--Alan Zisman

E-mail is the most useful part of the Internet
despite the growing load of time-wasting spam

The Web may get all the media hype, but in many ways, plain old e-mail does most of the work. After the thrill of browsing the Web wears off, e-mail is there, day in and day out, keeping users connected to one another.

But for many users, e-mail is on the verge of becoming too much of a good thing. Part of the problem is that there's getting to be too much of it.

How many messages a day do you get? I'm averaging 50 to 100, but some people are receiving several times that number -- not after a week's holiday, but every day. That includes personal messages, mailing lists, spam, and more -- a combination of wanted and unwanted messages. Even deleting the unwanted ones takes time. I average about an hour a day working through my mail.

Already, more messages are sent via e-mail than through the post office -- what e-mail fans refer to as "snail mail." And estimates from the Electronic Messaging Association suggest total messages will have grown by an additional 75 per cent by 2000.

So-called "spam" accounts for much of the growth. Spam is unwanted, unsolicited junk e-mail, the equivalent of junk faxes. As with fax numbers, spam mailers can purchase lists of e-mail addresses. And it's easier to send 1,000 e-mail messages than the same number of faxes. Resist the temptation to reply to unwanted junk e-mail, as it only confirms that your address is accurate. And, too often, spam-mail is sent with a bogus return address anyway.

Many e-mail programs include optional filters that can be set to check received messages and, for example, delete any from the addresses you list. Or you may want to automatically delete messages with spam-like key words in the title.

The U.S. Senate passed an anti-spam bill on May 14, but it may have little effect. Already, messages with a disclaimer, "This is not junk e-mail," have gone out, presumably making them in compliance with the legislation, which still needs to pass the House of Representatives before taking effect. Ironically, by providing a mechanism to legitimize junk e-mail, the bill may simply result in more spam.

I don't get too much spam (maybe I'm just lucky). Much of my e-mail load is the result of my subscribing to mailing lists that send out monthly, weekly, even daily messages, most complete with hot-links to Web sites with more information. I suppose, at some point, I thought each one might be valuable, but I've really got to take the time to figure out which ones are actually useful and unsubscribe from the rest.

Too much unwanted e-mail, however, comes from users who just get carried away with its potential. This seems to be especially the case with internal e-mail systems running on large corporate networks. It's just so easy to send the joke of the day or an internal memo to every one
of your coworkers. (And, of course, the message load multiplies each time a recipient responds and uses the 'Send to All' option.)

Then there are e-mail attachments -- perhaps a graphic, a spreadsheet chart, a word processor document or an actual program sent along with an e-mail message. Send a 15-meg video clip to each of a hundred recipients and there's now gigabytes of data clogging up the network. For recipients using a modem to access their mail it gets worse. Typically, they can't get the rest of their messages until they download your multimeg attachment, which can take half an hour or more.

Resist the temptation to send out large attached files. Instead, post a single copy on the Web or on your internal corporate network, and send out a message letting all and sundry know where they can access it -- if they want.

Despite the dark side of e-mail, it can be a powerful business tool. Expect to see more and more use of mailing lists. Print and on-
line publications that send out a summary of the contents in the current issue are increasingly popular. Some even carry advertising.

Smaller businesses, too, can make good use of mailing lists, replacing printed brochures and newsletters with the electronic equivalent sent out to past and potential customers or to visitors to their Web sites. These mailings are cheap to produce and send, and are convenient for the readers.

The electronic mailings are different from spam in a critical way: mailing list recipients have all asked to be included, volunteering their e-mail addresses. Every business with a Web site should consider including a link allowing visitors to leave their address behind. Just make sure to include a way for readers to get their addresses off your mailing list, if they choose to opt out.*

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan