think before you send

I’ve been using email since the pre-web days, which makes me a Methuselah in Internet terms. I was introduced to mailing lists when I started using email – approximately 14 years ago – so I’ve witnessed every possible permutation of behaviour on lists during that period.

After my years of experience I consider email as one of the most ineffective methods of communicating with another person.

It’s fine if you are in agreement, and you are exchanging pleasantries and factual information with one another. If the subject matter gets heated, or emotions are stirred, then email communication is like naplam dashed onto embers.

The problem – it seems to me – is that people tend to view email as a disposable, quick medium, into which they pour their thoughts as they arise, without much revision or meditation on the consequences of their words. There is a tendency to scan emails for content, rather than reading them thoroughly.

The result: angry, quickly-written replies as they gallop along on their high horse (balancing a keyboard as you ride a horse is tricky, but possible).

Emails can be re-read endlessly, with new interpretations of the author’s intent arising with each reading. Imagined slights are spotted in every turn of phrase, and the most innocuous statement can become a slight upon the subject’s honour, relatives or pets.

Email is definitely the worst medium through which to carry out an argument – unless it’s a purely abstract philosophical discussion. I’ve learned, through my own hard experience of the misinterpretation that is spawned via email, not to get into any emotive discussions using electronic mail. If it gets to that point, make a phone call if they are a buddy (if you want to keep them as a friend, that is), or cease communication if it’s a mailing list discussion.

I am bored with the petty bickering I see on mailing lists all the time. The pattern is so familiar, and repeated, that I don’t understand why people participate in them.

In any mailing list there are certain groups:

The Old Guard: this consists of people who have been on the list for minimum of a year, post frequently, and chat off-list with other members of their group. There is nothing wrong with this, but it does result in newer members making accusations that the group is a clique. The Old Guard, unfortunately, don’t help their case by frequently rowing in behind one of their friends if s/he has been slighted on the list. This is perceived by others as the Old Guard preserving their elitist group, when usually it comes down to the fact that they haven’t learned one of the most important rules of friendship: allow your friends to fight their own battles. I’ve seen more flame wars erupt on mailing lists due to well-intentioned friends running to the “rescue” of one of their mates.

The Newcomers: I detest the word “newbie” so I won’t use it in this context. Newcomers may be new to a particular mailing list, but often understand the rules of mailing lists in general. Newcomers can feel patronised by the Old Guard if they get snide responses to legitimate questions, just because those questions have been asked many times before. On the other hand, there are always members of the Old Guard who are helpful, kind and generous with their time and expertise. Equally, there are newcomers who are clueless, and make silly mistakes, but a gentle word and a careful correction will guide them on their way to become useful participating members of the list. Unfortunately, some people seem to enjoy tearing into a newcomer for a minor infraction. It’s like watching a bunny being clubbed – unnecessary and cruel.

The Lurkers: the vast majority of any mailing list. They watch and listen, but rarely speak up unless they have a specific question that needs addressing. Over time they can graduate into the Old Guard if they start to post at regular intervals.

The Troublemakers: there’s always a couple on any mailing list. They may even know some useful information, but are aggressive and dismissive of people who don’t share their opinions. Often they imply they know more than they do, and they seem to get enjoyment out of generating, or escalating, disagreements on the mailing list. This places them in the spotlight – a position they enjoy. They post a lot, and always leap into any discussion that looks like it has the potential to become fraught.

Really cool people: they can be a member of any of the above groups (though it’s unlikely that they are a Troublemaker). These people venture their opinion in reasoned, and often funny, messages, are not afraid to admit they don’t know the answer to something, and their aim is to promote informed and relevant discussions. This is why you should never dismiss a newcomer, or assume a member of the Old Guard is pompous, or think that if someone doesn’t contribute to the list very often that they can’t know very much.

Here are some simple rules that would make mailing lists a more enjoyable environment:

  • Have a sense of humour
  • Don’t email something just for the sake of it – contribute something useful
  • Never write an email when you’re annoyed – you’ll be amazed at how differently the email will read if you leave it for a day before replying
  • Never write something that you wouldn’t say in person
  • Let your friends fight their own battles
  • Don’t state something as fact, when it is opinion
  • Keep an open mind
  • Stick to the subject being discussed – never make it personal
  • Chill

Finally, life’s too damn short to be riled up by remarks by people you don’t even know, and would probably not like if you met them face-to-face. If you don’t respect their opinion, then why get outraged by what they say?

Remember: there’s a world outside of that computer screen.