Friday, July 18, 2008

Email Etiquette - The Don'ts

In my previous posts The Pen is Mightier... and Royal Arch Masons Secretly control Gmail I outlined some of the benefits of using Email for lodge business. Those two posts are full of reasons why lodges should be using email, but they do not touch on the how. As with all social interactions, email is part of a greater culture and carries with it certain social expectations. Users of email expect that the people they communicate with will adhere to certain acceptable email behaviors and will have adopted the proper etiquette of the internet.

While some people still hold to the belief that the internet is some lawless wasteland where typically social behavior is not necessary, they are most certainly incorrect. The computers, the internet and email are all just tools. If you are not willing to do something in the "real" world, then you should not do it on the internet, especially in regards to interpersonal communication. A simple rule of thumb is "you should never send an email that you would not say to the person's face or send through the normal postal service."

Another key factor in email etiquette is recognizing that the shear volume of email that the average person receives is orders of magnitude larger than that which a person receives via the normal postal service. In a February 2007 article, Information Week reported that the average email user receives 20 emails a day of which %70 is junk mail. Since the rate of email transfer nearly doubles every year, that means that the average internet user receives nearly 60 emails a day now with approximately 18 of them being real emails. For those of us in the technology field, this number can get much, much larger. I receive between 30-60 work related, non-junk emails a day, in addition to the 20-40 personal, non-junk emails I receive each day. This is compounded by hundreds of pieces of spam, bacn (email lists that you subscribed to) and forwards. That is a huge amount of information to process everyday!

Why do I bring up the volume of email that people receive? Because by filling people's inboxes with junk, you're wasting their time and energy, which could be better spent on Masonry! For brothers in the technology field, they could spend hours a day working with their email. By not following simple internet etiquette (or netiquette), you could waste not only his time, but his employer's time.

Now, I can quickly imagine my readers saying to themselves, "Masons always act like gentlemen and would never waste someone's time or send them something they shouldn't!" This is simply not the case. I have been bombarded with garbage email from friends, family and Masons alike. In fact, I have received huge amounts of garbage mail from the brothers of my lodge.

To help combat this ever growing problem of poor email etiquette, I will list ten "don't's" and ten "do's" for proper email etiquette. If a brother is bombarding you with garbage mail, please feel free to send them a link to this post and hopefully he'll realize the errors of his ways. Here we go!

First and Foremost! Remember Rule 0 - "you should never send an email that you would not say to the person's face or send through the normal postal service"

Email Etiquette - Don't's!
  1. Do not forward junk mail, chain letters, spam, jokes, pictures - "Fwd" is the most hated abbreviation in an email subject line. 99% of the time, "Fwd" means complete garbage. By forwarding every cute/funny/perverse/spiritual piece of junk mail that passes into your inbox, you undermine your e-credibility in the eyes of the receiver and he will be less likely to open anything of yours in the future, because all you send is junk. There are people that I know, who I never read their emails anymore, because they send so much junk. They are then puzzled when I don't read the occasional real email they send. Publisher's Clearinghouse could send me a very important letter today, but I would never read it, because I know that all they send is junk. Don't be like Publisher's Clearinghouse!
  2. Do not send material that is Not Safe For Work without a warning - First of all, I would say that you should never send pornography or any other offensive material through email. This usually falls under Rule 0 and Don't #1, but if you are going to send potentially offensive material via email anyway, please put a warning on it. Most people sending offensive material will add the acronym NSFW (Not Safe For Work) to the subject of an email to warn someone not to open it at work. Not only can offensive material insult people, it can potentially get them in serious trouble at their place of work. The bottomline is don't send offensive material, but if you're going to anyway, Warn The Recipient!
  3. Do not send political or religious material - This should go without saying. These two topics are not allowed in lodge, because they divide rather then unite. So, why send them via email to your brothers? It makes people uncomfortable and potentially angry.
  4. Do not type in all Caps - WHEN SOMEONE WRITES LIKE THIS ON THE INTERNET IT MEANS THEY ARE YELLING!!!!! This is considered very rude and can make people annoyed even if the content or tone is friendly.
  5. Don't overuse acronyms, emotions, abbreviations - BTW, FYI acr, emo & abb can mk emails hrd to rd :( Once again, emails do not have to be filled with flowery prose and unnecessary verbiage, but it must be readable and understandable. An email recipient should not have to have an advanced degree in cryptography or logic to decode your message about the "pot-luck dinner next Thursday." It should be short and to the point, but easy to read and understand. Typing on a cell phone isn't an excuse for sending an undecipherable message. Check out my post about Jott for a great tool for writing large emails via a cell service.
  6. Do not send files of unknown origin - The single greatest factor in the spread of computer viruses is email attachments. Many viruses, spyware, trojan horses, malware, etc. are spread via email attachments, like photos, movies, word processing documents and spreadsheets. If you didn't create it, don't forward it to someone else. Cutesy/funny photos and movies will be the downfall of not only your computer, but the other poor recipients you send them to.
  7. Do not deliver bad news via email - If you must send a message about a death, divorce, financial hardship or some other piece of bad news, make it personal and call the brother or tell him face to face. Email is quick, handy and efficient, but it is a poor substitute for delivering information that requires a personal touch. When in doubt, pick up the phone and call!
  8. Do not send an email when you are angry - If you're upset about a vote in lodge or the actions of a brother, do not express it through email. People are much more likely to take offensive when they are reading via email. Furthermore, an angry email can be easily forwarded and cause a rapid escalation of a confrontation, while drawing others into the conflict. Many bitter arguments have been resolved over a cup of coffee, but very few have been resolved while staring at a computer monitor.
  9. Do not send important personal information via email - We must be very careful with what is sent via email. Email is not secure and can be easily read while in transit from one server to another. Account numbers, social security numbers, credit card numbers, scans of IDs, etc. should not be sent via email. There are Secure Email Services that will allow you to send secure messages, if both users have accounts with the service. Check out 4securemail as an example of such a service.
  10. Do not send sensitive lodge business or private Masonic ritual via email - Like what was said in Don't #9, email is not secure. Lodge business and Masonic secrets should not be sent via email for the same reason.
The next post on Email Etiquette will list 10 Do's for writing good emails. If you have any Don't's that you think I should have listed, please post them in the comments sections of this post. I hope to hear from you!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Masonic Tech: Skype

