Must-Follow E-mail Rules

How not to annoy everyone you know with your tech toys
Magazine Contributor
7 min read

This story appears in the August 2000 issue of Subscribe »

I'm in an Internet cafe in , and sweat is steaming out of my eyeballs--not because of the city's heat but because I'm watching the clock expensively tick as minute after minute goes by while I'm retrieving e-mail from my various accounts. And I know that, yet again, some colleague with a too-fast Net connection must have forwarded me a "funny," "must see," "you'll love this" download, probably of a naked dancing baby doing the Macarena or somesuch stupidity.

Eventually, yes, there it is--a large zip file of aphorisms lifted from the Charlie Chan movies and served up in an audio format. Presumably the sender thinks that in the midst of my busy day in Hong Kong, I'm going to unzip these Chanisms ("Confucius could give answer to that...unfortunately, Confucius not here at moment") and play them for the amusement of my Chinese hosts. Right!

But that incident got me to thinking: Often you and I, fellow homebased business owners, are the very worst offenders when it comes to perpetrating tech abuses upon the public. Oh, we're neither so insidious nor (usually) so maliciously clever that we can cobble together evil code like the LoveBug that devastated computers this spring. But we do have two things that, put together, mean we do lots of bad tech stuff to others:

  • We use computers as tools for connecting with the world. In the , a computer may be as important--possibly more important--than a telephone in contacting others. It's how we keep in touch, and sometimes we get lonely, and a main way we reach out is via computer.
  • We develop computer curiosity--not necessarily high expertise, but inevitably we're curious about new stuff because we need to be. With no on-staff wonks to tell us what's new online, we're used to doing our own searching and solving our own problems, finding new files, installing new programs and looking at new stuff.

The upshot: Sitting alone at our keyboards, we often inadvertently annoy and pester folks working in other offices, both home offices and that other kind. Mind you, we don't mean to do this, but it happens and that has put me on the hunt for a cure. And maybe I have it, in some simple rules for every home office computer user to follow:

The Rules

1. Never forward large attachments without first asking if the recipient wants to receive them. What's large? Figure anything over 100Kb. But to be safe, never forward any attachment that's not strictly work related. Forward links with instructions on how to download a file you prize--sure, that's perfectly OK. But forward large files, and you're risking all manner of complaints from recipients with slow Net connections, who are working on tight deadlines, or who just don't have the time that day to diddle with downloads.

2. Never fall for hoax viruses. Oh, the LoveBug and its variants were bad enough as they did real damage to computers around the world. But more maddening on a daily basis are the phone calls and e-mails that pour in, warning me about "viruses" such as "Halloween," which allegedly plays a nasty trick on recipients by formatting their hard drives. The only problem is, that "virus," like many dozens more, doesn't exist. Before telling anybody to watch out for the XYZ virus, always check a reliable clearinghouse to determine if in fact this is a virus or just a hoax. Probably the best resource: Symantec's AntiVirus Research Center, which maintains an ever-growing list of fake viruses.

3. Routinely scan your drives for viruses. Didn't I just say viruses are hoaxes? Ninety-nine percent of the time the warnings are just that--but let me tell you, it burns me when every month or so I get a file on disk or an e-mail attachment that's infected with a virus. I keep my virus scanner up to date, and it's always snared incoming viruses before they do damage, but if you want to win big black marks next to your name, go ahead, send out viruses. Remember, it takes only a few minutes of scanning every week to keep a computer clean. Do it.

4. Never send application files. Just yesterday, a business associate sent me four massive "eps" files--some sort of images, probably concocted in Quark Express, but, frankly, I don't know and that's the point. These four monsters--totaling more than 40MB!--tumbled over my Net connection and when they arrived, there was no way I could open them. Why would people do this when, invariably, there are generic file formats available that anybody can open, such as "rtf" (rich text format, a word processing standard) or "jpg" or "gif" (standard image formats) or "tif" (a standard fax format)? Send a tif and anybody can view it. Send a file created by WinFax and guess what? Folks without WinFax will view it as sheer clutter because it will be impenetrable to them. Always use generic formats when sending files, via e-mail or on disk.

5. Never, ever send out images. It's tempting to scan that nifty image of you, the kids and the dog swimming in the backyard pool and then e-mail it to everybody in your address book. But don't. Even a skimpy image is a bandwidth hog and, received at the wrong time, it will trigger curses not smiles. Just today a colleague sent me an image that was a modem-clogging 1MB! Even with a high-speed connection, it took many minutes to download. The better solution: Post images on a Web site and send out the link. Folks who want to catch glimpses of you can visit at their leisure--and when they do, they'll smile.

Do I sound grouchy? Listen up: Follow my five rules and not only will I no longer be a grouch, but your clients, colleagues and friends will be that much more receptive to any e-mail you send out. And that's a rich pay-off indeed.

The Real Must-Sees

Don't I ever play? Maybe you're seeing me as the complete grump, but listen up: I relish good stuff, same as anyone else, but the trouble is, so much of what crosses my desk is without redeeming virtue. But here's the good news. In the past year, out of thousands of e-mail attachments and suchlike that have cluttered my monitor, two actually proved worthwhile. I'll tell you about the winners, but first, promise that if you do download them, you won't forward them to others. Forward a link to this column if you want to spread the word but spare others these mega-files.

Here are the year's top two favorites:

  • Elf Bowling. A slick and sick Christmas-themed game, where bowling "pins" are elves and to score points, you bash the little fellows. It's gruesome and it's free.
  • Angriff der Bimbes-Kanone. Loosely translated: Attack of the money gun. The game is in German but language isn't required to compete. Players hurl bribes ("bimbes") at politicians, and if you bribe the most in the allotted time, you win. A polished--and free--comment on politics and money. We can only hope for a U.S. version.

And if you're still thinking about those Charlie Chan aphorisms, head here:

Robert McGarvey covers the Web--and plays with the latest cool gadgets--from his home office in Santa Rosa, California. Visit his Web page at


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