Remember, not that many years ago, when we were assured, both by the media and by technology proponents, that e-mail would revive the lost art of letter-writing, that it would help family and friends stay in touch without spending a fortune on stamps or phone calls, that it would allow us to communicate important information quickly and effectively?

How quickly those dreams were dashed. Now it seems that most people use e-mail solely to receive--and delete--commercial spam, amateurish inspirational poetry, and shabby hoaxes sent to almost every home in the world. So many perfectly intelligent people seem to devolve into confused dorks when confronted with the challenge of sending and receiving e-mail. You may even be one of those people, so lost in cluelessness and misinformation that you don't even realize you're doing anything wrong.

Good thing I'm here to help you out.

I'm assuming you actually know how to send e-mail: how to type up a letter, how to click the "Send" button, and all that happy jazz. After all, I didn't call this "How to Send E-Mail"; I called it "How to Send E-Mail and Not Look Like a Dork". There's an important distinction. You do want to avoid looking like a dork, right? Right.

So what's the key to non-dorkiness in your e-mail? Let's run down our checklist...

Spam

Well, this one should be obvious, right? We all receive mountains of spam and junk e-mail from shady online businesses selling everything from crooked stock tips to quack medicine to skanky porn. There's not a single person who enjoys getting spam clogging up their inbox, but it looks like it's only going to increase as time goes by. Sending spam mail is cheap and relatively easy--if you've ever ordered something online, filled out an online survey, or published your e-mail address on the Net, you're going to get spam, and there are even reports of people getting spam sent to their brand new, never-used e-mail accounts. There may be no way to avoid spam, but there are good ways to avoid looking like a dork when dealing with it.

First and most obviously, never send spam. There, that's the easy one. More than likely, you're not doing it now, so kudos.

Second, don't forward spam to someone else. Remember how much everyone hates spam?

Third, don't reply to spam. I know they have notes saying you can have your name taken off their mailing lists, but that's a total lie. When you reply to spam, it lets the spammer know that they've snagged a real live working e-mail address--they're guaranteed to send you even more spam and pass your address on to even more spammers.

Forwards

You know what a forward is, right? Those are the old jokes, chain letters, inspirational stories, and hoaxed petitions that so many people seem to spend all their time sending to every single person they know. They call them forwards because you click the "Forward" button to send them on.

Here's the secret that no one seems to know: Everyone in the universe hates getting forwards.

Well, maybe not everyone. I know a grand total of ONE person who sends me entertaining forwards on a regular basis. But even then, I read them, then delete them. They've served their purpose and are now dead weight. If they'd sent me a letter, I'd keep that. See, people like letters, but they don't like dead weight.

So what are the dork-avoidance techniques for e-mail forwards? First, don't send 'em unless it's absolutely necessary! Got an e-mail from your long-lost sister? Feel free to forward that to your parents, siblings, grandparents, etc.; everyone will be glad to get that. Got a joke about the traveling salesman and the farmer's daughter? DON'T SEND IT. NO ONE CARES.

Next, if you absolutely must send an e-mail forward, cut it down to the bare bones. I've gotten forwards that consisted of twenty or more people tacking "RIGHT ON" and "THIS JOKE IS SO FUNNY" at the top of the e-mail, with a tiny two-paragraph joke way, way down at the bottom of the letter. If there are a lot of replies on the forward already, delete them. They're unimportant. Delete them.

Third, no matter what, never, ever, ever, ever, ever send one of those stupid chain letters that bribes you with wishes and good fortune if you'll forward it on to all your friends. Show me someone who likes getting those, and I'll show you a stone cold freak. I received one of those awful "Here's What True Friendship Is" forwards once that claimed that if I didn't send it to everyone you could, including the person who sent it to you, it just proved that you weren't really a good friend. I was so mad, I almost deleted the sender from my address book.

Remember, you will never win true love, the lottery, or the Kentucky Derby by sending e-mail forwards, and you will never lose your hair, your fortune, or your life for throwing those stupid chain letters into your Delete file.

