E-MAIL HAS BECOME many people's default form of contact, and why not? It's fast, simple, cheap and independent of time zones and geography. E-mail also makes communication purely democratic; its impersonal white screen and black letters often strip a person's status from her words. As the cartoon caption goes, "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog." But this freedom often makes it hard to communicate usefully. People can usually figure out what you do from your e-mail, but they can't always determine what kind of person you are. If you will forgive another dog analogy, nobody knows whether you're a poodle who's just been fed or a Doberman with an empty dinner dish. And that makes e-mail a dangerously blind medium. My e-mail inbox at SmartMoney.com, where until recently I reported on tech stocks, received more unenlightening noise than I've heard on the streets of Manhattan. And I don't mean spam: I mean bile.
Many of my most outspoken readers traded stocks online, making consequential decisions without any human contact. Good thing, because their good manners disappeared when they communicated in virtual form. "Grow up and stop preaching your ethos of oppression," snarled one reader after a story on possible interest rate hikes. Another excoriated my editor for praising a buyout deal. The arrangement, he protested, "left the poor shareholders like me crying for KY jelly." Ahem. How does a writer respond to that? Of course, that's just it. The sender usually assumes you won't respond to e-mail. There's no voice on the other end, no threat of personal confrontation. When you use e-mail, you are truly venting into the ether. The effect fails when the ether responds. A writer who first addressed me as "silly Alec" when responding to a story I wrote suddenly backed down when I wrote back advising him to read the article more closely. And I'll always remember Jacki. One Tuesday, from behind an AOL address, she accused me of trying to scare her with "a trashy piece of scribbling" about yield curves. That Thursday, after I replied with a personal note defending my logic, this stranger changed her tune: "The first part of your article would have been frightening to someone who didn't know better (or didn't read the entire article, for example, my brother-in-law). And you certainly didn't need to reply, that was very courteous. Sorry, Jacki." Forced into dialogue, my e-pal grew a name and a brother-in-law. And I gained qualities beyond my name and mail address. The result: Jacki and I achieved peace. But such peace is elusive.
Usually, writing e-mail is a form of mental effluvia. Nobody will interrupt you or cut you off. It's a rush, which helps explain why it has outstripped visually richer media such as videoconferencing. Indeed, most folks feel insecure about their looks and would rather not communicate that way, notes consultant George Simons, who helps companies create virtual teams. E-mail, on the other hand, becomes addictive because it leaves so much unsaid. It never fully answers the recipient's questions, leaving him with a craving for more. It is up to the recipient, says psychiatrist John Suler of Rider University, to infer the sender's purpose and mood. And that can crimp discussion, with noxious results. Arguing online with a friend about hunger relief, I once typed a quick aside, "You see, it's more compplicated than that," which my friend found as pompous. Some long, backpedaling e-mails followed. And in business, e-mail miscues can cost money and goodwill. For example, cross-cultural work teams can fizzle if American members, accustomed to rapid-fire exchanges, neglect to flag their missives as requests when e-mailing Europeans and professionals from the Middle East, Simons says. And every time e-mail fails to bridge two worlds, a user may trust it less for serious tasks. That may explain why so many people use e-mail to pass along silly jokes. A rash medium breeds rash matter. As a result, our inboxes grow cluttered, less open to edifying discussion.
It needn't be this way. Internet pioneer and consultant Howard Rheingold recently reminded me that explicit decorum supported the earliest online discussions, on pre-Web networks like Usenet. Those rules about flaming, self-identification and other matters of courtesy guided a diverse cohort of users. Yet few organizations enforce decorum when they adopt e-mail or instant messaging or intranets. Perhaps rightly so, it may be intrusive or doltish to publish codes of what an employee can or cannot say at work. That's where CIOs can help.
The cues we currently use don't carry much weight. A smiley (formed by a colon, dash and closing parenthesis) from a stranger in my business, usually a publicist, feels about as warm as a recorded assurance that my call is important. On the other hand, a visual set of cues or constraints that make me parse what I've written would make a deeper impression. We could implement cosmetic touches, for instance, like changing the color of an international address to remind impatient Americans to type "request" in the header. Or automatic spellcheckers that force a user to read through a message before she sends it. The e-mail system at my new job makes me find a recipient's address from a list of real names every time I want to send a message. And I write more scrupulously after the recipient's name is burned into my brain. Once I am reminded who my correspondent is, I have a clearer sense of how I should speak to her. To be sure, such precautions only lower the probability of accidents. But the more deliberately people view e-mail, the more prudently we'll write it.
As information architects, CIOs can protect users against disasters resulting from rushed e-mail messages. But ultimately, users must agree on digital grammar that achieves the same pauses, allowances and acknowledgements we've built into other forms of speech. We will learn this grammar the way we learned pencil-on-paper grammar in school: by laboriously pruning our words. We can train ourselves to read e-mails aloud before we send them or set maximum lengths for our messages. CIOs can build the classroom, designing more restricted message windows and interface reminders to slow down e-mail production. But if we as the users don't edit ourselves, our billions of e-mails will transcribe a muddier and meaner society.
And we won't all be able to blame our brothers-in-law.
This story, "The Evils of E-Mail" was originally published by CIO.