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E-mail Message from Your PC

Help with Internet E-mail,
Mailing Lists and 
Other Internet Postings

For those new to Internet E-mail, Mailing Lists and Other Internet Postings.

Mail Box Table of Contents for this page:



        Box Preface

This page provides informal guidance for new users of Internet E-mail, Mailing Lists and other Internet forums. This page also provides links to pages which give general guidance, history, conventions, and some concepts and provisos you may not have thought about concerning e-mail and participation in Internet forums. It also provides an introductory discussion of mailing lists. Our intent is to make this a helpful page for general readers who are new to Internet E-mail, and who may be doing so using the e-mail facilities of their employers. It assumes familiarity with Microsoft Exchange and Internet Explorer, but does not require it.

Mailing Lists have been overtaken to some degree now by Web Logs ("Blogs", hence Bloggers and Blogging) and social networking sites which accomplish some of the same purposes of Communities of Interest, but do so using web pages rather than e-mail. Although this page does not deal directly with Blogs and social networking sites, many of the same principles apply to Blogs, Social Networking sites and to Mailing Lists.

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Mail Box Introduction

The big thing to remember about an e-mail message (and any Internet posting) is that you have less control than you might think about where it will end up, and who will read it. Wherever it goes, it goes there with your name, likely your employer's name and the name of your Internet Service Provider attached. If somebody has a bone to pick with your message, therefore, they have lots of routes of appeal embedded right in the message. The ease with which e-mail messages and other posts are copied has some easily overlooked implications, the results of which can be profound.

It will also help you to know that although e-mail is very trendy in the 2000's, it has many of its roots in the 1960's and 1970's when desktop computers were only a dream. This means that many of the traditions and procedures concerning e-mail (and especially mailing lists) have been developed and refined over many years. Some of these systems maintain the trappings of their earlier cousins, partly because much of the software was developed by volunteers (and has not yet been redeveloped by commercial providers), and partly because of a need to maintain compatibility with ancient archives of messages, postings data bases, etc.

The third thing to keep in mind is that your messages are broken up into fragments (called packets) and sent via lots of potentially different routes to their destination. There, they are reassembled in the order you wrote them, and delivered. The point here is that your messages (or fragments thereof) can be found lying around in lots of queues, backup files, etc., in the files of lots of different computers between here and there. Every computer which handles your message makes several copies in the course of forwarding it to its ultimate destination. This transmission mechanism has significant privacy implications.

With these provisos in mind, e-mailing and participation in other Internet forums can be a very rewarding and fundamentally important access method for participating in the Information Age.

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Mail Box What is E-mail?

Kaitlin Sherwood has written a Beginner's Guide to Effective Email which answers this question and the related question "Why is E-mail Different?" She deals with the immediacy, the informality, and the anonymity of the text-on-screen format of e-mail. I suggest you read her work first if time permits, or at least that you come back to it sometime. It is a good read; and it is short. There is another link below to her work, along with links to several others.

"Toward an Ethics and Etiquette for Electronic Mail," is a Rand Corporation classic dating from 1985. It has a relaxed and balanced tone, is written for the general reader and well worth the time, especially for those new to e-mail. It talks about the paradox of e-mail's "volatility with permanence" that can be difficult to reconcile. It also identifies the risks and tendencies associated with conveying emotion in e- mail messages, and lists a number of thoughtful and effective cautions and remedies.

The related question: "What does access to e-mail mean?" is considered in a section by that name below.

Other guides, etc., may be seen in the section Links to E-mail Guides, etc., below.

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Mail Box Learn-By-Doing

My view is that we often learn best by doing. Find a friend with whom to exchange a few messages. If you are absolutely alone, send some messages to yourself. The principle of trying out e-mail with a friend is a very helpful, non-threatening (even supportive) way to start for everyone. This avoids possible embarrassment when communicating more officially with others, and I recommend it. When you practice with a friend, be sure you ask them also to use their "reply" button to reply at least one time. This assures that you have entered the correct "Reply to:" address in your mail handler. If you get just a single character wrong, the reply bounces back to the sender. If you have not included a signature file with your message that also contains your (hopefully correct) e- mail address, the person cannot even reach you to tell you the reply bounced. A friend, of course, has other means to reach you; but a typical e-mail correspondent has only your "Reply to:" address (and the signature file, if you included one).

Remember that if you send an e-mail from somebody else's machine, or from a form on their web browser, the system will attach that person's e-mail FROM address. You can overcome that by just explaining it to your correspondent, and providing your own e-mail address in the text of your note. Double check that every character is correct, however, if you do that.

You can also send me an e-mail message for practice if you wish. Here is a special form to make it very easy. If I can possibly squeeze it in, I will send you a reply, too.

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Mail Box Starting and Ending

Start with a greeting; end with your name and a signature file.

When you begin using e-mail with an internal e-mail system, it is easy to just write your message. Everybody knows you; and it is not hard to figure out who-is-who, who is saying what to whom, and from what point of view.

Internet e-mail is different.

First, there will often be people who see your message who do not know you at all; and second, e-mail messages (and replies) tend to migrate around well beyond the readership boundaries you initially considered.

Because e-mail is so easy to copy, and because some mailers quickly lose track of who is sending and who is receiving the message (particularly on multiply- forwarded messages) a message with several comments and replies is substantially impossible to follow except for the parties who wrote it.

As an aid in helping others to understand who is saying what to whom, always begin your e-mail message with what your third grade teacher called a "salutation." In letters, it is "Dear So-and-so:" (often Mr. Jones, or other formality). In e-mail it is typically "Hi So-and-so," (first name). At the end, you signed off with "Sincerely," or "Yours truly," (whatever that meant). In e-mail, some writers include these closings; but the important thing is to close with your name, and always include a signature file. (Note: The detailed steps for creating a signature file are available; and they are written for those not familiar with creation of plain text files).

The result, in multiply-forwarded (or replied to) messages, is a series of comments which other people can follow. You should always write e-mail messages as if they will eventually be forwarded to somebody who does not know you (or the context of the message), may not even like you, and for whom all of the information on the subject will come from the quoted e-mail message.

If, for each segment of the message, there is an identified recipient, and at the bottom an identified sender, then the message becomes readable for everyone. It also makes it much easier for those new to e-mail to follow any message (regardless of the current condition of the headers). Keep in mind that the "To:", "From:" and "Subject:" portions of an e-mail message (called "headers") are displayed or concealed by various e-mail message handlers as the message is transmitted (or forwarded, or imported, or exported) from party to party. We are rapidly approaching the time when machines will do much of the sorting, prioritizing, re-directing/forwarding and filing of e-mail messages. And if the present is any guide, these machines will not always (or even often) be programmed to preserve senders and receivers with any degree of reliability. If the body of your message contains this information, then it will be preserved intact for all.

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Mail Box Subject Lines - Use Good Ones

When you write an e-mail message, always use a good subject line. Remember that many mail handlers will provide only subject line and sender's name, for example, in displaying the contents of a person's e-mail in-box. If you have five e-mail messages a day, then that is no problem. You are going to open them all anyway. If the subject is missing or misleading, you will find out about it when you read the message.

If those days are not gone, they are definitely numbered. As we handle more and more of our communications via e-mail, we will more and more face the dilemma of which messages to open next. In no time, we will no doubt need to decide which messages to open at all, forwarding some, and turfing others outright. Recognizing that many e-mail messages are used to ask somebody else for some assistance, we can help them (perhaps raising the probability that they will be inclined to help us) by giving them all of the "open-or-forward-or-turf" information in a well-written subject line. Think of how they will react to your subject-less message if they are facing an in-box with 150 messages the day yours arrives.

With a good subject line, when our message is forwarded to others, they will be able to understand the subject matter even though that is the only context they have initially. Finally, when the message is filed in some data base or archive, readers will be able to make the "open-or-bypass" decision based on our good subject lines. Again, many of these data bases and archives will be stoked by machines. We will want our message to be filed in the correct category, and given the correct priority; and both will be helped substantially through our use of accurate, descriptive key-words in subject lines (and by consistently using exactly the same spelling for our name, by the way).

I have found that starting with a Subject line helps me focus on exactly what it is that I want to communicate. Then, when the note is written, re-visiting the subject line allows me to fine-tune it, or to add a component that only came up as I wrote the note.

"How to Write Headlines, Page Titles, and Subject Lines," by Jakob Nielsen (a very readable web design and usability guru) explains that headings, titles and e-mail subject lines "need to be pearls of clarity: you get 40-60 characters to explain your macrocontent. Unless the title or subject make it absolutely clear what the page or email is about, users will never open it." On-line headings are different from print headings because they are often displayed out-of-context, such as in lists of articles, results from a search query, in- box lists, etc., says Nielsen. Considering a headline on the sports page of a newspaper, for example, a great deal can be inferred at a glance from that context. Not so in many on-line situations (most of which are not of the author's making, incidentally). Many experienced e-mail users have so much mail, they delete messages if they cannot immediately recognize and make sense of them. This is the "delete by default" syndrome that we are hoping will not be applied to our message. We minimize that with a good subject line. Keep the most important information content to the left, less important content to the right (in case it is truncated somewhere).

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Mail Box Emotional Content in E-mail Messages and Internet Postings

For reasons not yet well understood, but perhaps related to the absence of social cues such as tone of voice and body language which are available in face-to-face discussions (and even in telephone conversations), e-mail messages and other Internet postings seem to be open to some sort of misinterpretation that provokes emotion in readers more often than is the case in other forms of communication.

