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Great balls of fire!

One of the joys of writing for an online publication is the instant feedback that email affords. Or so I'm told.

One of the joys of writing for an online publication is the instant feedback that email affords. Or so I'm told.

Here is a sampling of recent correspondence:

"Apparently you don't get it, do you?"
"To begin with, your article is hypocritical."
"Give me a break!"

So began the ingratiating first lines of emails I've received--something of an introduction, given that they all came from people I'd never met. There are countless other examples, many less kind, none of which I'd dignify by repeating.

I don't consider myself thin-skinned, having covered such issues as racism and abortion during two decades in the masochistic profession of journalism. Still, I am startled at this steady stream of venom from complete strangers in cyberspace, especially considering that the subjects of their revile are such relatively benign topics as WebTV.

Much has been written about the Netiquette of electronic mail, or lack thereof. The most frequently cited reasons for email's raw nature are anonymity and immediacy. People seem to think they're firing off opinions to some digital black hole, and often do so without letting reason or calm settle in first. In fact, the act of dashing off incendiary email is so common that we've taken to calling it "flaming."

This is not necessarily a bad thing. In a culture where things left unsaid sometimes fester like an infected wound, such candid discourse may go a long way toward healing many societal problems that arise from misunderstanding.

Handled with aplomb, email is an extremely effective tool of communication. But wielded clumsily, it smarts like a club and doesn't put the person on the receiving end in a very charitable mood.

The immediate nature of electronic response can shut off dialogue before it begins, or even turn it in the opposite direction. For example, starting a missive with a declarative statement like "Hey, man, grow up!" (a real example from one I received) doesn't exactly put me in the most open frame of mind for intellectual debate.