Yesterday, I was presented with a pleasant surprise. As I was wrapping up my day's work, I was instant messaged by Brother Simon R. LaPlace, Right Worshipful Grand Junior Deacon of the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Connecticut. R:.W:. Brother Simon and I have chatted from time to time via the tangled web of electronic tubes that connect these mechanical thinking machines. I consider him to be the premier techno-enlightened grand lodge officer and most of our conversations have focused on new technology and how the Grand Lodge intends to use it. Readers of the Movable Jewel may remember Brother Simon from this interview, where Brother Movable Jewel and Brother Simon had a great conversation about what it's like being a Grand Lodge officer and the future of the craft.

After our typical pleasantries, R:.W:. Brother Simon asked me if I had a webcam. Luckily they come standard on all MacBook Pros, however my camera has rarely seen use except for the occasional funny faced photo or software avatar (see the right side-panel for an example). The purpose of Simon's IM session was to test drive his video-chatting capabilities. So, he had me quickly download Skype and we ventured off into the world of video conferencing.

In the past, I have used screen sharing software at work to troubleshoot and train clients with my company software. However, I have only used video-conferencing on a few occasions, but never with a Brother mason. We spent about half an hour testing the capabilities and working through some of the minor technical problems that we encountered. We then spent some time discussing Masonic Tech and how video-conferencing would help Masons.

Simon plans on inviting the Grand Master to a meeting of the legal affairs committee being held this morning in Wallingford, CT. However, he is fully aware that the Grand Master will be in Massachusetts on other fraternal business and will be unable to travel the several hours back to Grand Lodge for this committee meeting. Brother Simon then plans to surprise the Grand Master with a technical solution, using Skype to telecommute to the meeting! This could be the Grand Lodge of Connecticut's first foray into telecommuting.

As a clarification, I in no way condone using this technology as a replacement for the social or ritual aspect of Freemasonry. Webcams have no place at our Stated Communications or at our social events. Freemasonry is a personal organization and will stay this way. However, there is a lot of administrative overhead in Masonry. Brothers, especially Grand Lodge officers, have to continually go to committee meetings and planning meetings. This can be a huge burden.

Quite simply, there are two main benefits of telecommuting to certain types of Masonic meetings; time and money. First, if it takes you an hour to drive to and from a half-an-hour meeting, it's extremely inefficient. Many lodge and Grand Lodge officers encounter this problem quite frequently. Huge amounts of time are spent traveling for planning and committee meetings, which rarely require a physical presence. This is time away from family and friends. Furthermore, it's time that could be spent on more Masonry. If a brother could save two hours of traveling several times a month, that time could be spent on a plethora of other worthwhile activities, like Masonic education, communicating with other brothers, charity, blogging, etc.

