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25 important rules to bear in mind when using email

New users of all ages and experience levels hit the Internet every day. They're so new that even the most well-established netiquette can seem arcane and nonsensical to them, especially when it comes to the killer app of all time: Email.

We've put together this list of advice and tips that you can send to your favourite relative, your verbose co-worker, or that former university pal who's found you on Facebook. It will teach them how best to get their electronic missives to you in a way that won't annoy you, won't break the Internet, or cause any other issues. And you'll more than likely find that there are some tips which are news to you, as well, or serve as a handy reminder...

1. Beware of hoaxes

People have the best intentions when forwarding dire warnings about the latest computer virus, telemarketer con jobs, extreme gas prices, and whatever chicanery the current political administration is trying to pull. The problem: The vast majority of email about such topics is utter fiction. So before you forward some juicy tale of woe, bear in mind that it may not be true, and do a bit of searching to assess its veracity.

2. Don't perpetuate pointlessness

Here's news you may not believe: Most people don't necessarily share your sense of humour. They do want email to confirm a conversation not your belief in chain letters that can cause bad luck involving your reproductive organs.

Your friends and family are too polite to ask you to stop, and everyone else is far too busy dealing with important messages to want to wade through that nonsense. They all know to hit the delete key, but that doesn't mean receiving these messages isn't annoying.

At the very least, give your recipients the option of not being subject to your forwards. You'll be surprised how many people cheerfully say: "Hell, yes, take me off your list."

3. Get a permanent address

There's no such thing as a truly permanent and forever email address. For most of the history of the Internet, people got email addresses through either their Internet service provider or their employer. But few jobs or ISPs last forever, so that means changing your address, which means putting your friends through all the annoyance and hassle of updating their address books.

You can minimise the chances of going through that change by utilising a webmail address from a major provider – such as Gmail, or Yahoo.

The only way to be sure your email address is truly permanent, however, is to control it yourself. That means registering a domain name and buying email service to go with it. If you want to be found by the same people forever, guaranteed, that's the way to go.

4. Consolidate addresses

Got a 15-year-old email account you don't use? Have you signed up for every free webmail in existence? Have you got a work address, ISP address, and maybe even one attached to your long-dead blog?

It's too much – too many addresses for you to check, and worse, too much for your correspondents to keep track of. Narrow things down to only two addresses: One for newsletters, another for real people. You probably can't get rid of your work email address – just don't give it to anyone outside of your industry. Delete your accounts with all the old services so that messages to them will bounce – but first, take a quick spin through those messages and be sure to inform anyone important to you about the change.

5. Don't hand out your address like candy

Your email address is a precious commodity, assuming you don't want an inbox filled with spam, phishing schemes, and advertisements. Only disclose it to friends and co-workers. Eventually all addresses get spammed, but keeping it close to your chest will delay this for a while.

Many online services want an email address when you sign up, but you don't necessarily want to receive emails from the service, much less spam from whomever they sell their mailing lists to. If you don't have a spare account for that purpose, use a temporary email service such as Mailinator. Such services provide an address good for a limited time – just enough time to sign up – and then it goes away, never to bother you again.

6. Do not use "Reply All" blindly

We've all seen those messages come in: Some stray person who got the same company-wide email you received hits Reply All, and now everyone in the company has to see his gripes. Don't be that person. Especially don't be that person if you're going to gripe about someone in particular – it's almost guaranteed that your subject will be on the list of people getting the message. Sadly, that kind of thing happens all the time.

When sending a new message, don't go to an old message and hit Reply All (or even Reply). Start from scratch and use your own address book – otherwise someone you don't intend to contact may slip into the list.

7. BCC is your friend

CC once stood for "carbon copy." Some say today it stands for "courtesy copy." Either way, that's how you send a message to someone else along with your intended recipient. However you interpret CC, the "B" in BCC stands for "blind," and the BCC field is where you put in the names of those people you want to read your message on the sly. The people listed in the To and CC fields don't get to see who's included in the BCC field. Even the other recipients in BCC don't see each other.

It also serves another purpose. When sending a message to a very, very large list, always put all the addresses in BCC. That way recipients don't have to wade through a gigantic list of names at the top of the message – and you're not abusing everyone's privacy by revealing their email addresses.

Better yet, no one has to suffer if one of those recipients pulls a Reply All snafu as detailed above.

