The University Record, March 11, 1997

Avoid pitfalls, realize potential of e-mail lists

By Joseph M. Saul
Information Technology Division

You're reading your electronic mail, and you come across a message that catches your eye---maybe it's funny, maybe it's terrifying, maybe it just looks important. Moving at the speed of thought, you type the commands to forward the message to anyone you think might be interested, anyone who might "need" to see it. In a mere 10 seconds, you've sent the message to your brother in California, your parents in Florida, five individual coworkers, and two work-related e-mail lists, totaling just over 800 people. Cracking your knuckles in satisfaction, you move on to the next message.

E-mail is a wonderful tool for one-to-one communications. It's easy to use once you get over the initial hurdle of learning your way around the system. It provides a written record, so you don't have to take notes. It lets you talk to someone with a radically different schedule, no matter where the two of you are.

E-mail really comes into its own, however, in the area of one-to-many communications. In the past, it took work and usually expense to reach a large number of people. You couldn't casually send something out to the whole department; you had to justify (at least to yourself) the cost of the photocopies and the time it would take. Now, all you have to do is set up an e-mail list, or use one that someone else has set up, and talking to everyone on it is as easy as talking to one person. You have the power to reach thousands at the tips of your fingers.

Whether this power is good or bad depends, as with most technological developments, on how you use it. Many departments, as well as organizations, have discovered that you can save tremendous amounts of money and paper by sending announcements out electronically. E-mail groups can substitute for meetings, with a substantial savings in time. By promoting better communication, they can also foster a sense of community. Faculty members, for example, often find class-based e-mail groups useful for managing group discussions outside of class.

It is important, however, to use e-mail lists and groups properly. Improperly used, they can become an annoyance at best and a serious burden at worst. They can actually create more communications problems than they solve.

People who are members of, or subscribers to, e-mail lists have certain expectations about what material they will receive, such as material from specific people or on specific topics. They should not be forced to receive other types of material. Here are a few tips for making e-mail lists work for you and for your community.

Every e-mail list has a purpose. E-mail lists for clubs and interest groups are for announcements of interest to the membership. Work-related e-mail lists --- lists you are required to be a member of because of your job --- are for official, work-related business. Likewise, you may be required to be part of an e-mail group for a course you're taking, and that list would likely be for course-related business only.

Do not send out advertisements, urban legends or anything else unless you are certain that it is appropriate for the list. If you aren't sure whether a given message is appropriate, contact the list's owner.

If the list is in U-M's X.500 Online Directory, you can contact the list owner by sending e-mail to groupname-request@umich.edu, where you have substituted the actual group name for groupname.

Before you pass on a virus warning to an e-mail list, do everyone a favor --- confirm it with U-M's virus experts in the Information Technology Division (ITD). You can send e-mail to them at virus.busters@umich.edu to see if they already know about the warning. They maintain rumor-control and education information on the World Wide Web at the URL http://www.umich.edu/~wwwitd/virus-busters/.

Even if the virus warning is legitimate, think long and hard before posting it to an e-mail list. Unless the list welcomes announcements not directly related to its topic or the warning is specifically related to the list's topic, the warning probably doesn't belong there.

When you receive a message that was sent to an e-mail list, it is easy to send your reply to all members of the list. Before you do, consider carefully whether every single member of the list needs to see your response or whether it should be directed just to the author of the message to which you're replying. In most cases, it is best to respond just to the author so as to avoid cluttering everyone's mailboxes with messages of interest to only a few.

In response to the growing problem of e-mail storms, ITD has begun temporarily suspending the UMCE (U-M Computing Environment) accounts of those who ignore ITD requests to stop replying to all recipients on a particular list.

Posting commercial advertisements using University resources is a serious violation of University information technology policies. For more information about U-M information technology policies, see the brochures Policy: Proper Use of Information Technology Resources, Reference R1175, and Guidelines for Implementing the Proper Use Policy of the University of Michigan: Responsible Use of Technology Resources, Reference R1103. To obtain copies of these brochures, phone 647-4274 or send e-mail to it.policy.studies@umich.edu.