Saturday, October 6, 2012

I don't get angry about mass emails, I just pity the fools

There's no question that in spite all the hours we spend dealing with it, email has made work easier. The ability to communicate with someone at your convenience, and have them reply at their convenience is - if it is used properly - a huge timesaver. But we start to stem this advantage this when poorly thought-out or poorly written emails are sent to large numbers of people, say, over 100. If 100 people spend 30 sec reading an email, then nearly an hour of productivity is lost. I'm not saying "never send out a mass email", I'm saying senders should be conscious of the time they are using and spend a few extra minutes making sure that the email has a descriptive subject line and is well-written. Well-written English can be read much faster and can be triaged appropriately, and a good subject line obviously helps with that as well.

I have a bit of an history with this, dating back to a few years ago when a graduate student sent out a department-wide email, reaching approximately 400 scientists, with the subject line "Can you help?". The email was asking for information about a very specific procedure. I had no background knowledge of what he was trying to do, but I decided to spend a minute or so on it anyway. I copied and pasted his question into Google, and the first hit was exactly what he was looking for. To try to make a point, I Replied-All and sent out the link as well as the words "Why not learn to use Google and avoid wasting everyone's time with an email?"

My point was that we should all be the conscious of the time lost by the crowd when we use email this way. That was somewhat lost by the bitchy-ness of my response, and I received several emails back chastising me for my rudeness or pointing out the irony of sending a mass email in order to condemn it. Guilty as charged, I suppose.

Even before email, he was pitying fools
So I now tend to bite my tongue when I get email that is pointless, poorly written, has a bad subject line (so that you can't triage it quickly), or is frankly weird. But that doesn't stop me kvetching about it on Facebook or in my blog. Here are some of my favorites:

 Subject: is there an undergrad in your lab right now? Get out your cell phones
I need a pictures / some pictures / of undergraduates working in a Biology / Neuroscience lab. 
If there is an undergraduate in your lab this afternoon, get out your iPhone or droid and take a picture of them "doingresearch" (with their permission of course) and send it to me. 
There are quite a few things I love about this. Firstly, it's somewhat creepy. Even tempered by the clause "with their permission". The sender never says what he needs these pictures for, so I don't think he got many replies. It would have been helpful to include that information of course, but all we know is that he needs "a pictures / some pictures / of undergraduates" (is that even bad grammar? I think he must still be using DOS and putting slashes between everything out of habit). I also love the quotes around "doingresearch" ... either he's implying that undergrads don't really do research, or he's really looking for pictures of them doing something else (add to the creepiness factor).

Subject: Thank You Community! 
Dear Community, 

This summer the Brandeis community came together to create a fertile womb of knowledge and love, that nurtured and strengthened five Waltham High students. I thank all of you that supported me, helping nurse and sustain a program in its absolute infancy.  Without any exaggeration, this opportunity has changed the lives of these young students.  Thanks once again.  In particular, I would like to thank the people below (forgive me, if I have forgotten anyone).

Listed in alphabetical order:

 <3 The Mentors:
[names deleted]

<3 The Lecturers:
[names deleted]

<3 The Faculty:

This one is fantastic. Starting with the words "fertile womb" you realize there is something a little odd about it. As you keep reading the metaphor becomes clear, and you get that feeling that is common when someone has a too much to drink at a work-related event and starts pushing the envelope of acceptable conversation. I would hate to have dinner with this guy (yes, it was sent by a guy); you never know when the conversation is going to turn somewhere strange and make everyone else either study their cutlery or start looking around anxiously for the waiter.

The strange <3 signs are confusing, too. I think this is an emoticon, perhaps of a uterus.

Mass email embodies the expression "tis better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt". When communicating with hundreds of people by the click of a mouse, it's worth taking an extra couple of minutes of to read it over, check your spelling, and think about whether you're a weirdo.

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