It’s no surprise that an otherwise intelligent and competent person can have a blind spot or two, or even consistently screw up at one thing or another. Once in a while, I see repeat offenders in the way that some people use email. It can take many forms. Some examples:
– Reply to a message in such a way that the reply is irrelevant due to another message that came ten minutes later, which one didn’t bother looking at before replying to the first one.
– Reply to something without including any clue to what it’s a reply to, such as the original message’s text or subject line.
– Reply on a thread with some tangential observation, without bothering to change the subject line and show that one is bringing up a whole new subject.
– Fail to proof one’s own messages and make so many typos that the meaning is completely lost.
– Show an inability to look up messages from a week or a month before, and include excerpts from them.
– Very often claim not to have received a message.
I can only make guesses about what misleads people into such errors, but based on those guesses, here is some advice:
DON’T RELY ON HANDHELDS.
They’re cute toys, but really, folks: trying to treat your email properly on a glorified cell phone is like trying to build a house with a Swiss Army knife. Some day it might be possible, but not yet.
Once a day, sit down to a real computer. Some of them are cheaper than some cell phones, and they’re a helluva lot more comfortable.
Paper is for legal documents. Texting is for is for very short, immediate messages. Instant messaging and phone calls are for lengthy, immediate back & forth. Email is for just about everything else. The tool for email is something with a screen big enough to hold several buttons and menus, and a keyboard you can type on, with all nine fingers. Using the right tool for the job can be important.
DON’T USE WEBMAIL.
Some people have never used anything else and don’t even know there’s another way, so I’ll try to explain this.
If you go into a web browser (Safari, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Opera, Chrome) and go to a web site to look at your email, you’re using webmail.
This means that all your email, including whatever you have saved over the years for later reference, is being held on your provider’s server somewhere. You cannot work with it offline. You are totally dependent on your provider not losing it. When you work with it, every “delete” or “open this one” click that you make is a command that must travel around the world and back before it takes effect. Even with a good broadband connection and a fast computer, there can be some delay there.
There is only one advantage to webmail: that you can access it from different computers. This can be useful if you’re on the road.
There’s another way to do it, an older way, and it doesn’t mean giving up the option of using webmail occasionally when you’re away from home.
It’s called an email client: Thunderbird, Outlook (and its little brother, Outlook Express, or Windows Live Mail nowadays), and Apple Mail are some of the more common ones. One of these is usually available free on Windows machines. Thunderbird is free and open-source.
Your email provider should have good instructions somewhere on its web site for setting up an email client to download your incoming mail. If your provider doesn’t allow for that option, you shouldn’t be using it. It’s clear that they don’t believe in good service.
Once you have it set up, and all your mail is right there on your hard disk, you can work with it any time. You can also learn all the tools and features offered by the email client, and NOT have to learn a whole new webmail interface when you change to a new email provider. Generally, email clients are a lot easier to work with than any webmail interface, in more ways than I can explain. For instance, there are no pop-ups or animated ads running while you work with your mail. None of the clunky extra software that running a web browser might entail. Nothing extra slowing down your machine and distracting you.
You can still use the webmail feature to look at new incoming messages while you’re on another computer, and just leave it there in your inbox until the next time you download with your email client at home.
FORGET THE TOUCHPAD.
Yeah, yeah, some people are really good with the touchpads on their laptops, and can get really comfortable with them. But it’s beyond me how anyone can be really fast or precise about dragging, highlighting exactly, right-clicking and using the menu from a right-click, etc. without a real mouse. Why make it any harder for yourself? You can buy a very portable little mouse at Big Lots for about $10 and just carry it with your laptop. There are few things in the world more important than being sure when you’re clicking and when you’re not clicking. It’s like knowing what’s the accelerator and what’s the brake.
DON’T MAKE SPAM FOR YOURSELF.
People often complain about the quantity of mail that they need to go through. For myself, I signed up for this by being a nexus through which a lot of communication passes. That’s
probably not true of many of you.
More commonly, it can mean one of three things that I can think of:
(1) They have too many friends sending them too many chain letters, “inspirational” stories, prayers, jokes and cute cat pictures. This is probably just a phase that the friends are passing through. If not, it’s time to find some different friends.
(2) They haven’t checked their email for a while. The solution here is obvious.
(3) They have signed themselves up for spam. What do I mean by that? I mentioned this in my earlier rant on censorship: “Good ways to limit spam”. The short version is: Don’t give anyone your email address, or anyone’s email address, without good reason. If they require it when you sign up for something online, be sure to uncheck the box that says “Send me notices about….” or something like that. If they’re sending you notices, and they seem otherwise fairly ethical, use their “unsubscribe” feature.
If all else fails, change your email address. Yes, I mean it. Maintain a current list of everyone who should have your email address: friends & relatives, businesses that might legitimately send you notices, online accounts that you actually use, etc. Have it always handy in case you have to change your address and notify them all. Should include where to go to change your account info for each one, and maybe all your passwords for doing so. If you’re afraid of all your passwords being in one place, where spyware or someone else on your computer could find them, keep this file on a memory stick that you can lock up.
If it’s a big hassle to change your account info (such as an email address) in one of your online accounts, you should not have such an account.
BE VERY CAREFUL ABOUT ASSIGNING “JUNK” STATUS.
Many email interfaces have a way that you tell the software that a particular message is “junk”. This usually means that all future messages from the same sender, or a large block of addresses that happens to include that sender, will thereafter go into a “junk” folder, or might be deleted before you have a chance to see it.
It could be much worse than this. How the filters decide what is “junk” is mysterious, and constantly changing. By calling something “junk”, you could miss future messages that just have a word or two in common with the original “junk”. I simply don’t know.
You should use this function only for the most brazen kind of commercial spam.
If you used it for a message from a mailing list that you subscribed to, why don’t you just unsubscribe from that list?
If you used it for a message from an individual you know personally, why didn’t you just ask that individual not to send you any more email?
Indiscriminate use of the “junk” button can lead to missing lots of messages that you might want.
I’ll end this with the usual caveat: I could be wrong about something here. Please tell me if that’s the case. I want this all out in the open.
If anything is unclear, ask questions.