Needed: Etiquette For E-mail

By Robert Kuttner

Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

Monday, April 20, 1998; Page A19

A few years ago, when my daughter was a college freshman, I wrote a column singing the praises of e-mail. We were, suddenly, corresponding. It was, I decided, the revenge of print on electronics -- a whole generation raised on the tube and the phone, rediscovering the lost art of writing letters. How utterly charming. Now, I'm not so sure.

Like all new media, e-mail has a dark side. To be sure, it saves a great deal of time and paperwork and has facilitated new, unimagined forms of affinity. However, e-mail is also a thief. It steals our time and our privacy. It deceives us into thinking we have endless additional hours in the day to engage in far-flung communications that we may or may not need or want. All of a sudden, on top of everything else we have to do, e-mail is one more garden demanding tending.

E-mail brings a kind of pseudo-urgency that demands an instant response. It creates false intimacies. Recently, I got an e-mail from a stranger, a student who had read one of my articles and who wanted help on a term paper. I was touched, but alas, there aren't enough hours in the day. Yet something about the message made me feel I needed to apologize for not being able to do her homework.

With e-mail, it's too easy to hit the reply key, with results you may regret. One acquaintance, thinking she was just responding to a note from a close friend, accidentally sent a highly personal message to the friend's entire mailing list. I recently had a painful quarrel, triggered by e-mail messages. A dear friend and I were both having a busy week and imposing on each other's time. Without quite intending to, we ended up firing salvos of e-mail back and forth of escalating testiness, until we had quite insulted each other. We apologized, in person.

This mishap could not have occurred either by phone or by ordinary mail. When talking to someone, you pay attention to tonality. And when you write a letter, you read it over a few times before sending it. But e-mail is tone-deaf and all too instant. It is ephemeral, yet irrevocable. Once you've banged out your message and sent it into the ether, you can't take it back.

E-mail is a great convenience -- for the sender. The recipient is presumed to have infinite time and interest. It is the equivalent of endless Christmas letters from boring distant relatives all year long.

Bosses get in the habit of sending down incessant e-mail messages from on high, as if anyone cared. A large corporation with which I am vaguely affiliated sends me more messages than I could possibly want to have, let alone answer. E-mail is also not secure. The magazine that I edit regularly gets highly personal missives, sent by mistake to the wrong e-mail address thanks to a typo. With the phone, you know when you have a wrong number. And misaddressed letters either get returned or end up in the dead letter office. At one company, two people carrying on an affair were incautiously sending each other intimate e-mail, which a supervisor discovered. To make matters worse, they were making snide comments about the supervisor. Security escorted them from the premises.

E-mail is also easily forwarded and deliberately or mistakenly put into mass circulation. Don't e-mail anything private unless you are prepared to see it crop up all over the Web. E-mail, like talk radio, reduces inhibitions; it is democratic to the point of being moronic. And I've not even gotten to mass junk e-mail, known in the trade as spam.

I know, the Internet is a marvel. And e-mail is great for scheduling meetings, for sending and receiving research materials, for allowing people in remote locations to collaborate on projects. But novelty and low cost tend to breed excess. Like every new tool from the wheel to nuclear energy, electronic communication will take a while to find its proper etiquette and niche.

In the meantime, e-mail is an awkward adolescent who has borrowed the family car, hormones raging and radio blaring, with little regard for the rules of the road. Of course, some fans of e-mail may find these words controversial or offensive. So if you have any comments on this column, my e-mail address is . . . no, actually, send me a letter.

The writer is co-editor of The American Prospect.