In the Mailing Lists section below, in Guidelines for Posting we mention some of the hazards of replying to a message when you are angry. E-mail messages can't be recalled, for example, after you have calmed down (or anytime, for that matter). The Rand classic "Toward an Ethics and Etiquette for Electronic Mail," identifies the risks and tendencies associated with conveying emotion in e-mail messages, and lists a number of thoughtful and effective cautions and remedies. It has a relaxed and balanced tone, is written for the general reader and well worth the time, especially for those new to e-mail. In their section "Receiving and Responding to Messages," they have sub-sections "Avoid responding while emotional" and "If a message generates emotions, look again" which are very helpful. Their section "The Phenomenon of 'Flaming'" also contains good information about possible origins and causes. They present helpful information to be aware of before it comes up in your own messages.

Of course, there are always those whose purpose is to provoke an emotional response, especially on mailing lists, in newsgroups and in other discussion forums. It is a very potent way to neutralize the effectiveness of these electronic Communities of Interest (See "The Natural Life Cycle Of Mailing Lists," a classic from Kat Nagel (1994) that talks about some of the social aspects of mailing lists and other Internet postings). Anyhow, this provocative activity is called trolling; and some individuals have honed it to a fine art.

Since these difficulties seem to come up most often in criticisms of other people's work, it may be well for all of us to make a shift in approach when communicating with e-mail and in other Internet postings. It is much easier to be a critic than a builder. If we all made as big a shift as we can from critic to builder, and made special efforts in editing and revising to minimize the shortcomings of the e-mail form and in other Internet postings, perhaps we will help to reduce misunderstandings and ill will on all sides. [See also the section "The Phenomenon of 'Flaming'" in the Rand paper "Toward an Ethics and Etiquette for Electronic Mail" mentioned above].

See also: a Washington Post [cookies (cookie caution)] article "E-mail Fosters Misunderstandings at the Office" [more cookies (cookie caution)], which points out that effort is required in all e-mail interaction to reduce communication difficulties.

See also: a review of Patricia Wallace's book "The psychology of the Internet." Wallace describes "the specificities of online contexts, as well as the similarities between human behavior, online and offline. The result is an interesting and well-written book that offers an overall perspective on online behavior."

See also: the section below, "Mailing Lists - Starting Your Own," and the references there concerning on-line communities of interest, the use of mailing lists for computer mediated communication, etc.

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Mail Box Line-Length in E-mail Messages

Always keep your line-length well under the (mostly arbitrary) eighty-character length limitation. This allows for screen widths which are narrower, and it also provides room for the insertion of a quotation character in the front of each line of replies. [Rather than use quotation marks (which are not supported by some e-mail packages), the > character is commonly inserted at the front of each line when you are quoting somebody else. It is nice if they have left you some line-length to do that.]

A line length around 65 characters is about right.

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Mail Box Signature Files

Please do not consider signature files an option. Add a signature file to every out-going e-mail message you send. See the note about signature files and a small part of their value in the "Learn-By-Doing" section above. See also the example linked immediately below.

The page on e-mail costs has a section on signature files, and an example.

The detailed steps for creating a signature file are also available; and they are written for those not familiar with creation of plain text files.

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Mail Box Confirmation Requests

In any posting to a mailing list, be sure to turn OFF any request for a confirmation or acknowledgment of delivery that your mailer allows. These confirmations (also called "receipts," "confirm reading" or "confirm delivery" options) create a monumental annoyance to mailing list administrators. In some cases the message confirmations end up being returned to the list server (because that is who sent the message to the subscribers). If you are the cause of that kind of grief, plan on being excluded from that list for the foreseeable future. No matter what happens, there is hardly a quicker way to reap the scorn of experienced users, or to get yourself dropped from a list than to ask for a confirmation on a message to be posted to the list.

In fact, for your Internet e-mail generally, turn off the receipt or confirmation request option. Every mail handler is different; some can handle it; some cannot. And others handle it completely wrong. Forwarded or re-directed mail frequently looses the confirmation option; and in other cases, it returns a delivery confirmation when the mail has not been delivered at all, merely forwarded. Asking for these confirmations doubles the amount of e-mail traffic for very little return; and it is considered an intrusion by experienced e-mail users. It is about like sending out every letter at the post office by "return receipt requested." You would not want to impose that on anybody (certainly not anybody whose respect you wanted to retain) unless it was really necessary. Just rely on the reply to your e-mail to confirm that the original message was received, or send the message by some other means.

For those using MS Exchange, be sure to use the Properties option in the File menu to change these options for the message your are currently composing. The options in the tools menu affects only subsequent messages.

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Mail Box Using Rich Text Formats in E-mail Messages

The Exchange e-mail client and lots of others have an option to use Rich Text Format for e-mail messages to others who also use those options. It provides the ability to use BOLD or ITALICS, to use any desired COLOR or FONT, to adjust FONT SIZES, etc. Most mail handlers also allow the use of HTML tags in e-mail messages to enhance the display of the message for the receiver, many as a default.

There will be circumstances in which these enhancements will be a preferred option. In your Internet e-mail messages, however, you will need to exercise caution. As with all things Microsoft, the RTF feature has been implemented with the expectation that sooner or later everybody (perhaps only "everybody who counts") will be using Microsoft products. In the meantime, however, you need to know that the Rich Text Format and HTML tags are appended to the message somewhat like an attached file. If the mail handler receiving the message happens to be Exchange or one of its variants, then it is usually handled correctly. (Or, at least, it does not cause undue grief). This is an advanced feature which some existing mailers cannot handle; and it has been implemented in such a way that most mailers are not able to just ignore it either.

It would be bad enough that most mailers do not handle these tags at all well. Worse, there are mailing list servers which react to them only badly. In the case of a non-Microsoft mail handler, the person receiving the message sees what looks like an attached file. When opened (if they can open it at all), it appears to be a shambles. In some cases, both the message and the "attached file" are garbled. In any case, the recipient is sure s/he has missed something in the attachment. When they query you about it, you don't remember sending any attachment. And, unless you know how it got there, both of you are then baffled. In the case of mailing lists, not only do most list servers not handle attachments--they are not Microsoft creations; when the so-called "attachments" are garbled, it creates no end of grief for list owners and managers. As with confirmation requests (above), sending Rich Text Formatted or HTML messages is a very efficient way to become persona non grata on that list for a good long time. You give yourself a bad name; if you send it from work, you give your employer a bad name; and all of it is for no benefit whatsoever.

The short answer to Rich Text Formats and HTML is to just say no. When you encounter a friend who also uses the Exchange client, and with whom you can exchange these messages successfully, then Rich Text Formats may be ok. The drawback, even there, of course, comes when you decide to forward something from that friend to somebody else (or, heaven forbid, to a list). At that point, you have to remember to turn off the Rich Text Format, or you will very likely be embarrassed (... or worse).

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Mail Box Keeping Files of E-mail Messages

Most e-mail messages are informal and of little lasting consequence. Others probably ought to be kept for future reference, and some (heaven forbid) should probably be printed on hard copy and filed officially.

It is a certainty, however, that others will have copies of your correspondence. Some will keep them for a long time. And those who are your enemies, will likely use them in ways you might not like.

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Mail Box E-mail Costs

E-mail costs are very small, mainly because e-mail messages tend to be short, contain only text and (with the exception of mailing lists) are usually not multiplied or repetitive. Order-of-magnitude costs are some small fraction of the corresponding costs of sending a fax, for example. One estimate is that e-mail costs are about 1/50th of the cost of a fax; others have estimated it between 1/20th and 1/100th. Another page contains a more complete comment on e-mail costs. It also has a Privacy Caution you will likely want to read before doing much with e-mail.

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Mail Box Long E-mail Messages

Most e-mail messages and other Internet postings are short. It is worth some effort, in fact, to edit your message so it is short and sweet for most purposes. This not only conserves network bandwidth (the capacity of the network to carry message traffic), but also maintains the tradition that e-mail messages are brief, to the point, and carry meaningful "subject" lines. Some authors recommend keeping e-mail messages to about 20-25 lines so that the entire message can be displayed on a screen without scrolling, in fact. Keeping the paragraphs short helps too.

If you have two subjects on which to correspond with the same person, consider sending two messages. It adds a little overhead; but it allows the other party to file or forward them separately, for example. This can be a bigger advantage than you might think for a busy e-mail reader.

Jakob Nielsen (a very readable guru who studies on-ine design generally) explains that by keeping your e-mail messages short you may be doing your readers a great favor. In his Alertbox column "Transactional Email and Confirmation Messages" he says (my emphasis): "A striking conclusion from the studies is that processing email is stressful. Users frequently told us that they were too busy to deal with certain email messages, and that they considered any fluff in messages a waste of time. When they check their email, users are typically dealing with multiple requests for their time—whether from their boss, colleagues, or family. People just want to be done with most email, and quickly move past anything that is not absolutely essential. "
For those with modem connections, some long e-mail messages can take so long to retrieve from the mailbox that the cost of the service can be materially affected. If a message takes a long time to download, it can also result in a serious inconvenience, even if costs are unaffected. Always check the size of any graphic image you are considering attaching to an e-mail message. If it is over 10,000 to 20,000 bytes, consider telling your correspondent about it, and asking first if they would like to receive it. Some graphic images can easily be 100,000 bytes or more. These file sizes can create significant difficulties for many mail handlers, and annoyance for users.

