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  1. #1
    SitePoint Guru bronze trophy
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    Is Email Dragging Down Writing?

    So this is the crux of the matter: Email is a medium of bad writing. Poor word choice is the norm—as is tone deafness.
    -- Janet Malcolm: Perils of Email
    You know, most people are convinced the one thing they don't have to worry about is writing.

    Hey, we all bang out emails after all. New York Times columnist Janet Malcolm sees this as the source of writing problems. Email gives us an excuse to be sloppy.

    Incoherent thoughts. Raw output, where the recipient is little more than another computer. When is the last time you got a really well written email?

    And does sloppy writing stay in one box? Or does it spill over to everything?

    I'm constantly astonished by well constructed sentences communicating banality and meaninglessness. The five millionth web design blog. The endless drudgery of what you're supposed to say. Just like everyone else.

    I don't know whether it's email, but it certainly is an output bias. We are all about output, shove that email or blog post out there. What we need are feedback loops. Not just having a comments feature, but taking in those comments and changing because of them.

    Writing online is almost like watching people talk past each other. Nobody is as much listening as they are waiting for their turn to shove out some "output" they call writing. Business sites aren't so much using content to explain anything as they're using it like the obligatory "...hey ...howyadoin" you hear passing someone in a hallway.

  2. #2
    SitePoint Wizard bronze trophy bluedreamer's Avatar
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    i thnk txtng iz 2x as much 2 blame

    Yes email has made people lazy with their writing, to many it's like passing quick notes back and forth. That's probably ok for conversations between friends but it has crept into areas where a bit more professionalism is required such as business to business or business to customer emails.

    I have to admin that when I emails friend I don't always write 100% grammatically correct text but there again I don't really need to. As far a business related emails go I always write properly with correct punctuation and spelling because my correspondance reflects on my business.

  3. #3
    SitePoint Wizard Dean C's Avatar
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    It's not just email, it's blogs, forums and any other mediums which you can use to digitally communicate...

  4. #4
    Word Painter silver trophy Shyflower's Avatar
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    It's always easy to lay blame for the faults of humans. People become lazy using email because it is a conversational medium. Generally, when you send, you expect a quick reply.

    Email certainly can neither be faulted for all the errors you see today in print media nor the faux pas that are a regular part of broadcast media. People need to start taking responsibility for their own actions and control of them.... looking for the appropriate way, instead of the expedient way to communicate their thoughts.

    Lately there are a couple of cell phone commercials on TV where even "Granny" talks in letters that don't quite make it to the level of poor acronyms (IDK - MBF).
    It's cute, it's quick, it's camp— everybody's doing it.... and everybody will eventually reap what they sow when the world becomes one dysfunctional tower of babble.
    Linda Jenkinson
    "Say what you mean. Mean what you say. But don't say it mean." ~Unknown

  5. #5
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    Could you recommend any good source for email etiquette?

  6. #6
    phpLD Fanatic bronze trophy dvduval's Avatar
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    Whether it be email or instant messenger, I try to conform to good practices in writing. I may choose to use incomplete sentences in IM, but I'm not one to use abbreviated words. I do use smilies sometimes.

  7. #7
    SitePoint Addict BlazeMiskulin's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Shyflower View Post
    It's always easy to lay blame for the faults of humans. [...]

    Email certainly can neither be faulted for all the errors you see today in print media nor the faux pas that are a regular part of broadcast media. People need to start taking responsibility for their own actions and control of them
    Thank you.

    I was going to write this same sentiment yesterday, but it would have been the first response and I was really curious as to what others would say.

    I've gotten into this discussion in several places (including the blogging forum here). Technology doesn't dictate how we write, speak, or otherwise communicate. People are in complete control of the communication.

    Hyper-abbreviated words and phrases are simply the slang of moden day. In the 1920s, rather than saying "It's a great day, I'm feeling really good" a person might choose to say "I'm jake". Rather than say "I'm in complete and enthusiastic agreement with your suggestion" a person may choose to say "Vootie!"

    The problem isn't that people are using slang, jargon, abbreviations, or colloquialisms, it's that they're using them at inappropriate times. This is nothing new. Just like every other "kids these days!" type of statement, it's always been like this, we simply haven't been around at any other time to notice it.

    I will admit, however, that business in general has become more relaxed and less formalized--even at the highest levels. Steve Jobs can walk around in slacks and a sweater and still be recognized and respected as a powerful businessman. Informal or casual correspondence isn't automatically seen as being unprofessional.

    There's a fairly large range of appropriate communication--from the very formal to the casual. If someone is stepping outside of that range, it's not the fault of the medium, it's the fault of the person.
    M Blaze Miskulin
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    Geek Niche Web Hosting

  8. #8
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    Ah, interesting. This is the "it's not the tool it's the user" arguement.

    My position is that a very diligent, expert user can overcome the most ill-designed tool ...everyone else better watch out. Design matters, but poorly designed tools influence rather than control the user. And sometimes that influence can be quite powerful.

    The younger generation doesn't have the habits (or inertia) of long experience using past generations of tools. Consequently, they are more able to be influenced, depending on other moderating factors which counter the tendency.

