E-mail Is Dangerous

  • Also Known As: Blame-Storming

AntiPattern Problem

E-mail is an important communication medium for software developers. Unfortunately, it is an inappropriate medium for many topics and sensitive communications.

For example, e-mail is inappropriate for most confrontational discussions. Tempers flair and feelings get hurt easily in e-mail debates. Worse, e-mail makes a public event out of the disagreement. Productivity and morale of a software project can quickly degenerate when other staff members get caught up in lengthy e-mail confrontations.

Also known as E-mail Flaming, this mini-AntiPattern can cause a variety of negative outcomes, some of which are listed here, followed by recommended preventive measures:

  • A "confidential" message is likely to end up in the inbox of the person you least want to read it. The best advice is to treat every e-mail as if it were going directly to your worst enemies and toughest competitors.
  • E-mail can be distributed to large numbers of people instantaneously; for example, to entire departments, companies, customer mailing lists, and public Internet forums. Treat every e-mail as if it will be printed on the front page of The Washington Post.
  • An e-mail message can become a permanent written record. Treat every e-mail as if it could be used as evidence in a court of law.

E-mail is an inefficient mode of communication for complex topics. Due to the technology and other key characteristics of the medium, e-mail is subject to misinterpretation, because often large e-mail exchanges reduce the discussion to the lowest common denominator.

Furthermore, e-mail discussion groups send dozens of postings on all kinds of topics, including the trivial and nonessential. These lengthy discussions are time-consuming and labor-intensive.

Refactored Solution

Use e-mail cautiously, as suggested. Avoid using e-mail for the following types of messages: confrontations, criticisms, sensitive information, politically incorrect topics, and legally actionable statements. Use other media if there is any doubt about the appropriateness of e-mail.

Although telephone conversations, fax transmissions, and face-to-face discussions are also vulnerable to disclosure, their potential for damage is much less imminent.