Happily, many e-mail correspondents seem to be getting the basics of "netiquette": all-caps equals screaming and don't send attachments without the recipient's prior permission. I'm even getting fewer dumb jokes, although my friends may just be dumping me from their mailing lists -- hallelujah! -- because I whine so much about spam.
So it's time to graduate to the next level -- Netiquette 202, we'll call it. It's time to rid the world of dumb e-mail -- and "dumb" can take many forms online.
1. Dump the "couple" accounts. Sharing an e-mail account with your beloved other is like walking around the state fair wearing matching T-shirts: extremely uncool. Even more, it's rude to your friends and family who might want to write a personal missive to just one of you. It's so easy to get your own screen name and password; let's join the liberated 21st century on this one. No excuses accepted.
2. No more chain e-mail. At least once a month, another well-meaning friend forwards me and everyone in her address book some pass-it-along alert. Last week, it was another version of the ancient pervert-at-the-Ohio-mall warning. The message is, never help business-suited strangers because you never know when his briefcase might contain a hatchet. This urban legend promotes fearmongering among women, it hurts business at an innocent mall, and it's a lie that's easily unearthed by a quick keyword search in, say, www.alltheweb.com. It is way tacky to pass along chain mail -- even if it's to solicit free used paperbacks or recipes. And it shows you're a "newbie."
3. Lose the mailing lists. The honeymoon is over. Now that even your Aunt Irma is online, it's time to stop forwarding e-mail just because we can. Unless you're maintaining an opt-in e-mail list, don't assemble any e-mail recipient lists. That promotes abuse -- and it's insulting to your loved ones that you think they all have the same interests and tastes. If you get a joke that Aunt Irma might like, send it to Aunt Irma with a personal note and leave everybody else in peace.
4. Violating e-mail privacy, part I. If you do forward something, have the courtesy to delete any and all e-mail addresses that appear in it before sending it along. I've had friends send private e-mails containing my personal information to their "list." Then I end up on strangers' lists. Argh. (And you are aware that most e-mail "petitions" are actually ways for spammers to troll for spammees, right? Good.)
5. Violating e-mail privacy, part II. Don't assume that the ease of the new medium means you should bombard other users -- even journalists -- with obscene and harassing e-mails. Compare it to the phone: If your missive would qualify as an obscene or harassing phone call, it's the same via e-mail. Read your ISP user-service agreements to see what kind of missives go too far.
6. Don't send anonymous e-mail. Just because you have the technical means to be cowardly doesn't mean you should. Show you mean what you say; sign your e-mails.
7. Don't send personal attacks. Ad hominem arguments don't help your cause; they just muddy your credibility. I stop reading at the very word where the e-mail gets personal.
8. Respect recipients' privacy. If someone asks that you not write them again, stop. Don't go create new screen names and accounts to keep bombarding them; that's harassment. (And if you get harassing and/or obscene e-mail, just as with unsolicited spam, forward it to the abuse line at their ISP: abuse@THEIR-ISP.com. Be part of the solution.)
9. Use specific subject lines on each e-mail. It makes it easier to manage and file e-mail.
10. Lose the bells and whistles. Don't send e-mail in HTML format or include pictures or anything gimmicky without asking the recipients' permission first. You'll just annoy them.
11. Learn to type, and to spell check. If my inbox is any indication, many Americans are illiterate.
Note to my more paranoid readers before you fire back anonymous hate missives: These are suggestions; I'm not proposing legislation. Calm down.
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