvetching about it via email, which usually happens as part of an embedded apology, accomplishes very little.

By the same token, many people attribute a strange plasticity of tone or meaning to email, particularly when it comes to personal emails about delicate subjects. Certainly, there are times when a phone call or visit is better than an email blast, but the reasons have little to do with some kind of ambiguity inherent to the Internet. Rather, the difference is rhythmic: the rhythm of an email correspondence is different than the rhythm of a phone call or the rhythm of an afternoon visit over coffee. Other decisions come into play: to hug or not to hug? Am I willing to be overheard by everyone in my immediate vicinity, or not?

These are all crucial decisions, and yet, no matter which medium we choose, the opacity and transparency of our loves, hates, deceptions, and declarations, change with the tides of our relations.

I have received many thousands of emails, many thousands of calls, and at least a hundred different looks that were born of a shift in the eyebrow, and all of them could be read, if I was willing to retrace them again and again, with my fingertips, as though translating them into a beloved and personal Braille.

Yours,

Kugelmass

PS. Come visit this summer!

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