This brings us to the second point; money. Transportation costs money and these prices are sky-rocketing. Freemasonry is a volunteer organization. Lodge officers and Grand Lodge officers do not get gas stipends. R:.W:. Brother Simon uses 70 gallons of gas every month on Grand Lodge activities. With gas prices at $4.50 per gallon in Connecticut, Brother Simon spends approximately $315 a month. That's almost $4000 a year, which he spends out of pocket. Now, if each of the 18 primary Grand Lodge officers in Connecticut use a comparable amount of gas, that is $72,000 a year in gas used by the primary Grand Lodge Officers. This amount does not include the District Deputies, District Grand Lecturers or Associate Grand Marshals. If we include these approximately 50 brothers at half the gas usage of the primary Grand Lodge officers, it is another $100,000 a year. Therefore, the Grand total of approximate volunteered gas costs for the entire Grand Lodge is $172,000. Wouldn't this money be better spent on our lodge buildings or our charities? Telecommuting can help limit some of this unnecessary expenditure. If these officers telecommuted to %25 of their required duties, there would be $43,000 extra for other expenses.

Video-conferencing is far from perfect. Simon and I experienced some lagging and syncing issues that we're trying to rectify with different protocols. However, for many meetings, only audio is needed, which works perfectly. Some brothers will feel uncomfortable about talking with a brother via the internet, but this discomfort quickly subsides as the user gets used to the software and experience.

Although I name Skype as the Masonic Tech in this post, this is just one of hundreds of audio and video conferencing applications available. One of the benefits of many of these pieces of software, including Skype, is that they are free. Brother Simon and I plan on trying some of the other ones for ease of use and compatibility issues. If there is one that you can recommend, please drop a comment onto this post.

I'd like to thank R:.W:. Brother Simon for his hard work with modernizing the Grand Lodge. He has been a major force for technology in Masonry, as the editor of our state-wide publication, e-forum moderator, website designer and promoter of us crazy bloggers. It's great to see a Grand Lodge officer embracing technology. Yesterday, Brother Simon told me via AIM that "we have to get everyone 'connected'." When it comes down to it, that's what Masonry is all about: connections. We connect to our family, our friends, our brothers and God. The aim of the internet is also about making connections, so Masonry should strive to continue using this valuable tool to help with bringing people together in new, interesting and efficient ways.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Too many meetings? - Part 2

The initial question that I proposed, "do we have too many meetings?", is intentionally a simplistic question. Answering this simplistic question will in no way describe the problems that Masonic lodges are facing. It does not propose a solution to these problems. Nor does it suggest what alternatives a lodge may have to remedy the opinions of meeting-weary and exhausted brothers.

However, this simplistic question serves a purpose. At times, a simplistic question needs to be asked to allow for further probing questions to be formulated. When the source of an issue is not readily apparent, it is sometimes beneficial to pose an open-ended question with the expressed objective of generating further inquiry and to develop ideas. This was precisely the intention of my proposal. I don’t have an answer to if we have too many meetings. However, I do have some further questions.

Are our meetings fulfilling and exciting? If a brother feels that we have too many meetings, perhaps he’s not enjoying himself at the meetings that are being held. Will having fewer meetings make the meetings we do have more interesting? Some brothers hold the old axiom, “absence makes the heart grow fonder”, to be true and that meeting less will naturally make the meetings that we do have more meaningful. Other brothers counter that if someone doesn’t enjoy 20 meetings, he won’t enjoy 10 meetings. It’s not quantity; it’s quality, according the counterargument.

What are the aspects of a Masonic lodge meeting that makes a brother want to attend? Is it possible for a lodge with a diverse membership to implement a schedule of events that will be pleasing to all brothers? Some brothers enjoy ritual, while others enjoy fellowship. Some brothers enjoy family events, while others enjoy brothers-only events. Some brothers enjoy presentations, while others enjoy interactive activities. It is impossible to please everyone all of the time.

When a brother states that he would attend more meetings if they weren’t as frequent, is he being sincere? Is this just an excuse for not attending? If the lodge meets less frequently, would he continue his same level of inactivity? Brothers have many different reasons why they do not attend meetings; work, family, personality conflicts, boredom, sickness, etc. A brother may just be using the time commitment of lodge as an excuse.

Do we have a membership problem or do we have a problem with our membership? Is having 10-15 brothers at a stated communication and 20-25 brothers at a degree a failure? How many brothers should attend a stated communication or a degree for it to be considered a success? My lodge has approximately 150 members. If only 15 members show up for a meeting, that means we have a 10% turn out. Is this a problem? Should Masonry be an organization where nearly all the brothers of a lodge are present for all of its meetings? Or should Masonry be more passive, where the important aspect of the Fraternity is that a brother lives our excellent tenants, rather than spending most of his time at lodge meetings? If you have 20 members at a meeting and enjoy yourself and feel fulfilled, isn’t this a success?

