I don’t remember the date exactly, but I remember the place. It was a writer friend’s home office. A friend who’d been telling me for some time that I was really missing out by avoiding the Internet. A friend who was enamored with web surfing and getting connected through Genie and the amazing time-saver known as e-mail. “You’ll hardly ever use the phone anymore,” she said. I’m not a good phone person. I don’t call often, but when I do, I don’t know when to quit talking. And letters? I mean well. Really.
So there I was, one afternoon some odd years ago, getting a lesson in connecting with the outside world through the machine I use to do my work. In the back of my mind I knew I was entering dangerous territory. I’m both gregarious and shy. Weird. But I knew I had to take the plunge sooner or later, and it was already later. So I was running through my lesson when I heard the voice for the first time: “You’ve got mail.” Sweet seduction. “Who? Where? What does it look like? What does it say?”
Mind you, I’ve been a published writer for a very long time. I remember the days, my children, when we writers made sure we had a clear view of the mailbox from the window closest to our desk. Mail that came in boxes and envelopes with stamps was our connection to New York. It brought answers to our queries. It brought manuscripts—some edited, some rejected—and if we were lucky, it brought checks. “You’ve got mail.” Words we counted on.
Now all I hear is a ping. Ping ping ping. Okay, I need to turn that off, but I figure when I see that fade-in, chances are i can hit the black x. The truth is, chances are I can’t. And if I’m in deep write and I don’t permit the ping, I’ll open the mailbox after a day or two, and it’s like opening an overstocked closet. The stuff just tumbles out. 50, 100, 200 messages, and even after I delete the promos and pleas, I’m in for a long night.
That’s why I was fascinated by an editorial in the 9/29 Strib written by Chris Anderson, who started a site called TED—Ideas Worth Spreading. That’s a discussion for another day, but check it out—talks on interesting subjects by some pretty interesting speakers. Like the Steve Jobs commencement address we’ve seen in bits and pieces today. As usual, I digress. The Op-Ed piece touted emailcharter.org, which offers a wakeup call to the internet community. Not only are we inundated with unwelcome e-mail, but we’re unwittingly piling on to friends, colleagues, co-workers—people with whom we want and need to communicate. And we can do it sooo easily these days. That’s a good thing, isn’t it?
It is, but e-mail is gobbling up a lot of my time lately. Yours too, I suspect. Anderson points out that e-mail is easier to create than it is to respond to. Aye, there’s the rub. Or, ei ei ei, how did I just lose two hours? Anderson brainstomed with a colleague and came up with “10 Rules To Reverse the E-Mail Spiral” along with a charter he offers as a solution to fix what he calls a community problem. The guiding principle is to respect recipients’ time. That’s Rule One. Two through ten support that big idea.
For example, how often do you end an e-mail with an open question? “What are your thoughts on this?” Now you’re asking someone to take some time coming up with answers. Most of us want to help out, and being asked for an opinion is kind of flattering. The person is important to us, and he thinks we have good ideas. Anderson says we should do the recipient the courtesy of being specific. Should I do A or B? Is X okay with you?
If you’re sending information, be succinct and make it clear that there’s no need to respond (NNTR). Don’t logos or graphic in the body of the e-mail and don’t overdo attachments. If you’re forwarding, don’t send a long trail of unnecessary threads in the form of previous messages. There are 10 points to the charter, they’re all food for thought. E-mail has become such an important part of our lives. We’ve all learned about some of the pitfalls the hard way, but the E-Mail Charter really hit me where I live today.
How about you? How do you use e-mail. What would you change about the system if you could? What e-mail habits or types bug you? Do you have any tips for managing e-mail glut?
My Sept-Oct release is getting very nice reviews. Thanks for all the good wishes!