MAXWELL:  E-mail is more clutter than it’s worth

9/6/2000 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


This is one of those self-serving columns that has to be written.

E-mail is universally hailed as having eased communication. Mark Breier, author of the new book, The 10-Second Internet Manager, says that for “many things, it’s the fastest, best way to communicate.”

Perhaps e-mail is the best and fastest way to communicate in many respects, but its sheer volume can be mind-boggling. A recent Miami Herald article states that University of Miami engineering dean Lew Temares receives 200 e-mails a day. The head of gets 140. Pitney Bowes reports that the average American worker gets 204 electronic messages a day.

Meredith Fischer, who co-authored the Pitney Bowes study, said: “E-mail is just a tool. How you use it can serve you or ruin you.”

Not surprisingly, today’s office workers spend more time with e-mail than with telephone calls. Breier says that e-mail can proliferate like kudzu in the average computer and recommends that we check our mail several times a day and act by answering it, passing it on to the appropriate drone to deal with it, filing it and so on.

Has the computer really eased communication and made life easier? Listen to what Temares told the Herald: “You look at the reason why productivity in the United States is going up but salaries aren’t _ and the computer’s the reason. A 10-hour day is a short day. You can work at home at night. On Saturday or a Sunday, I’m sending e-mail to (a colleague), and they send one back. . . .”

For me, as a newspaper columnist, e-mail is more trouble than not. In fact, I hate it. Not counting SPAM (pure junk), I receive up to 50 e-mails a day _ sometimes more if a piece strikes a nerve. I get more e-mail than many business executives. The real difference is that I do not have a secretary or anyone else to deal with mine.

About 90 percent of my e-mail comes from readers, most of them white, who disagree with me, who use their keyboards to say what they would not say to me in person. Most of the messages violate one of the first rules in The 10-Second Internet Manager: Be concise. Keep messages to no more than three paragraphs so the reader does not have to scroll to get to the end.

Many of the e-mails I get are the equivalent of a typed single-spaced page or more. I read the first two sentences of an e-mail _ if I read it at all. Netiquette (Internet etiquette) demands that we respond to all e-mail right away. If I responded to all of my e-mail, I would not have time to do my work, which involves writing, reading, interviewing, thinking and traveling.

When I do respond, I usually write no more than a sentence or two. Many readers are insulted that I do not respond with a long message. An enraged woman wrote, “For a writer, you sure are damned short on words.” Well, that is the point: I write for a living and do not have much time for any other kind of writing.

After all, my beliefs are outlined in my columns. A long e-mail would merely be an elaboration of what I wrote. Even more, as an editorial writer and a columnist, I have been trained to write short. And, when we write short, we do not contribute to e-mail clutter, that infinite mound of electronic trash that is keeping us busier than ever before, that makes us work longer hours than ever before.

E-mail is having an even more insidious effect on communication in my professional life: Prior to e-mail, readers used pen and paper or typewriter and paper to compose their letters. I found the bulk of those letters more thoughtful, more logical and more civil than today’s e-mail.

Perhaps the difference has to do with touch _ the literal production of words on the page, a page that must be folded, stuffed into an envelope that must be licked and walked to the mailbox.

Most of my e-mail is nasty and shallow, much of it from sarcastic white males. Perhaps this trend has to do with not having to physically experience the words, of merely hitting a button that sends images through space to an unseen person somewhere behind yet another computer screen.

To me, e-mail is intrusive. I feel violated by most of it. Matters are so bad with me that I rarely open a message whose author’s screen name I do not immediately recognize. I automatically delete those whose authors have proved to be out of their minds or obsessed with a subject. The computer truly has freed a lot of people with questionable gray matter, shaky mental stability and too much time on their hands.

E-mail has not made communication easier for me. Faster maybe _ but not easier.