See also the section on "Attached Files" below.

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Mail Box Copying E-mail Messages and other Internet postings

E-mail messages and other Internet postings are very susceptible to copying. It is intuitive and convenient; and often it is just what is wanted on all sides. In the general case, we copy pieces of messages or complete messages when we reply to others because it is often the best way to provide context. It is so convenient that we sometimes do it without much thought. We need to be careful, however, when we copy something in a reply to a third party. And we need to be very careful before including copied material in a submission to a mailing list or in a post to a Newsgroup. Always obtain permission from the original author before copying any of his or her words in messages to others. And always attribute the quotation appropriately (see the section "Replying and Replying with a (short) Quote" below).

The flip side of that notion is to keep in mind that somebody might send a copy of your e-mail message or other Internet posting to somebody else. And if that happens more than about once, the tendency is for subsequent parties to see it much more as a public document than the product of an individual. Furthermore, anybody can alter your original message before they pass it on. Nobody receiving the altered message will know that isn't what you originally wrote. You may wish, therefore, to write as if you are going to be quoted (or mis-quoted). See the privacy caution for additional details, and the "Big Copying Hazard" section below.

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Mail Box A Big Copying Hazard

The section "Copying E-mail Messages" above, the overview to the Privacy Caution and the Copying Hazard relating to privacy concerns might all give you pause when preparing an e-mail message or other Internet posting. Perhaps the biggest hazard resulting from the ease with which e-mail and other electronic media can be copied, however, relates to the fact that you can never predict where your messages will end up, or how long they will be kept around. The other hazards may lead to embarrassment; but this one can bite.

The informality of e-mail and other Internet postings makes them nearly ideal for the exchange of humor. Many employers provide e-mail facilities for their staff, and at least tacitly encourage them to use it for a wide variety of communications relating to their employment. Humor and enjoyment are often found in corporate "values." The combination, however, can lead to unforeseen complications in the absence of careful thought.

Consider, for example, a harmless joke sent to a colleague or posted in an Internet forum. Such an exchange is unlikely to lead to any difficulty. But it is not much of a stretch to move from that to a joke with some racial, ethnic or sexual content which somebody may find objectionable, even if it is perfectly harmless as seen by you and your colleague (the only intended participants in the correspondence). Humor tends to be exchanged, however. And one of the things that will really amaze you sometime early in your e-mail career is where your messages end up. I have been doing this now for quote a few years; and I have been more than a little surprised more than once.

The point here is that when you make a comment in writing (or forward one from somebody else), and you do it using e-mail or other facilities provided by your employer, you make them (and you) a target of those who may find your comments objectionable (see Records section, in E-mail Privacy Caution). Lawsuits have been filed for sexual harassment, racial discrimination and related claims using e-mail messages and other Internet postings as evidence.

Inevitably, any e-mail message you write has the potential to be routed sooner or later to those who do not share your views on good humor, or your other views. Messages posted to mailing lists or to newsgroups or other Internet forums will get there sooner rather than later (and they will very likely be kept for a very long time). At any rate, by making your comments in writing you have assumed the role of publisher to some extent. It would be well to keep all this in mind while preparing any e-mail message or other Internet posting.

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Mail Box Replying and Replying with a (short) Quote.

When you reply to an e-mail message, it is often helpful to quote a little piece of the message you are replying to. We emphasize "little piece" here because some e-mail systems only allow you to quote the entire message when replying. If that original message is only two or three lines, there is not much of a problem quoting the whole thing, of course. But if it is longer, then it is important to quote only the smallest piece which will convey the context of your reply.

If your reply is going to a mailing list, it is even more important to trim the quotation to the minimum in your reply. List readers often complain of being annoyed by reading most of a quoted post followed by "right on!" or some such reply. Because we say to keep the quotation to a minimum, however, please do not think that no quotation would then be best of all. Very often, a short quote is the very best way to put your reply in context. Keep in mind that on mailing lists, and particularly in newsgroups, the article you are quoting might not yet be available to some of your readers. Quoting a small excerpt will provide convenient context for everyone.

If you are using an e-mail system which does not allow you to trim the quotation in your reply, export (or save) the message to a text processor, trim the quote, and import the trimmed quote back into your reply.

Quoting a part of a message in a reply, by the way, usually involves editing in a ">" or other character in the front of each line and prefacing it with "Fred Jones wrote:" or some other identifier of the quoted material. It does not matter what character you use to identify quotes. In fact, if you are quoting a piece that already has another quote in it, you might choose a symbol that is different from the one which has already been used. Otherwise, the number of ">" characters indicates the depth of the quotation sources. The section "Line-Length in E-mail Messages" above points out the need to keep the line lengths short as an aid in quoting excerpts.

Finally, if it improves clarity, insert a "<snip> " or "<deletia> " note where you have cut material from the original author's material. This is particularly helpful if you quote two pieces of it, or cut a section out of the middle. If you really need it, add a short description of what you have cut out, such as "<snipped description>". Such a notation may be helpful to others (especially on a mailing list) who did not see the original post.

Always include a signature file in your replies. (Note: The detailed steps for creating a signature file are available; and they are written for those not familiar with creation of plain text files).

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Mail Box Attached Files and Virus Threats

Attached Files

The earliest e-mail handlers could handle only ASCII text characters. When other files became commonly used, a method was needed for easily exchanging them using e-mail. Various methods (such as MIME encoding) have been contrived in which these files are actually converted to strings of ASCII-only characters so they can be conveyed by every e-mail handler on the Internet. Of course, once a file is encoded on one end, your recipient needs the corresponding decoder at his/her end too.

Files are "attached" to e-mail messages in two ways: the simplest for you is like an attachment to a letter written on paper. The file is actually conveyed with the e-mail message, but as a separate document. The second way involves importing the attachment into the mail message so that it becomes part of the message (just as if it had been entered there from the keyboard). Most mailers have a setting in which you can specify if you want attachments to go as separate files (the usual way), or to be included in the message (much simpler for most mail handlers to deal with). To obtain a text version of a WORD file, use FILE | SAVE AS and pick "Text Only." When the file is saved, all the tags, fonts, tables, etc., are stripped away, leaving only the text characters; and the file gets a .txt suffix. Text files also contain no macro capability. The resulting text file can then be included in your e-mail message using cut and paste, using some "include" function in your mail handler.

Include attachments in messages where the attachment consists of a relatively small number of ASCII text characters. Otherwise, there is no alternative but to attach them separately. Older e-mail clients can handle only ASCII text characters (plus maybe a few others); and any file from a text processor (such as WordPerfect, WORD, AmiPro, etc.) will be laced with special characters, and will need to have its formatting and other special characters protected by what is called "encapsulation."

Your mailer may handle attachments with great ease; but you may then find that when your message with its attachment gets to the recipient, s/he cannot decode it. Some free e-mail services do not even allow attachments. They just strip them off before putting the mail into the subscriber's mail box. Furthermore, novice e-mail users often have difficulty knowing where the mailer "hides" attachments after they arrive. If possible, make the attachment a part of the message. Any mail handler can deal with that. If you must make a separate attachment, help the person to whom you are sending the message at least to the following extent:

These hints help the recipient to know where (into what directory) the attachment should go. Many users keep all their WORD and/or RTF documents in a specific directory, for example. If you let him/her know that, then they can detach it to the directory where it belongs in a single step. It also helps him/her to know what software to use when trying to access the attachment. Here again, experienced users are good at guessing about these things; and some mail handlers even tell the recipient about attachments without your having specified what you are sending. New e-mail users will appreciate knowing about attachments; and experienced users are not put off by the additional information.

If you are sending a message to multiple recipients, keep in mind that you may have to attach the attachment using a separate method for each one. The only universally acceptable method is to include it as part of your message. If the attachment is large, experiment with a smaller version of a similar file. When your recipient is able to receive it, detach it, decode it and read it, then send the bigger one using the same technique.

Attached files are sometimes treated as if they were encoded when they are received by the other person's mail handler, by the way. Be careful to test the result before discarding the file that was attached to an out-bound message. You may receive a plaintive call to have it re-sent.

If attached files are in plain text, limiting them to the same line length as the e-mail message might be a thoughtful consideration.

Be very careful of attached files in messages to be posted to mailing lists, however. Most mailing list servers have a dreadful time with attachments. Check with the list owner before sending any e-mail message with an attachment to a mailing list. Additional information is contained in the Mailing List cautions below. If the attachment is large, consider just announcing to members of the list that it is available. If they want the material, they can then ask you for it individually (and you can send it to each of them, tailored individually to their equipment, systems and level of experience).

Virus Threats

Keep in mind that Microsoft WORD documents, Excel spreadsheets (and some others) contain macro capabilities which can introduce viruses into your desktop computer and your internal network. In addition, any file with an .exe suffix is an executable program which may contain a virus. Always consider the source before executing a program or opening a WORD or Excel file you received as an e-mail attachment. If you have any suspicion about it, see your technical people or delete the attachment without opening or executing it. You can save your correspondents from the same dilemma by only using attachments when they are really required, and by being sure you do not inadvertently pass on a file containing a virus. Using RTF files instead of WORD documents will always be helpful. Remember: they will see you as the sender, and will figure you have satisfied yourself that the file is safe before sending it on to them.

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Mail Box Avoid Sending "Spam" E- mail Messages to Anyone.