8. Subject lines matter

"Hi, how are you?" or "Check this out!" don't cut it as subject lines when people are receiving hundreds of messages per day. If you can't distil your message to five or six perfect, pithy words, you run the risk of not getting read at all.

Don't list that the message is from you in the subject, either. "Message from Eric" is redundant: The person knows it's a message and can see your name in the From field. The subject should be on topic.

And don't bury the lead. If the message is about something important, state it up front, in the subject line. If you can inject a bit of urgency or a deadline ("Reply by midnight about CEO firing") your message stands a much better chance of being read soon.

If you leave the subject line blank, well... you don't even deserve a reply.

9. One topic per message

We're all a few steps away from A.D.D. these days, and tracking multiple topics in a message – and responding to them – is difficult at best. Even if you can electronically chew bubble gum and walk at the same time, sticking to a single subject makes it much easier to search and refer to past messages when necessary.

10. Brevity is the soul of wit

How often do you read email messages that are over three paragraphs long?

Neither does anyone else. Enough said.

11. Send plain text if in doubt

Of course, email programs can display messages in rich text, with all the formatting, special characters and images you desire. Messages can be as complicated as any web page, but not everyone appreciates that. In fact, since spammers can use images embedded in messages as web bugs, many people turn off the ability for a message to display any HTML or rich text. That's the default in some email software.

Unless you know for sure that a recipient wants to get formatted email, the better choice is to send all messages as plain text.

12. Run antivirus software

There's no excuse not to check every message you receive and send. Even free antivirus programs like AVG Free can check every message you send and receive with Outlook or Thunderbird. Such scans of incoming and outgoing messages are a given with advanced AV tools. And we know you're running some type of anti-malware on your computer all the time – right? Keep those definitions up to date.

13. Avoid huge attachments

Once upon a time, people only sent digital files to each other via email. It was the only direct conduit available. Now, you have a wealth of options for sharing. As files get bigger and bigger, it's best to take advantage of these options rather than clog up an inbox.

First and best option: Share a link rather than the actual file. That video of your stealthy ninja kitten is huge coming from your DV camcorder; but if you put it on YouTube, you can simply send friends the link to view it online. Maybe it will go viral and make you an Internet superstar.

Alternatively, you can share larger files using services such as Dropbox or Google Drive.

14. Attach what you promised

We've all been there: "Attached you'll find a copy of the most important proposal of my lifetime." Off goes that message – and there's nothing with it. You send a sheepish follow-up message and feel like a fool.

It’s true that these days, some email services and software – like Gmail, for example – will scan your message for words like “attached” and warn you if you’ve not attached anything when you click send. But it’s always worth double checking that you’ve definitely included that attachment before you hit send, just in case…

The number one way to get malware is to trust that an attachment sent to you is what the message claims. Even if it does look okay, it could be dangerous, since malware likes to attempt to disguise itself as best as possible. If anything looks even remotely incorrect, contact the "sender" first to be sure you know who actually sent it.

Likewise, phishing scams that send you to web pages you should not visit often look legit. That's the whole point of them, after all. You have to think very carefully when you get a message from a bank, or PayPal, or any number of services. Firstly, do you have an account there? Secondly, does the message actually refer to something you could have done? (Example: eBay phishers will tell you there's a problem with your auction – but do you have an auction running?) Think very carefully before you act…

16. Trim excess in replies

When you reply to a message, usually the original missive is appended below what you wrote. That way the recipient(s) can refer back to what was sent originally. While handy, this can be a pain when you're searching through emails later (your query will yield multiple hits because the same words are repeated in so many messages). Worse still, eventually a long conversation will have a thread that goes on for pages and pages.

At some point, take the time to cut out some of the messages below. Better yet, just copy the most relevant part and paste it in above what you're typing. Use >>> in front of that section to indicate that it's from a previous message. Your succinctness will be appreciated.


This might be the oldest bit of netiquette around, but it's still important to point out to total newbies who shun the Shift key in favour of Caps Lock: TYPING IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS IS THE INTERNET EQUIVALENT OF SHOUTING.

If you truly can't handle mixed case for some reason, then go all lowercase. We'll call that a "style choice."

