A Brief E-Mail Primer
The Pros and Cons of E-mail
Okay, so the Internet e-mail system seems to work pretty well, but is e-mail a good thing or a bad thing? Well, since e-mail represents (for most people) a completely new way to communicate with others, it should come as no surprise that it's certainly no panacea. Like anything new, it has its ups and more than its share of downs, as the following lists show.
- E-mail is easy. The hardest part of Internet e-mail (or any Net service, for that matter) is getting connected to the Internet in the first place. Once you've made it through that trial-by-fire, however, the rest is no sweat. All you need is the appropriate software that runs on your computer. There are no yucky stamps to lick, no impossible-to-decipher waybills to fill out, and no trips in the freezing cold to mailboxes.
- E-mail is fast. No matter where you're sending your message, whether it's on the other side of town or on the other side of the planet, even the most rambling missive still takes only seconds or, at most, minutes to reach its destination. Nowadays, whenever I send regular mail (or snail mail as e-mail aficionados snidely refer to mail sent through the post office), I shudder to think it's actually going to take days to reach its destination. How primitive!
- E-mail is cheap. Outside of your normal online connection charges, Internet e-mail costs precisely nothing (although some commercial e-mail systems do charge a nominal fee after you've sent a certain number of messages or characters). Unlike long distance telephone calls, you pay no more for messages sent to London, Ohio, or London, Ontario, or London, England.
- E-mail messages are easily stored. Because they're electronic, saving an e-mail message you've received (and calling it back up again later on) is a breeze. And the electronic nature of e-mail means we use less natural resources and we don't have to bother with things like slimy fax paper.
- E-mail is practically universal. Not only do millions of people on the Internet use e-mail, but every major e-mail system in the world has built-in electronic "bridges" (called gateways) that allow their users to send messages to and receive messages from the Internet. Yeah, sure, your aunt in Boise may not be wired, but just give the old gal some time.
- E-mail is impersonal. Unlike in a mano-a-mano conversation, it's tough to get across facial expressions and other nuances in e-mail prose. Even a telephone confab relies on oral cues such as inflection and volume to convey subtleties such as sarcasm and wry humor. There are ways around these e-mail constraints (I'll tell you about them in the Learning the Lingo: E-Mail Jargon and Acronyms section), but your overall range of expression is limited.
- Impersonality of e-mail also leads to another problem: forgetting that, most of the time, a live human being will be reading your message. E-mail is so easy that you can throw together a message in a few minutes and send it packing with a single keystroke or mouse click. And once it's sent, there's no way to retrieve a message that was written in a fit of pique or anger.
- E-mail can take over your life. As you get more involved in the world of e-mail, you'll naturally start getting more correspondence. You'll be exchanging pleasantries with friends and colleagues, subscribing to mailing lists and online journals, and trading info with complete strangers. Before you know it, you can spend most of your day just reading and responding to the deluge.
- E-mail security is lax, at best. As your e-mail messages wend their way to their destinations, they have to pass through other, public, systems. Anyone with the right amount of technical know-how can easily intercept your mail and snoop through it without you or the recipient knowing. For more info on this important topic, see A Note About E-Mail Security.
- E-mail messages are easily stored. "Hey, wait a minute! I thought that was a pro." Well, it is, but there's a downside to this easy storage. If you say nasty things about your boss or a colleague in a message, a saved copy of your tirade could easily resurface and come back to haunt you sometime in the future. A good rule to follow is to assume your message will be read by the general public and to write accordingly.
- E-mail can only handle text. The big advantage that snail mail and couriers have over e-mail is that you can send things like Christmas presents and food. E-mail is a text-only medium, which limits the types of things you can send. Things are getting better, though. Most modern e-mail programs let you "attach" things like graphics, sound files, and other types of documents.
Overall, though, I'd have to say the pros of e-mail easily outweigh the cons, so that, yes, e-mail is a good thing after all (so it's safe to keep reading).
The artwork displayed throughout this primer is Copyright © Judd Winick.
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Paul McFedries and Logophilia Limited