Email Is Dangerous

EmailIsDangerous Anti-Pattern:

Problem: A virtual team (i.e., one that telecommutes more than 75% of the week) can lose touch with other team members by not realizing that there are real people behind the emails that they send to you. If left unchecked, the other members become things rather than people. Rumors can be started as well as conspiracies that have no basis in fact.

Solution: Require physical team meetings where members attend in person with their bodies at the table. Technology is great, however, a room full of Cu-See-Me Monitors for the few unfortunate team members stuck with attending will break morale. -- Mike Addison

At least create a FunnyEmailSig.

Even if you see your teammates via videoconference, or even on a face-to-face basis, it's not hard to dehumanize them. Perhaps this page should be renamed EmailIsImpersonal?; the title implies that email communications of any form are dangerous.


Y'know, for years I worked in an environment where management was accomplished over an international network of offices using actual memoranda, dispatches, and letters sent back and forth over hundreds and thousands of miles on a weekly schedule.

We got to meet the people behind these paper communiques about once a year, some every six months. The personalities behind the written words never faded into "person objects" or other abstractions.

The secret was nothing magic, it was that everyone in the system had been deliberately trained in communications. This was not optional and not left to chance. There were rigorous protocols for seeing to it that communications arrived and were actually answered. People "lost their heads" over such things as a stacked up in-basket.

What was seriously frowned on was unwritten (verbal) communication, as it left no records for posterity or analysis. The filing systems for this were another precise science.

The communications system was the bedrock for everything. The person whose charter was the care and enforcement of the comms system as a whole reported directly to top management. There were people who serviced managers for comms purposes but who didn't report to them for matters of compliance and/or discipline.

I've never worked anywhere since that took communications as seriously.

Email may not be the answer to everything, but a well-constructed, well-briefed, and well-enforced set of protocols and guidelines which includes the use of email for its transport would be worth anything spent to make it happen.

When it's done right, it doesn't impersonalize the participants, it keeps them connected.


I suggest the topic be renamed to OveruseOfEmail?. Email has a place, but that place is not everywhere. Sometimes I get a flood of emails about all kinds of details from projects marginally-related to me. I cannot switch context back and forth that fast. At that point project wikis are perhaps a better solution.

The problem is that email violates OnceAndOnlyOnce in many ways, including classification. Each receiver must classify email. If a single person did the classification then time is not wasted. But the downside is that everyone tends to use different classification systems. Some way needs to be provided such that there is a shared classification with optional views or references (such as browser "favorites" or "bookmarks").


Reciever(s) classify emails? What about the sender? What about centralized storage (one copy, multiple readers)? Email is the bane of modern information management. It uses a lot of resources (system and user attention). It is a poor mechanism for maintaining history. Your average user does not have the computer skills to reliably deal with hundreds of megabytes of junk. It is a security risk because sensitive information gets mixed in with mundane information. It is not even a good teamwork / organization tool because it is difficult to add and remove subscribers to an email chain after it is started.

I'm currently part of one of those "loosely-knit internet projects", where hardly anyone of us have met anyone else on the team. Our communications solution is as follows:

This WorksForUs?, so I can't agree about the statement that the digitalization of communication is causing the dehumanization. Nevertheless email certainly has its flaws - mainly that good archiving and organization of e-mails both is hard and almost always left to the receiver. Our forums have added that missing link (threads can always be moved, split and re-named as appropriate, if the original title/placement was inappropriate or the discussion ends up being about something else), while still essentially a whole bunch of neatly organized e-mails. We were using the forums for a lot of our documentation too, up until recently - we've begun putting things over to a Wiki instead, to make it a whole lot easier keeping them up-to-date.

Problem: Email is too unorganized to be a good means for communication. Communication must proceed while members cannot meet physically. Solution: Organize your emails well. Allow the team to share the organization effort OnceAndOnlyOnce (modulus refactoring). Put all your email communication in a forum instead of in emails. Replace real-life meetings with text/voice meetings if the meeting is necessary but physical presence cannot be arranged.
Someone at work described the CC-list (copy to) as a "phallic symbol": the longer the list the more important you look.....or feel.
very interesting recounts added in AugustZeroFive

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