18. Know your audience

Multiple personalities are part of communication. You don't talk to your parents the same way you talk to your best friend, right? Don't think that you can write an email the same way you talk, or text; let alone write without vowels. “Its 1 thng 2 typ ungrmmtclly whn thrs a 140-160 chrctr lmt” – but it's quite another thing when you have all the space you need. It helps to look smart when making a point.

19. Don't email when angry

There are many things to avoid doing when angry. Don’t drink. Don’t drive. Don’t call your significant other, or your significant other's parents. Sending textual communication of any sort when peeved is also a big no-no.

There's always a chance that a missive from the boss, human resources, co-workers, or even family members can rub you the wrong way, if not cause outright rage. Do more than count to ten: Remember that not everyone is a nuanced writer, and for some people terse and to-the-point is the only way they can be. Your feelings don't enter into it – and they're not being malicious. Consider the source. Take a few hours or even a day to reply. If time is of the essence, call or go and visit them in person instead. What could be an ugly confrontation may be quickly diffused face-to-face.

Sending angry messages of complaint can be useful, but be constructive. We receive flak from the denizens of the Internet at times, as does every website, but we always pay more attention when the comment writer can articulate where we went wrong, rather than just calling us shills for Microsoft (or Apple, or HP, or Sony, depending on the story).

20. Recall/Undo a sent message

Sometimes you send an email and see a typo just a moment too late – or you notice that you did a Reply All and didn't mean to (we warned you about this already). The good thing is that these days, some email software and services do offer an option to retract a message (usually in a short window of time, of course).

Gmail Labs, for example, has been offering an Undo Send feature for a long time now. You can enable this if you click the Gear icon top right of your Gmail Inbox, then select Settings. Click on Labs in the row of tabs that appears along the top, and scroll down to find Undo Send, which you can then enable. Once this is on, if you send a message and have second thoughts, you have up to 30 seconds to click the Undo link and snatch it back. If you’re not on Gmail, check out the help files or instructions for your particular mail client to discover if this feature is available, and how to switch it on.

21. Put rules to work in your inbox

Having a wild inbox without rules is no fun – it's a sure way to organisational meltdown. No one likes to follow rules, but if your messages do you'll be happier. They'll end up in the right folders, with the right colour-coding and status, and they'll help you get things done. Most email software and services have some variation on rules, and it’s well worth taking the time to look up how to use them.

22. Don't email what you can IM (or tweet)

Not everything you want to say may actually be worthy of a full message. Take advantage of the fact that those you want to reach may use an instant messaging (IM) application or may be following you on Twitter, and use those (or similar) methods instead.

23. Declare "email bankruptcy" if necessary

The term email bankruptcy refers to the "debt" you owe people sending you a message. In theory, you're expected to respond to all messages, or at the very least read everything you get, right? Declaring bankruptcy gets you out of that debt.

Like real bankruptcy, this is really only a last-ditch option, but if you’re completed submerged in a mass of unread emails which are weighing down your inbox, sometimes you just have to give in and accept that you can’t deal with the situation. Declaring email bankruptcy may be the only hope for your sanity.

That means one thing: Erase the lot. Yes, select all and hit Delete, and you can pretend those messages never arrived. If you can live with the guilt, you're golden. (And maybe ready for a change in jobs). Of course, you need to let your co-workers, friends, and family know via a circular email, or your blog or Twitter – or however you mass-communicate – that if they expected a reply on something important, they should resend their email.

24. Avoid disclosing confidential info

Facebook and other social networks display our lives for all to see, but if you send something in email to a single friend you expect privacy, right? Sure. If you're lucky.

Nothing is private on the Internet. When you commit something to text – or worse, to pictures or videos – and send it out, you've created something that can easily be sent on again. There's nothing to prevent pictures you send to a boyfriend from going straight to his online Facebook account, except the decency and care for your well-being you trust he has. You might believe in him now, but those pics will still be in his email inbox after your breakup. The same goes for spouses, business partners, and anyone else you might part ways with. Trust is nice, but thinking ahead might be safer.

25. Create a useful signature

Your signature (or sig) is the block of text at the end of your message that spells out who you are. Sigs can be as simple as a "Best, Eric" or as complicated as a replica of your business card, complete with links to a Google Map of your location, and more.

What's useful may be in the eye of the beholder, but at the very least include your full name (spelled correctly, so when a correspondent misspells it later you can justly complain), title or company, email address, and phone number. Everything else – a Twitter or IM address, for example – is gravy.