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Background on email

This background document has two sections. In the first section, we provide some ideas about the psychological and cultural issues that influence our use of email. In the final section, we provide some basic advice you might want to keep in mind as you compose your email.

Its not all bad news

Since this case is about a misuse of email, we have been focussing on problems with email. But it is not all negative news. Email has become the primary mode of communication between people in many companies. It has increased the frequency with which older people interact with their families. It has allowed large scale cultural interchange. Much good has come from email and its large scale implementation.


Email and the culture of electronic discussion

Email is asynchronous. That means that I can send you email and you can read it at a later time. This is one of its advantages: we don’t have to both be there at the same time. It is also one of its disadvantages. Since you aren’t there I cannot see your immediate reaction.

Thus, email "distances" us from those with whom we interact: feedback is not immediate, and it does not contain many non-verbal cues that we use to make communication smoother. This distancing is not bad, but it can have effects that hurt communication. There are two effects that work together to make misunderstanding more likely and flaming easier to do. Winter and Huff (1996) provide more detail on this analysis.

First, we are distanced from those who receive our email because we do not see them directly, and because we do not see them directly react to our utterances. This lack of social cues in our communication means we do not get feedback about the effects of what we say.

Second, when we sit in front of a terminal, we can easily become wrapped up in ourselves and in our own emotions. Psychologists call this "self-focussed attention." When this occurs, we can become carried away by our own interpretations and emotions.

Put these two things together: lack of social cues and self-focussed attention, and you have a fine recipe for misunderstanding and "flame wars".

To this psychological level of analysis, we can add a cultural one. Discussion groups on the Internet form their own rules and sanctions about behavior (Finholt & Sproull, 1990). They may expect people to be either rowdy or calmly professional. They will have ways of punishing those who break the expectations. Thus these groups become small (or very large) social venues of their own. The difficulty is in learning how to switch from one venue to the next.

Some practical advice

We are beginning to see some convergence in the recommended rules for interaction over electronic media. "Netiquette," simply put, is network etiquette–a set of rules guiding proper behavior online, encouraging respect and consideration of others utilizing Internet services, especially email and newsgroup postings.

Numerous sources have been created to help provide information about netiquette. Several different approaches have been made, because the net presents a tremendous range of possible problems regarding proper behavior. In her book entitled Netiquette, Virginia Shea (1994) identifies ten core rules that should be considered when using electronic interaction:

    1. Remember the human–It can be easy to forget that there is in fact a person behind the computer screen. When writing an email, for example, consider the question "would you say it to the person’s face?" to determine if you are engaging in proper behavior. Also, remember that any email you send or receive may be saved or forwarded, with or without your knowledge.
    2. Adhere to the same standards of behavior online that you follow in real life–Just because you are working behind a screen does not mean that ethics and the law no longer apply.
    3. Know where you are in Cyberspace–When you reach a site, get a feel for where you are; netiquette varies from area to area.
    4. Respect other people’s time and bandwidth–Bandwidth refers to both the machine capacity for transmitting information and to the individual’s time capacity to read and understand it. It is important not to send unnecessary emails and information that will exceed this limit. Also, be mindful of your mailing lists–send emails only to those whom you are certain would want to read your message, as extras only fill up another person’s mailbox.
    5. Make yourself look good online–The anonymity of online communication can be a positive quality, in that users are not judged by appearance, status, etc. But, this also means that more weight is then given to the way you present yourself in writing. Thus, take care to know what you are talking about, and to make sense. Also, don’t post flame-bait. "Flaming" refers to the act of expressing a strongly held opinion online, often done in chat rooms and/or discussion groups.
    6. Share expert knowledge–The Internet essentially saw its beginnings in the exchange of useful information among scientists and other professionals worldwide. This is still an extremely unique aspect of the Internet; if you are capable of sharing your knowledge with others, don’t be afraid to do so.
    7. Help keep flame wars under control–Since flaming isn’t forbidden online, users must take responsibility to keep it under control. The perpetuation of flame wars–a series of angry responses, usually among only 2 or 3 members of a discussion group–is in fact frowned upon. Aside from being offensive and especially boring for those in a group that aren’t involved, flaming monopolizes bandwidth as well.
    8. Respect other people’s privacy–Email is just as personal as the contents of a desk drawer or file folder. When you forward someone else’s email, make sure to get their permission. Going through another person’s email is extremely unethical.
    9. Don’t abuse your own power–Some people simply know more than others who are in Cyberspace. This kind of power does not give you the right to take advantage of others.
    10. Be forgiving of other people’s mistakes–Being that the Internet is still a relatively new medium, mistakes will undoubtedly occur. Not everyone in Cyberspace has had the opportunity to learn the rules and regulations. Thus, it is necessary to be respectful when others make errors. If you do point out a mistake, do so politely, and in private rather than public if possible.