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Most of us send email to lots of different people, for lots of different purposes. We may solicit and conduct business with customers or clients via email. We may communicate with our co-workers, bosses and subordinates. We may chat with family members and friends. We may participate in mailing list discussions in both professional forums and “just for fun” groups.

If you’ve been using email for any length of time, you’ve discovered that you sometimes have to be careful about what you say, especially if you tend to have a sarcastic sense of humor. The written word is easily misinterpreted; without voice inflections and body language, it’s difficult for others to know when you’re serious and when your remarks are made in fun. Most of us have had that experience at least once. So we learn to tread more carefully, re-read what we’ve written and censor ourselves at times.

What we may not realize is that it’s not just the content of our email messages that can cause problems. The Wall Street Journal featured an article in last week’s Weekend Journal section about the increasing use of “me mail.” The writer defines this as signature line bloat – sig lines that contain more information than you want or need to know about the sender and especially those that include pictures, animations, logos, links and even videos.

Most modern mail programs, including web-based mail services, now support the use of graphics, and sites like www.blingee.com and www.mytextgraphics.com make it easy to create spiffy images for your signature.

Some people obviously put a lot of time and effort into creating a good sig line (or at least, one that they think is good). Most don’t think about the annoyance factor. Long, clever, picturesque sig lines are sort of like long, funny answering machine messages: the first time you encounter it, it’s cool or at least a little interesting, but the twentieth time, you’re really tired of it.

Some folks seem to be trying to squeeze their entire résumés into their sig lines. I recently got a message from someone whose sig line was twelve lines long. It contained multiple email addresses, multiple web site links, mailing address, four phone numbers (home, business, cell and fax), a two-line quote, a company logo and a blinking smiley face. I’m not making this up. I was amazed.

But some recipients would be more than amazed; they’d be highly annoyed. We sometimes forget that not everyone has broadband, even in this day and age. Some folks are downloading these messages over slow modem connections, and big graphics files, especially, eats up their bandwidth and turns getting their mail into an excruciating experience.

Sure, it’s your sig line and you can do what you want with it. But some folks extend their need to express their creativity beyond the sig line. Email clients today will do some cool things, and many computer users are taking full advantage of those capabilities. HTML mail messages can do just about everything a web page can do. You can insert photographic backgrounds, use fancy colorful fonts, embed pictures within a message, even have it play music or other audio when it’s opened. Trouble is, these messages take up even more bandwidth and introduce all the same security threats that you can encounter on web sites.

You can, of course, configure your email client to block HTML mail and embedded objects. Some spam filters flag any message with a graphic as spam. But then you may miss messages that also contain important information.

And what’s the point of having all these technological capabilities if you don’t take advantage of them. Just as annoying as getting a message from someone who tells you his life story in his sig line is getting a message from someone who doesn’t give you enough information about who he is, especially if it’s a business-related message.

Most of us have experienced this, too: you get mail asking you to do a bunch of favors and the person doesn’t even sign a name, or gives only a first name, and the email address is something like [email protected] Maybe the answer to his question is location specific, but you have no idea where he’s physically located. Or he asks you to call him, but doesn’t provide a phone number or enough info to look him up.

In many cases, it’s a good idea to have several different sig lines, for different types of email. If you’re conducting business, you want to be sure the recipient has information about your full name, position/title, how to contact you (don’t assume the Reply function will always work), and perhaps a link to your business web site(s). If you’re sure the recipients don’t have bandwidth limitations or graphics-unfriendly spam filters, a company logo may be appropriate, and a handwritten signature graphic can be useful for messages that need to look “official” (although for real authentication, they should be accompanied by a digital signature).

But for business mail, you should stay away from cute quotes, especially political, religious or suggestive ones. Leave out funny graphics and animations, unprofessional nicknames, etc.

For messages you send to mailing lists, you may want to leave your email address out of your sig line. Having it there can make it easier for ‘bots to collect it to be sold to spammers. Likewise, it’s a good idea to leave out your physical address and phone numbers. In fact, on some lists you may want to stay relatively anonymous (although this can be annoying to other list members) and use only a first name, in case some list-mates become overly zealous in pursuing discussions/disagreements that often arise on mailing lists.

When writing to friends and families, you can be a little more creative – but here is the time to use what you know about people and be considerate. If you know Aunt Sophie has a dialup modem connection, use a simple all-text sig line that won’t tie up her connection for half an hour. Common courtesy is the key. “Me mail” is called that because it’s all about you and doesn’t take into account how it effects others.

There’s a time and place for creative, graphical messages – just be sure to think before you hit “send.” And if you don’t want to know how to block remote images, which pose security problems, see this week’s How To for instructions for Outlook Express, Outlook and Windows Mail.

What do you think? Do long and/or bling-filled signature lines drive you up the wall? Or do you enjoy finding out more about the person with whom you’re exchange mail by what he/she puts in the sig line? Do you dress up your own signature, stick with “just the facts, ma’am,” or just leave recipients guessing as to who you are? Do you have different sig lines that you use for different purposes? What do you consider the maximum acceptable number of lines in a signature? Do you block HTML mail, or do you like to open a message with backgrounds and sound? 

Deb Shinder, MVP