Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Accidental informality

Sometimes I like to think that in the 1990's (or at least before the Eternal September, but then I wasn't online yet) Internet and its services were somehow well organized and people knew how to use them. It isn't true, of course, but some things were better. Email was plain text and messages contained a well-formed signature - often set by the system administrator. This was my experience at Helsinki University of Technology in 1997.

Today, emails can be html, there might not be a plain text part at all, they might have background colors, images and even animations. Instead of a well-formed signature, there might be none or maybe a huge company logo. Even in official communications, you might get no hints of the identity of the sender of the email

Let's take an imaginary example of how emails often look like...
From: caw@umich.edu
To: mstuomel@umich.edu
Subject: Meeting tomorrow

Hi! Shall we meet tomorrow at 5:00 PM?

Alright... Who is this person anyway? Some female member of the University of Michigan academic community, I would imagine. Her (nick)name is Cathy and her username seems to be caw. I might or might not find more information with Google or University of Michigan's search engine.

What if I need to contact her to tell I am late? Her email does not contain a phone number, or her faculty home page's URL. It does not even contain her real name. It might be Cathryn A. Witgenstein or Katrina Wu from what I know. She does not care or she does not realize that she should care.

This another imaginary example from the 1990's would be better:
From: Catherine A. Winston <caw@umich.edu>
To: Mikko Tuomela <mstuomel@umich.edu>
Subject: Meeting tomorrow

Hi! Shall we meet tomorrow at 5:00 PM?

Catherine A. Winston
Associate Professor, University of Michigan School of Information
caw@umich.edu | (734) 123-4567 | http://www.si.umich.edu/people/caw
Ah! Now I have all the relevant information and also a web address where I can find more.

This post was inspired by all the emails I have received through the years. Don't be offended if you think you have inspired me!


  1. Great post, Mikko!

    However, I would have prefered to have the telephone number in the international format, beginning with the country code. Also the subject could have ended with a question mark.

    "Who is this person anyway?" Kim

  2. I agree, but we cannot expect Americans to acknowledge the existence of the rest of the world!

  3. I have already given up. I tried to educate people about the netiquette and standard email formats when HTML-format was new. It is nice to see that you still have the strength to write about that. Good posting. Or is it just fighting like Don Quijote ;)