The Dark Side Of Web Publishing

Copyright 1998 Kaitlin Duck Sherwood

So you think you want to put some information up on the Web? You have something to say that will benefit millions of people and that isn't available on any of the other gazillion Web pages out there. That is a wonderful, laudable sentiment. It is people just like you that have made the Web such a wonderful, powerful resource.

But you should know what you're getting yourself into. Everyone knows that surfing the Web can become an incredible time sink, but you may not realize that having Web pages can also become a real time sink.

I assume that if you make a Web page, you'll put your email address somewhere. Otherwise, how will anybody know it was your wonderful creation? Otherwise, how will you find your community of like-minded individuals? There isn't much point to writing a vanity page if you can't be vain about it.

If your email address is posted, you will get email. This is kind of fun at first. However, if your site gets any traffic at all, you are going to get a LOT of email. As the number of visitors increases, the amount of email you get will go up and up.

Pretend, for a moment, that you are Madame Curie, winner of the 1903 Physics and 1911 Chemistry Nobel Prizes. (Also pretend you aren't dead.) If you publish a web site with your research results, you will get lots of email. Some of the email will be good. People will You'll also find people you care about: members of the community you write for and also long-lost friends.

Tedious Email

However, there will be email that is probably well-intentioned but which gets old after a while.

There will be people asking questions whose answers are very complicated and would take a half an hour for you to write a response to:
Dear Mme. Curie: how does radiation work?
If you are an author on any tiny facet of a subject, someone will ask you a question about something vaguely related but way outside your knowledge base.
Hi, I see you are a physicist living in Paris. I live in Rome but am about to move to Marseilles. Send me a list of all the dealers in Marseilles that sell dry ice.

People will ask questions and not provide adequate information to allow you to answer the question. These can be simple questions that leave out a critical piece of information:
What is the half-life of the isotope?
If the above contained which isotope, it might be a fine question.

There are other questions that omit so much information that not even the general problem can be inferred:
Hi, you don't know me. When I use it, the graph doesn't look right. What should I do?
Other questions might omit the big picture, what goal the questioner is pursuing, and be unanswerable for that reason:
Should I use radium or polonium?
Or one of my favorites:
Please send me information.
What kind of information? Prices? Sizes? Horsepower? Color? User groups? Manufacturers? (If you, Mme. Curie, also have a page on famous Polish people in Paris, it gets even harder to figure out what the sender wanted.)

You will get email with so much extraneous detail that it overwhelms the actual message:
Hi, I'm a physics professor at a small land-grant university in Illinois. I have two dogs, three kids, and a fabulous wife who comes from Paris, Illinois. She's also named Marie. Quite a coincidence, huh? My department head is really getting on my case about my radium budget. He's a bit of a jerk, but I don't have tenure yet, so I have to put up with it. How much radium per year do you use? I think 30 pounds per year isn't excessive for modern research. Still, what with the war and everything I guess I can see how university spending could get cut. That doesn't mean I have to like it. My wife is pretty good at stretching our limited budget. For example, she has this great recipe for fake Cornish game hens that is so good you that it doesn't matter what the price of real hens is. Would you like the recipe?
Regardless of what your native language is, you will get email from people who don't speak your language well and can't get across what they want:
Sir: I want know spun revolver by minute, please.
You will also get email in languages that you don't speak:
Selamat siang! Apa kabar? Di mana radium beli bisa? Saya dari Jakarta.
You may get email from people trying to convince you to put a link to a site which isn't appropriate:
We have the best web search engine on the World-Wide Web! Your readers would really like it if you had a link to our home page on your page!
Hi, if you put an ad and link for our site, **More CDs Than You Could Ever Listen To**, we'll give you a whopping $0.01 per million clicks that you pass through to your site! Think of the money you'll make!
Dear Sir: I'm the president of Radium Direct, Inc. We'd like to enter into an advertising arrangement with you that could greatly enhance your revenue stream potential. Please contact me immediately. Oh, and by the way, of course we'd want you to remove the link to Radioactive Materials, Inc.
Finally, there is spam: unsolicited commercial email. You will get email about multi-level marketing offers, ads for pornography sites, promises to increase your web traffic, pitches for penny stocks, and much more. Oh joy.