Finally, if you want to send a reply to someone who sent you a forward, don't click the "Reply to All" button. That sends your reply to everyone who received the forward, as well as the person who sent you the e-mail. Most people are way uninterested in gumming up their inbox with stuff that isn't even meant for their eyes. Be considerate of those poor souls. It's bad enough they had to suffer through the original forward without also suffering through a misdirected reply to the forward.

Hoaxes

These are usually sent as forwards, but I felt they were significant enough to include under their own section. It may come as a surprise, but you can't believe everything you read in your e-mail. Some people send out hoaxes and encourage people to send them to as many people as they can. Some of them are quite believable, but others are so old, so clumsy, and so frequently debunked, that it's hard to believe that anyone would still believe them enough to forward them on to anyone else.

How to avoid perpetuating hoax e-mails? First, use your head--many e-mail hoaxes are painfully obvious. If they sound too good (or too bad) to be true, assume they're fake. If they sound too much like an urban legend or like a scary story you've heard around a campfire, assume they're fake. If you can find no logical reason why they would be true, assume they're fake. If it involves signing a petition, assume it's fake. In general, if they involve some horrible thing that Congress is about to do, assume they're fake--if Congress were about to pass something really groundbreaking, it would be all over the news (Besides, Congress never does anything really groundbreaking--makes their corporate sponsors nervous).

Specifically, no one in Nigeria wants to give you money; Bill Gates will not give you a million dollars for sending a million forwards; Disney will not give a dying kid a free vacation/iron lung/new liver if you forward a letter to all your friends; Congress is not about to ban Christmas carols from schools or "Touched by an Angel" from TV; Congress is not about to sign control of the country over to the UN; Congress is not about to revoke anyone's right to vote; AIDS patients are not hiding infected needles in movie seat cushions.

Not all hoax e-mails are obvious, though, and folks who are new to the world of e-mail may not be familiar with the hoaxes that everyone else has seen a dozen times. So if you receive an e-mail that you think could be a hoax, look up Snopes.com, the Urban Legends Reference Page (at http://www.snopes.com). This is an absolutely invaluable resource that lists a staggeringly large number of scams, hoaxes, and urban legends, conveniently arranged by subject. Usually, the stories listed are completely false, though sometimes, they are true or at least have a grain of truth in them. You don't have to use it just to check your e-mail; the whole site is a lot of fun to read.

Pictures

Lots of people like to send pictures, whether photographs, drawings, or cartoons, through e-mail, but there is a right way and a wrong way to do it.

First, don't send porn. Aww, I know, I've just destroyed your reason for existing, but it's just not nice to do. See, a lot of people check their e-mail from work, so receiving e-mail with nekkid pictures in it could get them in trouble with their boss or coworkers. And remember, just because something gets you off, doesn't mean it's going to get everyone off. Best to ask if the recipient minds before you click the "Send" button.

And for all pictures, don't send extremely large photos or files of any sort. First, if the recipient has a dial-up internet connection, it could take them a long time to download a large photo. Second, some folks have e-mail accounts that will only let them store a certain amount of data at a time; those four 8x10's of your grandkids are very likely to overload their e-mail account and cause it to be temporarily shut down. Finally, some very large e-mails can look suspiciously like virus attacks--I, for one, refuse to even open an e-mail larger than 100K in size unless I know it contains photos.

So how can you make sure your photos aren't too large? First, try to avoid using bitmaps, which are photo files with a ".bmp" at the end of the filename. They are nearly always very, very large and difficult to open. Most people prefer to receive photos and other pictures as Jpegs, or ".jpg" files. The quality is still very good, but they are a much smaller, more manageable size.

But even some jpg's can get too large. Here's a good rule of thumb: If the photo is so large that you have to scroll around to see the whole thing, it's too big. Shrinking a photo is easy, though. Most computers have simple graphics programs, like Paint or Draw, and most of them have a function that will allow you to reduce the size of a picture by a certain percentage.

Viruses

I mentioned viruses a few paragraphs back, and they're surely worth a few paragraphs of their own, since many people, even experienced e-mail users aren't sure how to deal with them. Heck, half the time, I'm not sure what I should do with 'em, so I don't blame Internet newbies for getting confused.

