Electronic communication (e-mail, in particular) comprises a relatively new form of communication and differs from other methods of communication common to the workplace. This guide discusses factors to consider when using electronic communication and suggests guidelines for using this medium most effectively. Some of this guide (references to posting, articles, newsgroups and the usenet) refers to the use of newsgroups but all the points raised are valid even if you are only using the Internet for e-mail.
Points To Consider
Electronic communication differs from other methods of communication in the following key areas:
• Speed - The time required to generate, transmit, and respond to messages.
• Permanence - The methods of storing messages and the permanence of these files.
• Cost of Distribution - The visible cost of sending messages to one or more individuals.
• Accessibility - The direct communication channels between individuals.
• Security and Privacy - The ability of individuals to access electronically stored mail and files.
• Sender Authenticity - The ability to verify the sender of a message.
In using electronic communications, we may need to reevaluate what to expect in terms of rules, guidelines, and human behavior. Our experiences with paper and telephone communications may not tell us enough. For each of the key areas mentioned, the differences between electronic and other forms of communication are discussed below.
With electronic mail, written messages are delivered to the recipient within minutes of their transmission. Messages can be read at the recipient's convenience, at any time of the day. Or, the recipient can respond immediately, and an asynchronous dialogue can develop which resembles a telephone conversation or a meeting.
The ease and speed with which messages transmit often changes the writing style and formality of the written communication. These changes can lead to misinterpretation of messages, and a need arises for a new set of standards for the interpretation of message content.
Electronic communications appear to be a volatile form of communication in which messages disappear when deleted. However, messages can be stored for years on disks or tapes, or they can be printed and/or stored in standard files.
Unlike paper copy or a telephone message, a message also can be altered, then printed, without evidence that it is not original. Electronic messages may also be reformatted, then printed, as more formal or "official" correspondence.
The associated costs of paper or telephone communication are familiar to most people. The cost of a US Mail message (paper, stamp(s), and the personnel time to prepare the message) are known and visible. Long distance telephone costs are visible in a monthly bill. Due to the cost and effort involved, correspondents often limit their paper or telephone messages to select individuals known to absolutely require the information.
By comparison, electronic communication allows discourse with a large number of correspondents, over a wide geographical area, with no more effort or cost than is required to send a single message locally. This multiple-mailing capability often leads to wider transmission of messages than is necessary, and messages may be distributed to individuals with only a casual interest in the information.
Organizations develop channels of communication to filter paper or telephone messages to ensure that only appropriate individuals receive the information. Comparable mechanisms may not yet be in place for electronic mail. In using electronic communication, organizations may need to reevaluate office procedures to ensure consistent documentation of correspondence and to prevent inappropriate correspondence burdening individuals.
Currently, no legal regulations exist regarding the security and privacy of electronic mail. The vast majority of electronic mail messages are delivered to the correct addressee without intervention. However, messages may be intercepted by individuals other than the sender or recipient for reasons discussed below.
Perusal By Unauthorized Individuals
Mail delivered to a secure file storage area on a computer is held there until the recipient retrieves it. The file can only be read by the owner of the mail while in storage. Once the mail is on the owner's computer, security depends on the owner.
One group of users on every system has access to all computers in a system. These systems administrators have special privileges required to maintain the system. While these individuals have the ability to peruse private files, it is considered unprofessional to do so. Systems administrators normally access only those files required to perform their job.
Standard mail packages automatically construct the "From:" portion of the message header. A knowledgeable person can break into a system and modify the "From:" address of messages. This is a rare occurrence.
The following section addresses the differences in writing style and etiquette that result from the greater speed, accessibility and permanence of electronic communication. Guidelines are presented to help make it useful and productive for you.
Electronic communication tends to lead to a writing style much less formal than that normally used in paper documents. However, electronic messages are just as permanent as paper documents and may be read by more individuals. Many people will know you only by what you say and how well you say it. They may someday be your -workers or friends. Take time to make sure no electronic communication embarrasses you later. Minimize spelling errors and make sure that the message is easy to read and understand.
When posting a response, summarize the parts of a message or article to which you are responding. Summarizing allows readers to remember what the original article said and to appreciate your comments better. Also, your response to a news article may get to some sites before the original article; readers may be unable to refer to the original.
Summarization may be best done by including appropriate quotes from the original message or article. Do not include the entire article. In responding to an entire article, summarize only the major points you are discussing.
