Friday, January 21, 2011

Email Uses & Risks

I first recall hearing of email in the late 1980s with the arrival of CompuServe and Prodigy for the masses. However, since the use of those services required that you have someone else online to receive your messages, the early years were slow going with respect to common usage--together both services had slightly more than 1,000,000 subscribers and there weren't any other significant ISPs in the business then. By the mid-1990s AOL came on with strong marketing push and simple software. Millions of new users started going online and email began to flourish as a new communication mode.

We belatedly went on line about 1999 in our office, together with a clumsy email client program and began emailing with utter abandon. Unfortunately many of the people flocking to email communication had little or no training in the downside of written communications. Those of us who had been communicating in professional capacities for decades immediately recognized the inherent risks with this new form of communication.

Boston political boss Martin Lomansey was an individual that understood the value of discretion. He is attributed with the famous quote: “Never write if you can speak, never speak if you can nod, never nod if you can wink.” Former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer is attributed to putting a modern twist on the famous quote, “and never put anything in an email.”

Early on, I noticed that people were writing email messages I would never dream of writing—although I might consider voicing those sentiments now and then.

As a fledgling professional years ago, I was ready and able to engage in corporate battle over a number of issues until I circulated one especially caustic report castigating a headquarters dolt. Although I had the dolt over a barrel on that particular issue, a senior manager took me aside and explained the fine points of written communications within a large company, which more or less followed the advice of Boston's Mr. Lomansey. He specifically pointed out that whatever you write down can come back to haunt you even years later.  The lesson: be very careful what you write.

In today’s email world, those older wisdoms are being learned by yet another generation of young tigers. Unfortunately for them, the ease with which email can be prematurely released, copied, stored, forwarded, and reused makes it easy for would-be opponents to stuff an ill-advised message up your nose over and over again as well as scatter it to unauthorized recipients.

I don’t think many companies have been formally training their employees in the prudent use of written communications; perhaps like me, those lessons are still taught one-on-one.  However, if you are interested, one of the online magazines today published an 18-point list of things to consider when writing emails that can be found HERE.


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