"Spam" is unsolicited e-mail, much like junk postal mail. The main point here is that one person's innocent announcement is another person's "spam." Spam is the label that e-mail users put on messages they receive but don't want. Any unsolicited e-mail message can be seen as "spam" by the person who receives it. On the other hand, we all receive e-mail messages we did not ask for, and which contain information we are grateful to have. And, of course, we all receive a bunch we didn't ask for, but which don't really annoy us either. Usually, the label "spam" is used for the ones which annoy us.

New e-mail users need to be conscious of putting e-mail messages in other people's e-mail boxes that these other people might see as "spam." Early in the game, having lots of messages in your in-box can be quite enjoyable, and informative. As you gain more experience, many of these messages become redundant, then annoying. Keep in mind that some people pay for their Internet services by the number of bytes transferred to their mail boxes. You don't want to cause another person to incur costs to receive your announcement unless you are dead certain they would want that.

Advertisements are somewhere near the top of the universally-recognized "spam" list. Almost nobody wants to receive e-mail advertisements. Off-color or objectionable messages (or their associated graphics), often masquerading as humor, are also high on that list. And they can be risky, too. See the "Big Copying Hazard" section.

The thing to remember before clicking on the "reply to all" button of a message sent to lots of people is "does everybody really want to hear this reply of mine?" If not, then select those whom you know would like to see it.

When you make an announcement or endorsement, make it only to those who will want to hear it. Making your announcement or endorsement based more on facts and less on hype and opinion will help too. Give your reasons, and make them rational and coherent. When you make either an announcement or an endorsement in a post to a mailing list, be sure you learn and follow the guidelines for that list before doing so. All lists will have some rules about these kinds of posts; and it is worthwhile to be seen as a responsible subscriber when you have something to tell them about (particularly if they might think you have something to gain from it). See the Mailing Lists - Posting Messages for Distribution to All Subscribers section.

One pretty safe way around being seen as a "spammer" is to let people know with a very short message that you have something to announce. Give it a really good descriptive subject, so that some people can delete it without even opening it, and others can read your offer in two or three sentences and easily discard that if they are not interested. Then, invite those who are interested to ask for the details. That practice at least keeps the size of the unsolicited message to a minimum. Even in this case, however, be sure to follow the conventions for the mailing list before posting such a message to a list, and be sure it is "on topic" for the list (not merely likely to be interesting to most subscribers).

If you are in doubt if somebody else would like to receive your message, don't send it. Think of another way to let them know what you are offering.

Marcia Yudkin has written a really good book: Marketing Online: Low-cost, High-yield Strategies for Small Businesses and Professionals that has been surprisingly well accepted by experienced e-mail users, considering the topic. She has three chapters on-line (Table of Contents) which are must reading for new e-mail users who want to use the Internet and e-mail inoffensively in their businesses. Marcia distinguishes between "schmoozing" and selling with some excellent examples and the responses they evoked. Her writing is down-to-earth, easy to read, and very informative.

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Mail Box E-mail Address Books

Your mail handler's Address Book is generally adequate for maintaining both internal and Internet e-mail addresses. There is some subtlety here, however, in that when you move, you need to be able to take your e-mail address book with you, and after you have gone your former employer will need the means to deal with the e-mail messages that come to your former e-mail address. If you subscribe to mailing lists this question becomes especially acute.

A good practice is to maintain an address book which will allow you to inform all your correspondents of your new mailing address before you leave. Failing that, you can at least inform them of your impending departure so they don't cause somebody a lot of extra work after you have gone.

This file can be copied to a removable medium (floppy, jump drive, etc.), and taken with you to your new location. And it does not hurt to keep a copy of your address book on a removable medium, and take it home as a matter of routine. You will be amazed at how lost you are if you cannot find an e-mail address you once had.

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Mail Box Mailing Lists - Introduction

Mailing lists are a natural extension of e-mail. They are much like any regular mailing list in which you send the same thing--maybe it is a newsletter--to lots of recipients (or subscribers) via plain old mail. Using e-mail, the distribution is more-or-less instantaneous, of course. And since there is no paper involved, there is no need to collect the articles together for monthly circulation (or whatever). If desirable, articles can be circulated one at a time as they are ready.

Rather than employing editors and writers, most mailing lists are run like cooperatives in which any subscriber posts his or her contribution anytime he or she has something to say. The "something to say" may be an original article, of course, or (more often) it may be an expansion, reply, rebuttal or new point of view concerning an article posted by another contributor. It is this interactive and "many-points-of- view" character that makes mailing lists such a powerful communication tool.

Mailing lists and other Internet postings are used to inform people with common interests. They are one of the important and powerful vehicles which aid in the formation of interest groups (also called communities or associations of interest). The section below, entitled "What Does Access to E-mail and other Internet postings Mean?" describes these groups, and provides a glimpse of their potential to change the way we think.

Mailing lists and other Internet forums also quickly grow in terms of the numbers of participants when Internet access is available. And most mailing lists and other Internet postings are free to subscribers because of low costs. These factors led long ago to their automation. Typically, therefore, when you subscribe to a mailing list, or post a message, you are mailing to a computer rather than a human. This relieves a lot of tedium; but it creates a few problems too. The Learning Organization Mailing List has a very friendly and helpful page of instructions which describes how that mailing list works (written for the general reader and the new Internet user). They use Majordomo, so the specific instructions apply to that list server (which they call a robot). The page of instructions is very well done, however; and the principles apply to most mailing lists. They also provide some of the best explanations of the whys and wherefores of mailing list practice. This page can be very helpful as an introduction for those new to mailing lists.

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Mail Box Mailing Lists - General Guidelines

Below are some of the guidelines and suggestions which have occurred to me. I will add more as I learn them. None of them is canonical or even definitive. Some are preferences; others are personal biases. They should be considered as one place to start, and definitely in light of similar guidelines from others, a few of which are listed below.
  1. When you subscribe to a mailing list or participate in other Internet forums, be sure your in-bound mail handlers can handle the volumes generated by the mailing lists you plan to subscribe to. Your e-mail administrator can advise you concerning this question. But the point to keep in mind is that mailing lists are staffed mostly by volunteers. If e-mail sent to you bounces (is returned to the sender) because you are away, or because your mailbox is too full, or for any other reason, somebody will have to deal with it. By anticipating these questions to some degree, you can save these volunteers some needless extra work.
  2. When you subscribe to a mailing list, please keep a file somewhere that you and others can find. When you move, somebody will have to deal with your e-mail; and you likely will want to unsubscribe (or signoff) from mailing lists before you leave to avoid that. For mailing lists with infrequent mailings, you need to have a reliable place to find their address, and their instructions for unsubscribing. The usual drill, by the way, is to unsubscribe when you leave, and resubscribe from your new e-mail address when you get there, rather than attempting any change to your e-mail address. Moreover, some mailing lists will only accept your posts and changes if they come from the e-mail address which you were using when you subscribed. If you leave that until after your e-mail address is expunged, you can cause lots of people a lot of needless extra work.
  3. Keep in mind that some mailing lists can have several distributions per day. I subscribed to one list early in my experimentation that sent me 46 messages over a weekend. A few have much larger distributions. Other lists can go for weeks or even months without a single distribution.
  4. You need to know what all the rules are for each mailing list (such as how to unsubscribe, how to change your status, and how to make a posting); and you need to have the means to handle the volume of messages which you will receive. These are described in the welcome message.
  5. You need to be very careful to distinguish at least three addresses when you deal with mailing lists: (1) is the address of the list server (which is also called the listserv address), (2) is the list address, where you submit your postings, and (3) is the list owner. The first two are typically computers (often the same computer, but with two different addresses); and the third is typically a human.
  6. The whole thing is complicated by the fact that every list has different commands, is implemented using different list server software (listserv [1], listproc [2] and majordomo [3] are the three I have encountered most often), and mailing list information may or may not identify an owner.
  7. You also need to know what the mailing list's commands are. Every list is potentially different; and you can be really embarrassed if the in-bound volumes become unmanageable, for example, and you do not even know how to unsubscribe, or where to direct your unsubscription notice. Everything is made more complicated if you are away when a problem comes up. There are lots of other commands, such as how to request the list's submission and posting guidelines, how to switch your subscription to the "digest" edition (see below), whether there is an archive (and how to access it), and a great many others. This information is usually contained in a HELP (or FAQ or INFO) file. There are two schools of thought about the HELP files: one is that you should get it and keep a printed copy on file; the other is that you should wait until you need it so you can get the latest one. Both arguments have merit: the main thing is to keep the welcome note. If it contains directions for unsubscribing and for obtaining the HELP file, you can probably wait. If it does not, then you should probably request the help file straightway so that at least you know how to unsubscribe or signoff.
  8. If the owner is identified, my advice is to suppress the impulse to send him/her a query about the mailing list. Keep in mind that people sponsor lists largely out of the goodness of their hearts; and nobody wants to add a bunch of administrative chores to his or her workload. There are a number of frequently asked questions (FAQ), for which there is usually a file of standard answers, called a FAQ file, a HELP file, or simply FAQ. More than likely your initial questions are all answered in the FAQ. When you subscribe to a mailing list the list server will frequently send you an acknowledgment and include a mini-help file (sometimes called a welcome note) that tells you a little about the list, how to post a message, and with advice about how to unsubscribe as a minimum. The more helpful welcome messages also tell you how you can get a HELP file or the FAQ file, whether there is an ARCHIVE, and other useful information. All this goes into your file for that mailing list; and it is used to build the proper entries in your Address Book. Remember, when you have a problem with a mailing list, it usually relates to the fact that you do not know which address to use, or you can't find the right one, or the one you thought was right causes a bounce. If you don't have a file of this information, the next result is lots of risk of embarrassment (both for you and your employer or Internet service provider).
  9. Some mailing lists have a "digest" edition to which you can subscribe. In that model, some administrator (or more likely, some computer) accumulates the postings for a day or a week or until a certain number are in hand (or until some other criterion is met). Then, the mail handler sends the collected "digest" to all the digest recipients as a single message. This can reduce the number of messages, but it does not change the total volume of information, of course.
  10. Most mailing lists keep an archive of past distributions (that are kept for a very long time). In those cases, you can view them by subject or author and download the ones you want. If you are restricted in your e-mail volumes, there are often ways to become a passive subscriber in which you have access to the archive, but you do not receive any of the regular distributions. This can change the volumes dramatically; but it requires you to take action every time you want to see what has been distributed recently. And this defeats one of the principal purposes of subscribing to a mailing list.
  11. Some mailing lists are one-way (or distribution- only) lists, and some are two-way or interactive. In a one-way list, some moderator collects the material and receives all the posts (or simply thinks them up). He or she then picks what is distributed to those on the list. More common are the interactive lists in which the subscribers are all contributors. In this model, everybody hears what everybody else wants to say (though the relevance criteria tend to be interpreted much more broadly).
  12. If you subscribe to an interactive list, be sure you know what you are doing when you reply to a post. Remember that in some mailers, when you hit the "Fwd/Reply" button, it will pick up the e-mail address which sent you the material and prepare to send your reply to them. For an individual e-mail message that is exactly what you want. For a mailing list message, you likely will get the mailing list's address, however (because that is who sent you the message). Whatever you reply will then go to the mailing list, which will be automatically distributed it to all the (perhaps hundreds or thousands) of subscribers. You can really be embarrassed if your reply was intended only for the author of the post. See also section "Replying and Replying with a (short) Quote" above.
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Mail Box Mailing Lists - Your Role as Publisher

