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E-mail: The Unreliable Medium

Peeve Week - A woman smashing a laptop into the ground

Whether it’s contacting a webmaster, site owner, tech support, submitting an essay in a contest, or enlisting the help of a blogger, e-mail is an incredibly unreliable form of communication. From my experience, e-mail is slow, and delivery isn’t guaranteed. This article will focus on my peeves with e-mail as a communications medium.

Check Your Spam Folder

Since I signed up for my Flickr Pro account, I have tried and tried to get my friends and family to join Flickr so they could see my pictures. Flickr has a nice built-in “invite” tool that auto-sends invites to e-mail addresses of your choice. The problem, however, is most of those people getting the invite will never even see the message. The message is probably going straight to that person’s spam folder.

Blame it on the spammers. If there wasn’t such a thing as spam, then there wouldn’t be a thing called the spam folder. Every e-mail you intended to send to somebody would reliably get there.

But spammers are prevalent. Spammers are a nuisance. And spammers won’t stop. So spam filters are here to stay, and so is the spam folder.

Whenever I contact a fellow blogger and do not hear back, I try not to take it personal. For one, the blogger could be very busy. I know I am. Two, the e-mail could have very well ended up in the blogger’s deep and heavy spam folder. Or three, the e-mail could have been lost in oblivion.

It’s not the blogger’s fault the e-mail is not getting to him or her. It’s the darn spammers. So please check your spam folder every now and then. I might be sending you a message.

Lost in Oblivion

Many website owners have nifty little contact forms built into their website. I have one too. The problem with these contact forms is that they are notoriously unreliable. The e-mail may seem to be sent from your end, but the form settings could be screwed up and the e-mail lost forever. You are then left sitting around wondering why the site owner never responded.

In my experience, it’s always a good idea to have multiple ways to get a hold of a person via the web. E-mail does not guarantee delivery.

E-mail is Slow

For somebody that’s always on the net, I usually respond to e-mail rather quickly. But most people aren’t like me. Most people check their e-mail once a day or every other day. I once tried to schedule an appointment with my therapist via e-mail.

Me: “I have Tuesday open. Do you have any slots open on that date?”
One day passes.
Therapist: “I only have Friday at 1500 open. Are you available then?”
Me: That sounds good. I’ll see you then.”
Two days pass.
Therapist: “I’m sorry. I scheduled the 1500 appointment before I got this e-mail. Can you do next Thursday?”

Good thing I wasn’t in a life or death situation. E-mail could have killed me.

My Personal E-mail Filter

When I receive an e-mail, the first thing that pops up in my head is, “Is it spam?” If it’s not, then I ask myself, “Is it a scam?” If the e-mail is not spam or a scam, I then ask myself, “Is it a forward or chain mail?”

After the e-mail has gone through those three internal tests, I ask myself, “Is it one of those stupid global e-mails that everyone in the company receives?” If it’s not any one of those, then I might open up the e-mail and read it. Even if I do decide to read it, I skim it to see if it applies to me. If it doesn’t, to the trash it goes.

I am a trained e-mail filter. And so is everyone else that uses e-mail extensively.

E-mail is Mis-used

I do not miss forwards. I do not miss chain mail. I do not miss jokes.

I don’t think I’ve ever found a forward that was remotely interesting. I don’t think I ever proved my love for God by sending the e-mail to twenty people. I also don’t think I’ve ever read a joke that I haven’t already heard before.

E-mail is for communicating. It shouldn’t be used for useless trash.

E-mail Sucks For Communication

There are things e-mail should never be used for:

  • To terminate an employee.
  • To break up with someone.
  • To initiate divorce.
  • To threaten someone with deadly force.
  • To convey humor.
  • To convey sarcasm.
  • To convey any affection for that matter.

E-mail is just words on a screen. It takes a very talented writer to communicate an emotion via the writing. Judging from the e-mails I have seen, not many people are talented writers. People try to place emphasis that a deadline must be met, but that e-mail is just one click away from the trash. One I hit delete, the deadline no longer exists. And since e-mail is so unreliable, I can say that the admin restricted all incoming e-mail because my inbox was too full. Oops.

Why Bother With Read Receipts?

I have no idea why anyone bothers with read receipts. Every time Outlook asks if I want to send a read receipt, I click “No.” Everybody else I talk to does so also. Read receipts might be a good idea to ensure that everybody who needs to read the message has, but it’s only putting a small band-aid on the e-mail problem.

Conclusion

E-mail is a fact of life. I use it constantly. But I also realize the limitations of the medium. I’d rather call somebody or talk to the person face-to-face than e-mail. E-mail is impersonal and unreliable. I use it when I have to.