First, get some virus detection software and keep it up to date. More than likely, some virus detection software came with your computer. If you want to get another kind of software, check out Norton Antivirus and McAfee VirusScan, which are some of the most reliable and respected purveyors of anti-virus software out there. You should also be able to do a web search for "virus detection software" and get hits on other reputable companies right at the top of your list. Most virus detection software will also remind you when it's time to update; some will even update automatically.

(locke baron says: "I'd replace the recommendation for the rather heavyweight and expensive Symantec and McAfee with AVG and Nod3." Indeed -- won't hurt you to shop around a little for virus protection software. Just look for something that will update pretty often -- there are a lot of viruses out there, and it's important that your software will be able to keep your machine safe, no matter what.)

Next, don't open suspicious e-mails, especially very large e-mails. It's not even necessarily safe to trust e-mails from people you know, because some viruses will send themselves out to everyone in an infected computer's address book. And if you open suspicious e-mails, don't open any suspicious attachments, especially if it's a file ending with ".exe". That means it's a file that will install itself into your computer as soon as you open it. If your computer gets a virus, there's a good chance it's going to come from a .exe file, so if you avoid them, you're already improving your chances of avoiding infection. But don't be lulled into complacency just because you get an attachment without a .exe. A virus can be delivered in any kind of file--again, that's why virus protection software is so important. Get it, make sure it'll check your incoming e-mail and attachments, and keep it updated regularly.

You'll probably get quite a few e-mails that claim to be virus warnings. Some of these are on the money, but some are completely untrue. Some will even tell you that you can escape certain viruses by deleting important system files from your hard drive. It's almost impossible to keep track of all the viruses that might be out there, so check out www.vmyths.com, which is a great resource for learning which warnings are real, which are fake, and how to learn to tell the difference for yourself.

Phishing Scams

Oh, you'll get a ton of these.

"Hi, this is the Bank of America! We've cut off access to your account! Click these links to restore your account!"

"Hi, this is Some Random Dude from Overseas! Holy cow, have I got money for you! Want some? Just hit 'Reply' and let's talk!"

"Hi, this is the IRS! You've won our sweepstakes! Yes, the IRS has a sweepstakes! Really! Just click on this link and we'll transfer your winnings directly into your bank account!"

Most legitimate businesses aren't ever going to notify you of an account problem by e-mail (except for businesses that only exist online, and they'll never give you any links to click on -- they'll just tell you to visit the site for more information). No one in a foreign country wants to give you $20 million. The IRS doesn't send e-mail for much of anything. And even if Microsoft gave away huge prizes in contests that you didn't even enter, they'd surely be able to spell common words much better than that.

These are all scams. They're called phishing because they're fishing for information about you that they can steal and use. Some of them want you to click on a link that'll take you to a site that looks official, where they'll ask you for your bank account number, Social Security number, and who knows what else. Then they'll empty your bank account, sell your credit card numbers, and steal your identity. Some of them just want to trick you into sending them thousands of dollars on the promise of nonexistent inheritances and charity schemes.

Don't click on any links or files, and don't reply to them. If you think there's a chance it might be something from a legitimate company that you do business with, look up their phone number in your offline records, and call them. Get your business done on the phone or in person -- never by e-mail, just to stay on the safe side.

And Finally...

Send some real letters every once in a while. Not a forwarded poem blathering about the value of friendship, but a real live letter, sharing news, thoughts, ideas, and wishes. Most of us got into e-mail to keep in contact, easily and quickly, with our families and friends, but relatively few of us actually use it for that purpose. Granted, most of us lead busy lives and don't have time to send lengthy letters to everyone in our address book, but most of us aren't so busy we can't spare a few minutes a week to send a note to an old friend we haven't heard from in a while, right?

Trust me, a real letter is so much more rewarding, both for the sender and the receiver, than any forwarded petition drive.

Many, many thanks to NotFabio, who provided mucho information about viruses and anti-virus software, to graceness for pointing out www.vmyths.com, and to Orpheum for reminding me about the plague of virus hoaxes...

And feel free to send this to e-mail newbies who are having trouble. The only way they'll learn is if they have access to information.

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