  1. * Warning: When you submit or post an article in an Internet forum or to a mailing list (by whatever means) you need to keep in mind that you then take on the role of publisher in some important respects (particularly as it relates to the law). I am no lawyer; but you might like to keep in mind some of the following:
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Mail Box Mailing Lists and Other Internet Forums - Guidelines for Posting

In posting messages to mailing lists or any Internet forum, the following general guidelines may be helpful. These apply equally well, of course, to Weblogs (or blogs), social networking sites, and the like.
  1. Read the items posted by others for a while before considering your own posting. By reading a while, you gain a much better understanding of the purposes, relevance criteria and subject matter of the list. [This "read-only" activity is called "lurking," by the way. And some people who, after lurking for a while, actually make a post, call it "de-lurking." I would be more inclined to call it "participating." But who knows?]
  2. Post only questions, information and comments that are relevant to the subject of the list and which are not answered already in the FAQ or help files. Many experienced Internet users are surprisingly short-tempered about irrelevant or off-topic postings; and you save a lot of time and embarrassment by checking the FAQ file before posting a question answered there.
  3. Please do not post personal messages (even if replying to a post), complaints (sometimes called flames), or test messages. Send personal messages and complaints to the person concerned. Read the welcome post to learn how to post a message. If others post contrary items, please do not respond to them, except individually. In particular, please do not respond to nuisance posts like "is anybody out there?" or "does this list work?" It only adds clutter nobody wants.
  4. Perhaps the most-appreciated guideline for posting is the following: "if you do not have anything to say, don't say it." [I wish I knew who coined it]. Perhaps its corollary is that you probably do not need to post a reply to every post on which you have an opinion. List readers often complain of being annoyed by reading most of a quoted post followed by "right on!" or some such reply. If you have a reply, make it a substantial one: tell subscribers why you think it is such a good (or bad) idea. Add your point of view with cited facts (not just opinion) whenever you can.
  5. If you are answering a question posed by another subscriber, it is often a good idea to send your answer to that subscriber rather than to the list. If the question was of interest to most readers, and your answer is also of interest to most readers, then direct your answer to the list. When you do answer to the list, be sure your answer is substantial. In a busy list, it becomes very tedious to wade through a number of fairly obvious one-line answers. Assume the person has a rudimentary understanding of the subject matter; and if it is clear that they do not, then that is a signal that you should answer them individually, perhaps with a reference to the FAQ or other introductory material that will point them in the right direction.
  6. If you ask a question, request answers be sent to you at your individual e-mail address, and indicate that you will post a summary of the answers when you have them all in hand. [Then, don't let it slip]. Although this reduces the immediacy of the distribution of the answers, it also keeps redundant and very specialized answers from cluttering the list. The summary, when it comes, is a more-or-less complete answer in a single post (convenient for filing by those directly affected). For questions of wide general interest, the summary is then also a good candidate for posting in the frequently-asked questions (FAQ) file. [Remember that you are receiving a favor from other readers when they send you the answers to your questions. Your opportunity to return the favor is to prepare a timely, well-prepared and complete summary of the answers.]
  7. Be sure your post is signed with your name and e-mail address. If your post is garbled in any way that loses or mangles your "reply-to" header, nobody has any way to reach you. Moreover, some mail handlers (curiously) hide the e-mail address of the sender when the message is distributed by a list. If you provide your e-mail address as part of your message, then a backup is available. A signature file is useful for this purpose; and it should be included in every e-mail message to a mailing list. (Note: The detailed steps for creating a signature file are available; and they are written for those not familiar with creation of plain text files).
  8. In any posting to a mailing list, be sure to turn OFF any request for a confirmation or acknowledgment of delivery that your mailer allows. These confirmations (also called "confirm reading" or "confirm delivery" options) create a monumental annoyance to mailing list administrators. There is hardly a quicker way to reap scorn or get yourself dropped from a list than to ask for a confirmation. In fact, for your Internet e-mail generally, turn off the confirmation request option. Every mail handler is different; some can handle it; some cannot. And it doubles the amount of e-mail traffic for very little return. It is about like sending out every letter at the post office by "return receipt requested." You would not want to impose that on anybody unless it was really necessary. Just rely on the reply to your e-mail to confirm that the original message was received.
  9. Before replying individually to any post, be SURE that the "To:" address is NOT the mailing address of the list, but rather the individual to whom you are responding (see above).
  10. Do not post advertisements. Most e-mail users are more annoyed by it than you might think. If you have some information that could look like an ad, check the welcome note and FAQ for announcement or endorsement guidelines, or (as a last resort) be in touch with the list owner about your post before the fact. Announcements or endorsements that are free from hype are often acceptable; but they need to be very low-key to avoid offense of any sort. "Tell me; don't sell me" is often the sentiment of experienced subscribers. They want to know about things; they just don't want the hype, or an attempted sales job. See also the section "Avoid Sending 'Spam' E-mail Messages to Anyone" above.
  11. Keep in mind that many lists have subscribers in many countries, with many different social norms, different religious, racial, political and sexual preferences, and different styles of humor. You will need to think carefully at times to be sure that your post is not unintentionally offensive or confusing to those not sharing your cultural heritage or traditions.
  12. Don't send attached files in a message to be posted to a mailing list until you have checked whether it works or not. Some list servers can handle it ok, of course. Others just ignore the attachment. Worse, some list servers are really fouled up by attached files. Don't give yourself and possibly your employer a bad name by doing it without knowing how it will work out. Find out who the list owner is, and ask him. But check the FAQ first, there will likely be something in there about attached files.
  13. If your post is a reply to another post, quote a little piece of the post you are replying to in your post. See the section "Replying and Replying with a (short) Quote" above.
  14. Always include a signature file in your posts to mailing lists. There are always new subscribers who do not know you and your affiliations yet. (Note: The detailed steps for creating a signature file are available; and they are written for those not familiar with creation of plain text files).
  15. .
  16. WARNING: Keep in mind that there is virtually no way to stop any kind of an Internet post once you have sent it. You can't "undo," retract, recant, renounce, repudiate, withdraw, call back, stifle or suppress it; and you can't "cover it up." It is just gone (and it will be "out there" for a very long time). Theoretically, the list manager (or any forum manager) could intercept it before the listserver broadcasts it; but in practice you will be very hard-pressed to find a list manager who will even listen to your plea for a recall. The only time to think, re-read, re-consider (and perhaps calm down, take several deep breaths, or re-read from another point of view) is before hitting the "send" or "upload" button. Once the message is broadcast there is not even a theoretical way to recall it, of course. Worse, every recipient has only his or her sense of goodwill to keep from distributing it further, holding it up to ridicule, etc. And, if all that weren't bad enough, there are organizations who make it their business to archive newsgroup, mailing list and other postings (and often to sell lists of names and e-mail addresses harvested therefrom). How long will it be until there is a forum "Life's Embarrassing Moments" (or worse) that features all the embarrassing posts of every sort that they can find?
  17. .
    This may be one of the best reasons, by the way, not to compose "hot" responses in your e-mail client's editor. Ask yourself how easy it is to hit "send" by mistake. Ask yourself how often you have done that. Either leave out the "To:" address while composing, or use your text editor instead. When you have something that's safe to send, then enter the "To:" address, or copy the message from your text editor to your e-mail client's editor, or hit the "upload" button. [Then, re-read it again before you send it. :-) See also our caution on privacy, especially the section on "records."]
    And while we are in "by-the-way" mode here, another thing to keep in mind about posting to mailing lists or newsgroups or any Internet forum including social networking websites (see our note about "Social Networking Websites and Living in a Digital World" in the Getting Started ... section) is that it virtually guarantees that your message will be kept "alive" for a very long time. It is often easy to think of a comment, made more-or-less in passing, particularly one made in response to a claim by another subscriber, as being somewhat akin to a comment in any conversation: pertinent for the moment, and then forgotten. Remember, however, that most mailing lists and other forums have archives of historical posts that are kept substantially forever. Remember also that inasmuch as your message goes to lots of subscribers and visitors (at least hundreds, and perhaps thousands), it will be in in-boxes (and therefore logged into in-box queues) in lots of places. You will almost never have access to delete these messages anytime, even though you wrote them. These in-box and other queues are routinely backed up on every machine that holds your message. I encountered a log of messages on a desktop computer not too long ago that still had messages from 1991 (!) because the person did not know how to purge their own messages (or even that such a thing might be necessary). Heaven knows how many backup files those messages are on. The point here is that sometime in the future you will be pleasantly (or perhaps not) surprised when somebody dredges up a message you wrote years ago, have forgotten about entirely, and on the subject of which you have changed your views completely over the intervening years. It is tough enough to be repudiated in an argument; but when your opponent can quote YOU, it can be seen as quite ridiculous.
    In case you want to check two interesting possibilities in this area, here are two businesses who will snoop around and see what others are saying about you or your business or your brand name. One is Cyber Alert Internet Monitoring and the other is Cyveillance. Hey, this is the Information Age. And there is no shortage of outfits who will do this sort of thing in less than ethical ways, too.
  18. It is worth the effort to be seen as a team member on a mailing list by following the rules. Keep in mind that some mail handlers have what are called "filters" or "kill files." When the owner puts your name on his/her kill file, any in-bound message with your name is deleted before it even gets into the mailbox. About the second time he is really annoyed by a message from you or your employer, he might even put the entire domain name in his kill file. Then nobody's mail will get through. We don't want to be painted with that brush under any circumstances.
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Mail Box Mailing Lists - Vacation Messages and Closing your E-mail Account