Unpleasant Email

Sadly, you will also get email that is unpleasant to receive.

You will get email from people who are horrified at your grammar or spelling. (These messages are invariably extremely long. I presume that they were written by people who spent a long time in institutions that reward verboseness.)
I am absolutely appalled by the sloppy use of the English language in your article, _The Dark Side Of Web Publishing_.
1) You should not capitalize "Web," as it is not a proper noun.
2) "Verboseness" is incorrect. Use "verbosity" instead.
3) The sentence, "I want know spun revolver by minute, please" is complete nonsense.
4) "Email" is not a proper word. You should write out "electronic mail."
5) Punctuation properly goes inside quotation marks.
6) The sentence about dry ice should read, "Send me a list of all the dealers in Marseilles >>who<< sell dry ice."
7) The word order in your Indonesian sentence is incorrect.

It is people like you - showing such blatant disregard for the principles of fundamentally sound communication - who are responsible for the decline of American morals that are ruining this country. I hope you drop everything else you might even think of doing to correct every little thing I saw and make your page just exactly the way I want it. Only then will truth and freedom have a chance to flourish in this great country of ours. Have a nice day.
You may get email from people who take issue with your style:
Man, your pages are BOOOOooooo-ring! Haven't you ever heard of frames, animated GIFs, and Java? Jeez, get some *life* in your pages!
You may get email from people who are just plain antagonistic:
Oh, you think you're so smart, Mrs. Namby-pamby Radiation Expert! Like you know everything about radiation that there is to know! Well, you DON'T! You and your daughter don't know the first thing about scientific method and your procedures are sloppy, sloppy, sloppy! I can't believe that the Nobel committee would give you TWO prizes when I haven't gotten any. What a travesty!
You will get email from people in your past that you never wanted to even consider thinking about again:
Hey! Marie-baby! This is Henri! I'm so glad I found you again, because you were a real babe when you were a kid. I guess La Sorbonne felt sorry for you when your husband got killed by a cart and gave you his position as a booby prize ha ha! You lucked out bigtime!
You may get email from people who are unclear on the concept of linking, and think that if The Exploding Cow Company page links to your page for some unknown reason, then you work for The Exploding Cow Company:
Listen, you jerkfaces, I sent you a check THREE MONTHS ago for the exploding holstein, and I STILL haven't gotten my cow! You cashed the check TWO months ago, why can't you idiots send me my stupid cow?!?!?!
I even once got an irate piece of email from the president of a company whose pages I linked to, accusing me of copyright violations and threatening to sue me, my descendents, and my ancestors into the poorhouse. He thought that I had copied his company's pages.

Where did this come from?

You will occasionally get very odd email from complete strangers.

Some random email will really annoy you:
You ever notice that England never had any trouble with world wars until they let a woman run things? ... and then they tried to blame it on the Archduke... Har har har!!!
Some random email will confuse you:
Ten blocks, please.
Some random email will rip your heart out:
Hi, I'm dying of cancer. I've been sick for six months now and only weigh 87 pounds. My problem is that I fell in love with someone I met in a chat room, and he with me. He wants to come meet me face-to-face but I don't want him to see me like this. I've only probably got a month to live, do you think I should should let him meet me?

Last words

By and large, the email you get will be sent by well-intentioned people. If they are asking something you don't know about, it is probably because they didn't know where else to turn. If their question is confusing, it's probably because they didn't read my page on context in email. If they ask for an explanation that is going to take a half an hour, they probably didn't realize that you get twelve of those per week.

My experience is that the amount of unpleasant email and mail from left field is relatively low. I get much more nice email than nasty email. (And, to my surprise, I have not gotten sexually harassed at my own email address. I did get harassing email relatively frequently at a relatively anonymous account - However, the amount of nice and nasty email that I get is dwarfed by the amount of tedious email that I get.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't publish your web page. Just be aware that you'll need to have a relatively thick skin, a sense of humor, and a lot of time to read your email.

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Created on 11 Nov 1998
Last modified Tue Feb 23 12:20:04 PST 1999