Current Correspondence

We're on e-mail now at our house. My husband, my teenage daughter, and I all have our own addresses. It's just a matter of time before our seven-year-old wants to get on board. When he does, I suspect he'll be far more skilled at using e-mail than I am.

I went online at about the same time my sister and two of my friends did. Our early correspondence consisted mostly of messages such as, "Oops! I sent half of my e-mail to you by mistake. Here's the second half." And: "I wrote you an e-mail and then I filed it and now I can't find it, but I refuse to ask my husband for help!" But now I'm getting the hang of it.

When I get really confused, I can always ask my daughter to help me out. She, of course, took to e-mail right away. No sooner did she get an e-mail address than she was up and running, corresponding nightly with a small circle of electronically sophisticated friends.

Early on, we had to set down some parental guidelines. No e-mail, we said, until all the homework is completed, the nightly bath is taken, and the bedroom cleaned up. This was wonderfully effective at first, but inevitably the night came when bedtime arrived before the evening's tasks were completed.

"But I have to return my e-mail tonight!" my daughter complained, "It's bad 'netiquette' not to!"

Netiquette? In case you haven't heard of it (I hadn't), netiquette is a system of rules laid down, apparently, by Bill Gates or his equivalent. It decrees that e-mail must be returned promptly. I looked up the word in my copy of "The Internet for Dummies." I found that e-mail should also be businesslike and polite, and that Internet users should avoid telling bad jokes, which is apparently a big problem on the Net.

If you must tell a joke, the book advises that you put a sideways smiley face, the international symbol for "joke" (made by typing a colon, a space, and a right-parenthesis) after the joke to let your correspondent know you're just kidding. : )

I'm all for good manners, so I'm quite pleased that the powers that be have laid down these rules. I just wish Mr. Gates - who evidently has more sway in my household than, for instance, I do - would turn his attention to the question of keeping our rooms clean and turning in our homework on time. I'm sure an edict on these matters would make a big difference to adolescent performance nationwide.

There are a lot of things about e-mail communication that I don't like.

As someone who enjoys writing letters, I miss the leisurely approach to correspondence: starting a letter one day, writing a little more the next, thinking over what to say, maybe finishing up a week or so after the letter was begun.

By contrast, e-mail is a one-sitting affair, a message dashed off in a few minutes, usually written in a telegraphic style, such as, "Got yours, thanks. Kids fine. Youngest decided to try on cat's water bowl as hat. Planning trip your neck of woods soon. Bye." And once you start e-mailing someone, you'll never write that person a letter again.

AS a newcomer to cyberspace, I'm never confident that the e-mail I receive will stay on my screen long enough for me to read it before I accidentally push some button that makes it disappear. So I always skim through it quickly, wolfing it down in a single sitting instead of savoring it. I miss settling in with a long letter from a dear friend.

But what I like about e-mail is that friends who never wrote to me before are suddenly popping up on my incoming mail screen. I put my e-mail address on my Christmas cards this year, and all kinds of people - if not long-lost, then at least temporarily misplaced, friends with whom I'd exchanged Christmas cards but not much more - have been getting back in touch by computer. I am living abroad at the moment, and it's wonderful to feel reconnected to so many old friends.

On balance, I would say that this advantage, being able to rekindle old friendships while stoking the fires of newer ones, makes the Internet worth its weight in fiber optics to me. And if you want to tell me what you think, you can find me at: Elklavan@aol.com

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