    In other words, both the tool and the user produce the behavior. That's the entire reason you have interaction design. Focus on one or the other and interaction design need not -- indeed can not exist.

    Design a tool to make something hard to do, and fewer people will do it.

    Many a workplace has thrown poorly designed software at their workforce under the assumption it's the worker's job to overcome any obstacle ...and do so with grace and composure. Scratch a failed software initiative, and there are many to count, and you'll find the assumption it's the poor workman who blames the tool. That's fine for a hammer with twenty centuries of refinement, not so for an improperly tested software program you want to shove out by next month.

    I've seen far too many of these tools developed with slight concern for use. Almost none consider the unintended long-term influences of adoption. Tim Berners-Lee himself remarked if he knew the world wide web were going to get this much use, he would have designed a more human-centered URL address scheme.

    Sorry, but the "blame the user, not the tool" argument only holds water when you do adequate user testing with proper interaction design methodology. And in most instances I'm familiar with, these are the first things cut to meet budgets and schedules.
    Last edited by DCrux; Oct 19, 2007 at 07:46.

  9. #9
    Word Painter silver trophy Shyflower's Avatar
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    Blame the tool? That would be the keyboard, which has been around for several decades now. Or would it be a dictionary or some media that might help a user to learn to type English as well as speak it?

    The argument isn't "the tool vs. the user". It is that many people are unwilling to take control of their own lives and responsibility for their own actions so they find something to blame in excuse for their own ineptitude. Unfortunately, e-mail is only a minor "tool" to blame.

    "Officer, I wasn't speeding on purpose. The accelerator pedal is just too easy to push down."

    "It wasn't my fault, I'm an addict, an alcoholic... and so on."

    "My kid got pregnant, robbed a bank, did a drive by (or fill in the blank with whatever misbehavior fits) because the schools, government, (or fill in the blank with whomever you can find to blame) didn't do anything to stop him/her."

    Good grief. How can you ever expect people to stand on their own two feet if you insist on giving them a crutch for something as minor as how they write an e-mail?

    And by the way... what "user testing" do you expect keyboard makers to enact to find out if the tool makes users "look" competent?
    Linda Jenkinson
    "Say what you mean. Mean what you say. But don't say it mean." ~Unknown

  10. #10
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    what "user testing" do you expect keyboard makers to enact to find out if the tool makes users "look" competent?
    That is a good question, and I'm glad you asked. First off, keyboards aren't email. Keyboards are a single element.

    Email is feely sent. Letters are not. Consequently, there is no economic penalty for sending fifty inarticulate emails. Like a cop pulling over the speeder, postage exerts an influence on bad emails.

    Produce even a few thousands sales letters that don't pull and you're bankrupt. Produce 150,000 scam emails and you can live off the marginal gullibility of a fraction of one percent of the population. Write that email with poor grammar and spelling and all you have to do is send 750,000.

    Email is not just the software, but the infrastructure. Free email persuades a different response than expensive physical mail, even when you use exactly the same keyboard for both.

    This can -- and in fact has -- been proven through testing. (That would be user testing) Apply postage to electronic mail and within days the signal-to-noise ratio changes. It's not quite instantaneous, but close enough to mark this one factor as crucial.

    This electronic postage was structured very differently from physical mail, but it wasn't designed for moving a physical item. These difference itself proves you pretty much always get what the system was designed to produce.

    The design process can be a haphazard set of technology-only kludges which produce many unintended consequences (like email). Or, the design can give proper appreciation to human nature.

    Any system dependent on human participants acting upon their better nature is built on quicksand. That's why we have both cops and accelerator pedals in the traffic system. It's also why civil engineers study problems and make changes to the way roads and intersections are built.

    I can see how email might seem like a keyboard, but there are more working parts than many users appreciate.


    Related:

    Some more architectures of control for traffic management Teaching civil engineers that how you build the road influences the kinds of traffic problems you have. That's "user testing."

    Roads Gone Wild We're beginning to build roads for humans who drive cars, walk, and ride bikes, not cars that contain humans in isolation. Sure people should just drive better -- they don't.
    Last edited by DCrux; Oct 19, 2007 at 09:07.

  11. #11
    SitePoint Enthusiast celinus's Avatar
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    It's a coincidence that I just blogged about email etiquette earlier this week. Bad email etiquette is something that really annoys me to no end. (Bad cellphone text messaging etiquette also does the same - I'm never sure of what people are saying with all the vowels taken out!)

    I think people generally forget that email should be taken seriously, especially since it's admissible in court and considered as valid as a written or oral statement or expression.

  12. #12
    SitePoint Guru bronze trophy
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    You know, I am looking at the post widget for this forum and can't find a spell check. However, I can find every other kind of control or gimmick.

    Sure, people should just "be better." But when the topic is something new fangled, how something is designed isn't an issue and I find that peculiar.

    Related:

    Attention Macromedia: I will not be your scapegoat takes a different view of how Flash came to be 99% bad. Again flash animation is the output, just as writing is the output.

  13. #13
    SitePoint Zealot Bannaz's Avatar
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    A combination of e-mail and texting is certainly contributing to "slang". Maybe it could be called a newer generation of short hand.
    Bannaz - Flash Banner Design
    █ Leading designers in online advertising.
    www.bannaz.com


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