When you go on vacation or when you leave your employment where you subscribed to mailing lists, it may be helpful to keep the following ideas in mind:
  1. If you subscribe to high volume mailing lists, your mailbox could become full while you are on vacation (see above).
  2. When this happens, your mail handler starts "bouncing" all your messages back to the senders. In most mailing lists, these bounces are directed back to the owner. And all your messages are bounced: not just the messages from the high-volume lists. As you might imagine, it is more than a little tiresome to be running a list in your spare time, and having to deal with bounces from people who have not even thought far enough ahead to unsubscribe or hold their messages while they are away.
  3. A similar thing happens if you leave your employment without signing off from your lists, and your erstwhile employer subsequently deletes your e-mail address. Since you then become an "unknown addressee," mailing list messages start bouncing. Furthermore, after your e-mail address is deleted, only the list owner (or other privileged operator) can unsubscribe your name, because most list servers are configured to accept list commands only from the e-mail address you used when you subscribed. Don't be the one who visits that on the head of some poor volunteer list owner. Signoff all your mailing lists several days before you leave, at least. This gives time to respond also to messages from a few lists you forgot about. Of course, this can happen any time you close an e-mail address, whether or not it relates to your employment.
  4. If you have a problem with mail volumes filling your mail box, switch to the digest edition (above), or see if your system administrator will cache the posts for access by everybody at your installation. This tends to be better received by sysadmins when several people at the installation all want to subscribe to the list.
  5. If your mailer has a "vacation message" or "out of office" option, be very careful that you know how it works. Typically, it is an option to automatically send an out-bound message (or reply) that is triggered by any in-bound message for you while you are away. The out-bound message (often called the "vacation message") simply states that you are on vacation at the moment, sometimes indicates when you will return, and may even refer callers to others for satisfaction of immediate needs. Some handlers will only send one single vacation message to any caller (no matter how many messages they send you while you are away). Others are not so well-mannered. In these cases, every message from a mailing list will trigger a "vacation message" response. That would be bad enough by itself. In some cases, however, the message is sent to the mailing list, where the list server thinks it is a new post for all the subscribers. It duplicates it dutifully and sends it to everybody on the list ... ... one of whom is you. In an instant you have created what list managers and owners call a "vicious loop." Most list servers can handle these problems by noticing that the messages are repeating without changes. Others do not handle them well at all. In every case, many people are annoyed. Don't use any kind of vacation message unless you are dead certain that you have signed off all your lists first. It is a very efficient way to make enemies big time.
  6. In a related vein, be very careful of using automatic forwarding filters or options on your e-mail account if you are subscribed to mailing lists. If you want some mailing list distributions at some other address, either forward them manually, or else just sign off that list and re-subscribe at the address where you want it delivered. The problem with automatic forwarding is that when there is a problem at the ultimate address, the mail is bounced. There is nothing surprising about that, except that when the bounce gets back to the mailing list owner (who is a volunteer, doing this out of the goodness of his/her heart, remember), the bounce shows an address fault for an address s/he does not have on the subscriber list. Now the poor list owner has a problem with bouncing mail, and s/he has no idea where to start looking for the culprit. Please don't be the one who visits that on the head of some poor volunteer list owner, either.
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Mail Box Mailing Lists - Finding and Subscribing to them

There are thousands of Mailing Lists on a very large variety of topics. Several web sites maintain searchable data bases of mailing lists. Topica's Liszt site contains a comprehensive index of thousands and thousands of lists in its data base. It is convenient to use and quickly searches on your key word(s). Its developers say they will keep it very current with list offerings. It is often very busy, however.

The CataList Reference Site by L-soft International describes thousands of public lists out of many more thousands of LISTSERV lists, and can also be browsed by size (number of subscribers), country, topic, etc. It may be more up-to-date than some other mailing list indexes.

Search engines will no doubt return other useful sites in response to a query such as "Mailing Lists."

Most mailing list descriptions are far from ideal in helping you to decide whether or not to subscribe. Partly this is because everybody is a volunteer, and nobody has time to write a nice description. Partly it is because everybody is a contributor in most mailing lists, and therefore the subject matter (and certainly the emphasis) tends to shift with time and the current interests of contributors. You may also be interested to know that most lists have seasonal content shifts which relate to how busy the contributors are. What you saw in June, for example, may be quite different from what you will see in September when all the academics, at least, start a new school year. The only reliable ways to find out if you can benefit from a mailing list is to subscribe and read the posts for a few weeks, or to examine the archive of recent posts.

Upon locating a Mailing List whose purpose suits your needs, subscribing is fairly easy. Generally it consists of sending an e-mail message to the Mailing List Server leaving the subject line blank, and with a message (starting in the first character of the first line of the body) such as:

 subscribe LISTNAME Yourfirstname Yourlastname

 if it is a LISTSERV or LISTPROC server, or with a message such as:

 subscribe LISTNAME

if it is a MAJORDOMO server. If you foul it up, but have the mailing list server address right and the "sub" of "subscribe," the list server will typically send you some suggestions about subscribing correctly. The description of the Mailing List which is returned from any of the mailing list data bases above will also contain subscription instructions. Remember when subscribing to a mailing list that your subscription request is going to be processed by a computer. Not starting in the first character of the first line of the body of the message, or including your signature file, or including any other comments or questions will only confuse the software.

* There is a caution, however, about subscribing to Mailing Lists. Keeping track of the addresses of the servers, the mailing lists and their owners (which are all separate, but easy to confuse), and knowing when to send a message to the server, to the mailing list or to the owner (or sometimes even the manager) can be taxing for new Internet e-mail users. Furthermore, sending a message to the wrong address can be embarrassing to you and/or annoying to others. For those new to Internet e-mail and Mailing Lists, see the section on Mailing Lists above. For those new to e-mail, you may wish to review our Caution on Privacy before doing much of anything with e-mail or other on-line services.

You may also wish to keep in mind that the subscriber list for most mailing lists is public information. On most lists, you can conceal your subscription, but you need to take specific measures to do so (and most subscribers do not do it). The welcome message will usually detail these steps. If you conceal your subscription, then those who locate contacts by that means will miss you, of course.

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Mail Box Mailing Lists - Signing Off or Unsubscribing

Getting off a mailing list is easy if you kept the welcome message which tells you the rules and the commands (one of which is unsubscribe or signoff). This information is also usually in the list's "help" or information file (see rules and commands, above).

The general form is to send an e-mail message to the mailing list server (whose address is in the welcome note, or in the help file) with the command "unsubscribe" or "signoff" and the name of the mailing list (and sometimes including your name or e-mail address). There are several forms; and you need to get the right one from the list's welcome note or help file.

If you were signed up for a mailing list by a "friend," then see the section "Coping with Unwanted Mail" below, particularly the paragraph on unwanted mailing list subscriptions.

The big thing is to suppress the impulse to write to the list owner and ask him/her to sign you off. S/he is a volunteer, who is running the list in his/her spare time and who does not need the additional work either.

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Mail Box Mailing Lists - Starting Your Own

Starting your own mailing list can be a very rewarding experience. You can assemble a community of interest that is not presently being served; your list can provide a significant incentive for some people to enter into and participate in the Information Age; and you can do it (mostly) on your own terms. Any mail handler can be used to operate a list with a small number of subscribers; and there is no shortage of list server software and services if your list grows.