These are just a few of the questions that have come to mind regarding the “problem” of too many meetings. If more questions on this subject come to mind, please post them in the comments section below. With this set of questions as a suitable foundation, a more thorough analysis of my lodge’s meeting frequency can be performed. In my next post, I will attempt to analyze the meeting situation of my lodge as an example. It is important to note that the purpose of this series of posts is not to solve the “problem” of too many meetings for all lodges. The important aspect of this series is to assist brothers to analyze if their lodge has a problem and how to develop a suitable solution. My forth and final post on this subject will be a proposal that I hope to present to my lodge in the early fall.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Masonic Tech: Timetoast

Here's another great web tool that can be used by the members of a Masonic Lodge. Timetoast has produced the ability to quickly and easily create online timelines. These timelines can then be shared in a blog, a social networking site, a lodge website and many other web technologies.

As an example, I created a small timeline of my lodge's history. Altogether, the timeline took about twenty minutes to create, including the five minute sign-up period. Each event can include a short description, a long description, the date and an image. Embedding a timeline into a blog is extremely easy. Just click the embed button on your timeline and copy the html directly into a blog post.

The applications of this tool for a Masonic Lodge are numerous. A lodge could create an historical timeline, like the example below, to assist in teaching their members about their history. A lodge could use a timeline to plan the events for the upcoming year, listing important events and dates for its members and officers. A timeline can be developed for long-range planning purposes and be included in the lodge's strategic plan. Individual timelines can be created for members of the lodge who have had prominent Masonic careers, mapping the important events in their lives.

These are just a few of the ideas for using this timeline website. If you have any other ideas for how this technology can be applied to a Masonic lodge, please drop a comment on this post.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Masonic Summer Picnics

Editor's Note: I'm still in the process of writing the continuation of "Too Many Meetings", but saw this link and thought a quick post would be timely.

Happy 4th of July! I am currently celebrating our nation's Independence Day on foreign soil. As I looked out on a Nova Scotian harbor from my campsite and started up my day's blogroll, I found a quick article that I believe would be beneficial to all brothers for this summer season.

It seems that in the summer months, nothing is more Masonic than picnics, BBQs and pig roasts. Many of these are pot luck, where brothers will be inundated by countless containers of boring baked beans or repetitive pasta salad. Creativity may be lacking at some of these picnics, but it doesn't have to. Check out 101 20-Minute Dishes for Inspired Picnics for some great ideas on how to spice up your lodge's BBQ and get people excited!

Now if only I can find a list of 101 Not-so-boring Master's speeches!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Too many meetings? - Part 1

Have you ever heard any of the following statements by your lodge brothers?
  • I can't wait for the lodge to have its summer break!
  • It feels like we're meeting all the time!
  • I don't have much free time at home because we're meeting so much.
  • I can't come to all of the lodge meetings, because we have too many.
  • If we schedule another degree, I think my wife will kill me!
I have definitely heard these statements and many more regarding the number of meetings we have. In fact, I have personally said all of these statements at one time or another. At times, lodge brothers can feel inundated by the number of meetings that is required of them. In addition to stated communications, there are Fellowcraft Club meetings, Building Association meetings, planning meetings, funerals, social functions, special communications, etc. etc. The time commitment for lodge can be quite extreme for many brothers.

At the last meeting of my Blue Lodge before we went on our two month summer break, I decided to propose two potential bylaw's changes. The first proposed bylaw's change was an increase in our lodge dues. This motion needed to be made before the summer, so that we could send out the proper notices for the vote prior to next years dues notices being sent out in the fall. I hope in the future to discuss further my proposal for a dues increase, however this post will focus on my second motion.

The second piece of legislation was a change to how often we meet. Currently, we meet twice a month for ten months out of the year. The change I proposed was that we meet once a month for ten months out of the year. I proposed this legislation because like many Masonic lodges we still suffer from what many brothers perceive as a membership problem. My lodge typically has 10-15 members at its stated communications and 20-25 members at degrees. Many brothers, myself included at times, believe that these numbers are too low and that we should have a much larger turn out. In the past, we have tried many different approuches to getting members to come to the meetings. Some ideas have worked for a time and some have not.

When I proposed this bylaws change, I stated unequivocally that proposing this motion was by no means an endorsement of the motion. I stated quite plainly that I believe that this idea has some merit, but I was unsure if it was a good solution. The main objective of this proposal was not to have it passed, but to get the brothers of my lodge to start thinking and to discuss the problem; do we have too many meetings?

This is not an easy question and it doesn't have an easy answer. I want to use the next few blog posts to explore this topic. I plan to ask several questions regarding this topic, contemplate the root causes of the problem and deduce if my proposal is in fact a good solution. I hope that you stay tuned and give some valuable input on the subject.