Writer and software engineer Ronald Huereca has been a developer at notable agencies like iThemes and 10up. His varied background has him working with WordPress since 2006, eventually creating his own plugin which, of course, lead to more. He spends quite a bit of his time volunteering with the WordPress project as a core and polyglot contributor. With all of his passions, writing has been the way Ronald expresses himself best. He has written both technical books as well as fiction. Some of his works include Project Mayhem, Mindefusement, and WordPress and Ajax. โ€œYou can only delay the inevitableโ€ is his favorite quote. Ronald enjoys reading Stephen King and John Grisham. When heโ€™s not writing, Ronald dreams of building websites filled with cats yawning, disclaimers his strong opinions, sings karaoke, and advocates for empathy surrounding mental health.

7 thoughts on “E-mail: The Unreliable Medium”

  1. Ronald,
    I agree wholeheartedly that email is unreliable. However, I have a problem: I'm a horrible orator. I never have spoken as well as I write. And so I want very badly for email to be reliable. I would like to do most of my business communication through email if possible. The only problem is that it's got that little reliability issue. Not only that, sometimes I get busy and don't have time even to check the three email accounts I currently maintain. I guess that leaves me with no alternative but to blunder through a conversation from time to time, but I will avoid it if possible. Take care,

    Nathan

  2. Interesting points Ronald. I am guessing you are comparing e-mail to better and more direct communication methods like talking over the phone, or to one of the best communication methods in the world: communicating in person. With so many email accounts, it is a headache at times keeping up with all emails like Nathan points out. Programs like Thunderbird and Outlook are doing something to help ease that pain.

    The Spam/Junk folders are here to help us but so many times legitimate emails end up in those folders. Email is indeed easy like cetroyer mentions above, and it is also makes some people feel more comfortable when it comes to saying things in person or over the phone instead.

  3. I can’t say I entirely agree with you, Ronalfy. What are you comparing email to when you say it is unreliable? Are you comparing it to the early days of email when it truly was unreliable? When was the last time you had an email that was truly lost, not just buried?

    True, spam causes many problemw with email, especially for those auto-generated emails like Flickr has.

    I try to gently point out hoax emails when people forward them to me. For some reason, they stop sending them to me. Odd. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I don’t think it always takes a talented writer to convey emotion in email. I think it depends more on knowing the person who wrote the email. I really enjoy reading my dad’s family emails and I can appreciate the humor that comes through.

    I do prefer to email someone rather than to talk to them, at least for work. Email is a nice “fire and forget” method. It also keeps me from having to make spur of the moment statements. I can sit back and formulate a reply to an email, but a phone call does not always afford that luxury. Granted, part of my feelings toward phones might come from my 11 months as a telemarketer. ๐Ÿ™‚

    cetroyer

  4. cetroyer,

    The unreliability I speak of us relative to the reliability of talking to someone in person, or calling somebody. Even the U.S. mail seems more reliable because it has a common network where a parcel can be tracked every step of the way.

    If you call somebody, you’ll know whether the call got through if someone picks up on the other end. If you talk to someone in person, you’ll know that the message was received if the person acknowledges understanding.

    With e-mail, there is no guarantee that the message that was just sent went to the right person, or even if the e-mail was received outright.

    As far as e-mails being lost in oblivion… My company decided to switch e-mail domains on us. Instead of “blah@domain.companyname.com”, it was now “blah@domain2.companyname.com.” People who sent e-mails to the old domain were not given any reason to suspect that e-mails were not getting to the required destination. And the people on the new domain weren’t getting any e-mails and had ticked off clients to contend with.

  5. I can see that we aren’t going to agree on this, but that’s ok. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I had to chuckle when you said that U.S. mail could track a package every step of the way. You tried USPS tracking lately? ๐Ÿ™‚

    What guarantees do you have that a person understands a verbal communication? It is just as easy to miscommunicate verbally as it is in writing. Writing has the advantage of sticking around, so I can go review an email if I need to see what was said again.

    Also, I can wait to read an email when I am able to focus completely on its message. A phone call could happen while I am mentally distracted and it is harder to come back to a phone call later. ๐Ÿ™‚

    As for your domain switch argument: I would say that is human error, not the technologies fault. The admins didn’t make people aware of the change, nor did they set up a system to forward emails. To switch it up a bit, what would happen if someone moved their desk, but didn’t forward their phone or send out their new number? Would you blame the telephone?

    cetroyer

  6. I fully agree that email is unreliable. However, I have a problem: I am a horrible speaker. I never have spoken as I write. What I want very badly for the email to be reliable. I’d like to do most of my business communication via email, if possible. The only problem is that you have that little problem of reliability. Not only that, sometimes I get busy and do not even have time to check three email accounts currently maintained. I guess that leaves me no alternative but to error through a conversation once in a while, but I will avoid if possible. Take care,

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