That's the up-side.

The down-side is that it can also become a monumental source of grief, especially if the list topic is interesting to a broad spectrum of subscribers. It can make or break long-standing friendships; and it can change your life in fundamental ways.

The notion of list "ownership" is changing in important ways as global information exchange becomes a popular means of interaction. In the not-too-distant past a list owner was king of the mountain. It was his "baby;" and he did whatever he liked ... more or less. Anybody who wanted to start a competing list with a slightly different charter was welcome to it. The latter is still true, of course; but ownership is gravitating more and more toward the body of subscribers now. They always were the owners of the content, of course. But now they are being seen as having a greater entitlement to control of the list, its operations and its charter.

Most new lists go through fairly predictable phases. (See "The Natural Life Cycle Of Mailing Lists," a classic from Kat Nagel (1994) that talks about some of the social aspects of mailing lists). There is the initial enthusiasm, lots of posts and lots of new subscribers. After a few hundred subscribers have joined, inevitably some sort of disagreement arises and is hashed out. Also inevitably, somebody becomes rude or makes personal attacks, and a whole bunch of subscribers opt out (often many of the best contributors, unfortunately). And sometimes the offending subscriber(s) is(are) ousted. Then the list either slowly dies, or comes to some sort of equilibrium with the remaining subscribers, and on a more subdued level. Moderated lists can defer the fight phase to some extent, of course. In some (so far, rare) cases, list members who have been ousted from the list have threatened to sue the list owners. I don't know of any suit that has actually been tried; but even the threat can be unsettling. As one harried list owner said, "... and the tormentors have pretty much fallen to just wondering why we're willing to do all of what we do for free. And ya know ... I don't know if there's a real good answer for that." If nothing else, this evolution of ownership will add interest to the life of a list owner.

The best advice I can offer is to be sure you talk to lots of list owners before you start. And subscribing to a list or joining a newsgroup or other forum for list owners to see what they talk about, what the problems are, how they are resolved, etc., might be a good eye-opener.

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Mail Box What Does Access to E-mail and Other Internet Postings Mean?

Access to e-mail and other mechanisms for global information exchange can be as trivial as a quick method to send someone a note, or a convenient way to send what would otherwise be sent in a fax. Of much greater significance, however, is the ability to join, form and contribute to global communities of interest, and the opportunities for intellectual interaction which they foster. It is difficult to overstate the longer term and strategic implications of these associations. They will be a pivotal component of the Information Age, which will change forever the ways we think, learn, work, play and live. Below is an excerpt from a draft background paper concerning Strategic Planning for Information Technology and Telecommunications (100 Kb) which gives a hint of the potential of these communities of interest and their intellectual interaction.
Global communities of interest have been assembled through use of mailing lists, electronic bulletin boards, chat lines, blogs and other discussion forums, Internet Usenet or Bitnet Newsgroups, etc. Traditional communities of geographic proximity are augmented by these communities of interest, where hobbies, medical conditions, professions, athletic and sporting news, automobiles, movie and video heroes, political and religious leanings, and virtually any other interest are discussed and debated with world-wide perspective and participation. A posting in an Internet Newsgroup, for example, may be read by tens or even hundreds of thousands of individuals from among the 30 to 100 million (or more) Internet subscribers within a few hours. These communities of interest are formed substantially without regard to geographic proximity or political boundaries. And in the foreseeable future, if costs continue to decline and accessibility continues to expand, the only limits will be the levels of interest themselves. The associations thus formed are without precedent for humanity, and promise great potential for cooperative problem-solving, skill exchange and unified action. These dynamic communities of interest may be long- term or short-term as associations are formed to meet particular needs, and dissolved when they are no longer pertinent. Traditional communities, formed by proximity to employment, will become communities of choice as increasing numbers of people relocate near centers of recreational, family or creative interest rather than near centers of employment. Increasingly, telecommuting will become an important enabler favoring both desirable employment options and desirable living locations.

The exchange of e-mail messages, participation in mailing lists, bulletin boards and Newsgroups, and the browsing of information on the World-Wide Web stimulates intellectual interaction unlike any that humanity has seen to date. Print and broadcast media have traditionally provided a degree of one-to-many intellectual transfer, but very little interactivity. Because of their large and relatively heterogeneous audiences, and because of the financial requirement to please both sponsors and larger and larger audiences, only relatively low levels of intellectual sophistication have ever been reached. In these processes, scope is inevitably narrowed. There are also many people, who, by nature are not skilled participators in traditional social interaction. Some of these will emerge as significant participators or even leaders in these associations of intellectual interaction. When these abilities for intellectual interaction are carried out in communities of interest which are very specialized (but can ultimately contain a great many of those like-minded people from around the globe) the potential for creativity and unified problem solution rises substantially above what is otherwise attainable. In the foreseeable future, it may be possible to form a community of virtually all the persons on the planet who share a common intellectual interest. Global learning and understanding could be profoundly affected by the debates, conclusions and actions of such a community.

In order to gain the considerable benefits of the Information Age, we all need to become involved in and participate in these communities of interest, and in the intellectual interaction which e-mail and other mechanisms for global information exchange foster. E-mail is the thin edge of the wedge with which we can begin our voyage of discovery and participation. Let's jump in, take advantage, and make our voices for improved ways of doing things be heard.

The Rand Corporation has released an extensive research report "Universal Access to E-mail: Feasibility and Societal Implications," a summary of which is also available. Their conclusions indicate that e-mail should be made universally available in the U.S., and that such an effort would have a solid democratizing effect throughout the developed world.

"Predicting E-mail Effects in Organizations" has been posted by the "First Monday" Internet journal (about). In the 2000s and beyond, "electronic mail (e-mail) will be a pervasive communication medium creating new possibilities and having unforeseen consequences in organizations. This paper attempts to predict e-mail developments and subsequent issues in organizations. System designers and managers need to look beyond the efficiency and productivity gains of technology to second level effects in order find the primary e-mail issue for organizations with the continued expansion of global telecommunications networks." The section "Looking Ahead at E- mail and Organizations" advises systems professionals "to treat the user of an e-mail system 'not merely as a customer or client of information services, but also as a processor or co-processor to be integrated into the system design'."

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Mail Box How to Cope with Unwanted E-mail (often called "spam")

What do you do if you are receiving unwanted advertisements, invitations to join pyramid schemes and requests to participate in chain letters? What do you do if you receive offensive or objectionable material in an e-mail message? What do you do if you receive e-mail messages with very large graphics or other files attached, and which are clogging up your mail box (or inflating your service fees)? What do you do if you are subscribed to a mailing list which chokes your mailbox with messages?

These are big problems in the Information Age. The Internet was made for easy exchange of e-mail messages; and e-mail addresses are easy to find. Unfortunately that makes it easy for others to send you messages which may be annoying or worse. These messages, by the way, are often called "spam," and the activity is called "spamming." This label is applied to the full range of unwanted e-mail messages, from off-topic mailing list posts to the most offensive materials.

The best cure is often to ignore these messages as if you had not received them. In many cases the lack of any response will cause the offender to move on to other activities, dropping you from his list. What I do is to first sort my in-bound mail by subject (or by sender, if I am looking for some particular sender), and flag for deletion all the messages which are spam. All the "make millions" and "Read This First" messages are obvious; others are not. Anyhow, I just delete these messages without even opening them. Some mail handlers have so-called "kill files" or "filters" which can be set to automatically delete any file from certain senders or with certain subjects, etc., before they even enter your in-box.

Although you can follow the steps below for any unwanted messages, your pleas for help will likely fall on deaf ears in the case of unwanted advertisements, chain letters, etc. Advertisers will soon tire of sending you invitations which you ignore; and service providers can spend endless hours trying to track down and discourage every new advertiser who pops up.

If your problem is that you were subscribed to a mailing list you do not want, see the steps above for vacation signoff procedures, and follow them. If you do not know about mailing lists, it is time for a crash course: see above. And, as a last resort, locate the mailing list owner (one of three important mailing list addresses) and ask him to unsubscribe you. He will expect you to have tried to do it yourself first, however.

When the messages are very offensive, and when simply ignoring these messages does not work, you may consider trying some of the additional steps below.

One potentially helpful initial response (which requires you to set aside rule number one above, and which requires a good deal of patience) is to make a copy of the offending message.

Anyhow, the rest of this initial response is to then send the person a message that very politely asks him not to continue. Your objective here is to help him to see that there is increased risk in continuing his practice without making him angry. Keep a copy of your message(s) and any reply or replies. Avoid being drawn into a discussion with the person, no matter how much his reply offends you. The idea here is to make a record of the offense and the fact that you have asked him to stop.

In lots of cases, your message to him will bounce. Most spammers and many advertisers deliberately disable their "Reply To:" and return addresses so that replies are not delivered to them. Some spammers even forge some unrelated return address so that any replies go to that person (and often annoy them too). In such a case, just keep a copy of the bounced message when it is returned to you. It contains lots of important information about the "bounce" that will come in very handy later.