When you request information from the network, it is common courtesy to report your findings so that others can benefit as well. The best way of doing this is to take all the responses you receive and edit them into a single article; then post that article to the newsgroups or individuals to whom you originally sent the query. In summarizing responses, strip the headers, combine duplicate information, and write a short summary of each response. Credit the information to the people that sent it to you, where possible.
Make your messages "concise," not cryptic. Shorter paragraphs have more impact and are more likely to be read by busy people. Most people can only grasp about seven ideas at once. This means ideas in a paragraph, major sections, etc..
White space is not wasted space. It greatly improves clarity. A blank line only adds a byte to the message length; so don't be stingy. A well-designed message helps make your meaning clearer.
Take time to back up your statements with references to articles and documents just as you would in standard written material. Readers of newsgroups may not know who you are and your statements may lack credibility without substantiation.
The subject line of an electronic message enables a person with limited amount of time to decide whether to read your message or article. As a courtesy to others, indicate what the message is about before they take the time read it.
Without the voice inflections and body language of personal communications, it is easy for a remark meant to be funny to be misinterpreted. Subtle humor tends to get lost in electronic communication; so take steps to make sure that people realize you are trying to be funny. People who use networks have developed a symbol called the smiley face to indicate humor. It looks like a sideways smiling face, ":-)", and points out sections of articles with humorous intent. No matter how broad the humor or satire, it is safer to remind people that you are being funny.
Again, because electronic communication has the informal properties of conversation without the corresponding benefits of voice inflection and body language, messages are often misconstrued and generate unexpected angry responses called "flames." The ability to respond immediately to a message often leads to a hasty response.
If a message or article generates negative emotions, you should set it aside and reread it later. Or, you might ask for feedback on its content from a colleague. Take time to calmly respond to the message from the stance that there may be a misunderstanding or misinterpretation. Ask for clarification on inflammatory statements.
Angry emotions are best conveyed through a coherent statement of the source of your anger with the word "flame" prominently inserted to indicate your feelings. Do not send a message or news article that may haunt you at a later date.
Think twice before you post personal information about yourself or others. Your message gets circulated, and it could quite possibly end up in the electronic mailbox of your boss, your friend's boss, your girl friend's brother's best friend, etc., etc. Information posted on the network can come back to haunt you or the person you are talking about.
Remember that we all make mistakes, and that there are many users on the network who use English as a second language. If you feel that you must make a comment on the quality of a posting, please do so by US mail, not on the network.
Be aware that other people's machines may not operate the same way as yours does. Keep the following precautions in mind:
• Keep your lines under 80 characters, and under 72 if possible. For example, a terminal with an autowrap feature makes output on a simple line editor appear as if a carriage return has been inserted at the 80th character; a new line seems to have started when it actually hasn't. Be sure your editor is really inserting carriage returns, or insert them manually when typing.
• Most special control characters do not work for most readers. In fact, the tab and space characters are about the only ones you can be sure work consistently, and tabs aren't always the same from machine to machine.
• Pictures and diagrams should not use embedded tabs.
• Submissions in all upper case or all lower case are difficult to read.
It is perfectly legal to reproduce short extracts of a copyrighted work for critical purposes, but reproduction in whole is strictly and explicitly forbidden by US and international copyright law. The crime of theft is as serious in this context as any other.
Note that any message or article posted on the network is effectively in the public domain unless you own the appropriate rights and post it with a valid copyright notice. Material that includes or references software source code may be restricted by a license you or your company signed with a vendor. Be sure not to violate license agreements.
When you post something (like a movie review that discusses a detail of the plot) which might spoil a surprise for other people, please mark your message with a warning so that they can skip the message. Make sure the word "spoiler" is part of the "Subject:" line.
Posting of information on networks is similar to publication. Because of this, do not post instructions for how to do some illegal act (such as jamming radar or obtaining cable TV service illegally); also do not ask how to do illegal acts by posting to the networks.
Please keep your signatures short. Two or three lines are usually plenty. Long signatures are frowned upon. Do not include drawings, pictures, maps, or other graphics in your signature. It is not the appropriate place for such material and is viewed as rude by other readers. Sometimes, it is appropriate to add another line or two for addresses on other major networks where you can be reached (e.g., Internet, CSnet, Bitnet).