If your mail reaches him (or at least does not bounce), but has no apparent effect, a helpful next step may be to write to the postmaster at his Internet Service Provider (ISP) asking for help. If the offender's "Reply To:" e-mail address is:

for example, then you can send your message to his postmaster at: Most ISPs have an e-mail name "postmaster" which is routed to the person who oversees their e-mail services. Keep in mind that these people are very busy, but are usually interested in helping if one of their subscribers is doing something that is against the law. Here again, make your case very politely and include copies of the original offense, your request to the spammer to stop (and any replies). This is where your "full headers" copy pays off. The postmaster can tell from the full headers of the offending messages whether one of his subscribers actually sent the mail, or whether the domain name was forged, etc. If the message actually originated at his domain name, the postmaster will likely take some action that will help. Other times, of course, you get no response from the postmaster either. This latter case arises most often in the case of unwanted advertisements.

Another step you can take is to enlist the help of your own ISP. Here again, there is likely a postmaster there who might help.

If your e-mail address is:

for example, then you can send a message to your postmaster at: and, alternately, you can call your account representative at your ISP and discuss it with him.

Here again, your purpose is to very politely ask him if he has any suggestions concerning your plight. Include all the pertinent copies mentioned above, and also your message (including any reply or bounce) from the postmaster at the offender's ISP. Frequently, your postmaster knows the offender's postmaster; and even if the latter apparently ignored your message, your postmaster may be able to reach him. Often, they have worked together to solve other problems in the past.

Your ISP may have some suggestions concerning changes to your e-mail address. Keep in mind that such a change might attract a fee, and that you will then have to send messages to all your correspondents notifying them of the change. Furthermore, any message sent to you at the old address will then bounce, with no forwarding information. That is what you want for the spammer; but likely not for anybody else.

As this problem increases, thoughtful ISPs will develop services to trap these unwanted messages, and forward you only the messages you want. These services will likely be priced well above plain old e-mail services, however, because they will require a lot of manual maintenance to keep them current.

Finally, if all of the above fails, you can take the contents of your file (printed on hard copy), and go see your lawyer. He may have some suggestions for further action.

Related Thoughts:

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Mail Box Translating E-mail Messages in Foreign Languages

Have you received an e-mail message in a foreign language and had to scrounge for a friend to translate it for you? Try the AltaVista translation service called SYSTRAN [cookies (cookie caution)]. You paste a plain text version of the foreign language message into the text box, and pick a translation option. The result is far from ideal, but often it gives you enough that you can at least figure out what the main thrust of the message was. I wouldn't recommend it for translating messages going the other way, however, unless you have a very understanding correspondent in that language.

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Mail Box Links to E-mail Guides, etc.

  1. Kaitlin Sherwood has written a breezy Beginner's Guide to Effective Email which is an easy read and very informative to the new e-mail user.
  2. Virginia Shea has posted "The Core Rules of Netiquette" [cookies (cookie caution)] which provides a helpful overview, written for the general reader and new Internet user. Albion's "Netiquette Home Page" [cookies (cookie caution)] provides links to more advanced e-mail topics. The Albion publishing website [cookies (cookie caution)] has "been greeting and orienting new Internet users since 1993."
  3. The HTML Writers Guild posts "The Netiquette Guidelines" which includes the usual suggestions plus an "Actionable Rules" section (giving reasons for suspensions, being barred from posting, etc.).
  4. Heinz Tschabitscher has posted a Guide to E- mail [cookies (cookie caution)] with links to further sources.
  5. Open Colleges posts Email Etiquette: Improve your business writing & communication skills. "Knowing how to write an effective email is essential to getting ahead in your career."
  6. Hoax-Slayer posts a good section on Email Security - Safe and Secure Emailing, and a host of other items on e-mail and Internet use generally.
  7. The Rand Corporation has released an extensive research report "Universal Access to E-mail: Feasibility and Societal Implications," a summary of which is also available. Their conclusions indicate that e-mail should be made universally available in the U.S., and that such an effort would have a solid democratizing effect throughout the developed world. "Toward an Ethics and Etiquette for Electronic Mail," is a Rand Corporation classic by Norman Z. Shapiro and Robert H. Anderson, dating from 1985. It has a relaxed and balanced tone, is written for the general reader and well worth the time, especially for those new to e-mail.
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Mail Box Auto-Responders, Mail Robots, Mirrors

An e-mail auto-responder (also called a mail robot, mailbot, mirror, reflector, etc.) is a computer with an e-mail address and a bunch of files handy. When you send an e-mail message to an auto-responder it "reads" your message, and mails you back one or more of the files it has handy. Typically, if it can't figure out what your message is about, it mails you a HELP file that consists of a list of the files it has handy, and the proper commands to have them sent to you.

 Auto-responders are used to provide sales information and to answer frequently-asked questions much as recorded messages are used via telephone, and as auto-fax-back systems are used in facsimile transmission systems. They run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; they don't take lunch or coffee breaks; and they always answer immediately. As an example, BestNet posts a page that describes their AutoResponder service. Many such services are available, of course.

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Mail Box HTML Mail Format.

Early in the game mail clients handled plain ASCII text only. Then others (inclucing those from Microsoft) added the ability to handle different fonts, font sizes, colors, etc. [See the section "Using Rich Text Formats in E-mail Messages" above]. The purists were all annoyed, of course; but most people liked to see something better than plain black Courier text. It wasn't long until somebody got the wise idea to make a mail client that could interpret HyperText Markup Language (HTML--the stuff web page source text is made of--see the definition of HTML on our Help for New World-Wide Web Users" page). Sometimes the mail client simply transfers the HTML to the browser which interprets it as if it were a web page. And sometimes the mail client just interprets the HTML itself. Anyhow, the point is that it allows formatting, bold large letters, colors, ... and can even handle tables, pictures, etc., much like a web page.

If you discover that your mail client can handle HTML Mail Format, be careful not to use it (or Rich Text Format) in a posting to most mailing lists. It can really rankle some list owners. See the section "Using Rich Text Formats in E-mail Messages" above. Of course, if your mail client can read and display HTML Mail Format messages, then you may also be able to create messages in HTML to send to your friends. When you do that, be sure their mail client can handle it first. Otherwise, what you have sent will look mostly like nonsense to them.

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Mail Box E-mail Zines (Magazines)

E-mail Magazines (or just "Zines") are similar to mailing lists, but often follow the traditional printed magazine (or periodical) model more closely than mailing lists follow the printed newsletter model. Zines are often distributed by e-mail (though some are also distributed via web sites), and often have a small number of contributors and a much larger number of subscribers. In some cases, subscribers never contribute content to Zines. Zines also tend more toward regular periodical distribution than being distributed as the articles are contributed. Some mailing lists are classified both as mailing lists and as Zines.

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Mail Box Internet Access via E-mail

...Methods to access FTP, Archie, Gopher, Veronica, Usenet, WAIS, Finger, Whois, and even the World-Wide Web via E-mail.

Bob Rankin (aka Dr. Bob) and Gerald E. Boyd have prepared a paper called "Accessing the Internet by E-mail" to help those without access to FTP (file transfer protocol), Archie, Gopher, Veronica, Usenet, WAIS, Finger, Whois, or the World-Wide Web. He explains how to access these Internet resources from e-mail. He also describes a bit about mailing lists, and some other net goodies, along with his publications which can be obtained for a fee.

If your e-mail is more reliable than your web service, Web2Mail will regularly e-mail you a web page so you can watch for changes.

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Mail Box FAXes via E-mail

... thus avoiding toll charges and improving reliability.

CallWave offers a service (ad supported, and requiring some demographic information for targeting) in which they assign you a telephone number you can advertise as your fax number. The fax is received, attached to an e-mail message, and sent to your e-mail box (complete with ads, presumably).

David Strom Inc. [cookies (cookie caution)], posts a table "Internet Fax Technologies" [cookies (cookie caution)] which lists a dozen or more e-mail and web-based faxing and voice mail services, along with notes, pricing, etc.

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Mail Box E-mail and Enhanced or Secure E-mail Services via the Web

Most portal websites and search engines now offer free e-mail services, sometimes with ads tacked onto your out-going mail.

Additional information is available at each of these services' websites.

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        Box Footnotes

[1] Listserv was described at the no longer available website "The Listserv Server." Sorry.

[2] Listproc, or ListProcessor, was described at the no longer available website "ListProcessor Version 6.0c Owners Guide Manual." Sorry.

[3] Majordomo - n. A person who speaks, makes arrangements, or takes charge for another. The chief steward or butler in the household of a sovereign or noble. From the Latin "major domus," master of the house. ... Return to text.


See also: The Rand Corporation's extensive research report "Universal Access to E-mail: Feasibility and Societal Implications," a summary of which is also available. Their conclusions indicate that e-mail should be made universally available in the U.S., and that such an effort would have a solid democratizing effect throughout the developed world.

See also: "Toward an Ethics and Etiquette for Electronic Mail," a Rand Corporation classic by Norman Z. Shapiro and Robert H. Anderson, dating from 1985. It has a relaxed and balanced tone, is written for the general reader and well worth the time, especially for those new to e-mail.

See also: Rand Science and Technology Issue Paper: E-Mail Communication Between Government and Citizens: Security, Policy Issues, and Next Steps. "Modern network technologies--particularly electronic mail and the World Wide Web--offer the potential for significantly enhancing communication between government agencies and their citizen clients. Because much of the communication between governments and citizens involves the transmission of sensitive information, however, the full potential of these new media will not be realized until means are developed for secure interactions."

See also: The Harvard Business School Publishing website posted a light reading piece "The Ten Commandments of E-mail: How to cope with e-mail overload and more" which is unfortunately no longer available, and which contained a number of good points:

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