I’m never at a loss learning how many young people are uneducated in the proper way to communicate online with those outside their immediate generation.  Over the last couple of years, I’ve noticed kids in the 18-20 year old age range have terrible email manners.  They write, you reply — they never acknowledge your response — so you’re left to wonder if you got stuck in a Spam folder or if you’re just being ignored.  Kids today have no idea why sending back an “Ack” is intrinsically important in continuing the hoary, but vital, tradition of effective online communication.  


A long time ago, in another century far, far away — we’re talking early 1990’s — there was an awful government thing called “The Internet Network Information Center” or “InterNIC” that made most of us tremble as dustbowl days pioneers on the web.  The InterNIC is still around today, but it is, thankfully, more invisible in processing information.

InterNIC was the entity you had to deal with when it came to registering and maintaining any domain name you owned or managed.  In the early 90’s, you were not able to directly register a domain name with the InterNIC as an individual, so you had to go through a third party for processing.  Most of us used our Internet Service Provider (ISP) because they also hosted our websites.

The trouble many of us discovered way back when was that even though we paid for the domains, we didn’t really outright “own” the domain name — even though the domain was in our name — because our ISP was the technical and administrative contact for our domains.  So, in essence, we were only the renter of the domain name and if we wanted to move our domain to another ISP or make any address updates or contact changes, we had to first have the approval of our ISP to make the change or to make us the sole contact for the domain with the InterNIC.

There are many hosting services that still behave that way today — they register and own the domain for you — but in the 90’s, the goal was to try to wrestle control of your domain from your ISP and that could be a big hassle because if your ISP didn’t want to release your domain to you, there was no recourse available unless you hired an attorney.

If you were lucky enough to have a prescient and kind ISP who was willing to release your domain to you, the problems were just beginning.  Your ISP had to tell the InterNIC of the change in ownership and you had to push a lot of paper to make it happen.  The InterNIC only dealt with domain changes via hard mail and fax — no electronic domain changes were allowed.  The process of making one small change to domain ownership could take three months to initiate and change and, even back then, three months was a lifetime on the internet. 

A few years later, there was a small InterNIC change made that became a watershed moment in the short history of managing domains:  You could use email to make changes to your domain and ownership.  However, the process was very specific.  You had to request a certain form online, have it sent to the registered email account associated with your domain — if you no longer had access to that email address, you were dead in the water with no resolution except attorneys and hard mail — and then you had to do several, specific, things to get the changes to “take” in the system because it was all done via computers and robot responders without any human interaction on the InterNIC end. 

If you made one, tiny, error in your response to the InterNIC change email, you had to wait a few days for your change request to clear the InterNIC cache server and then you had to start all over.

The thing most people missed in the InterNIC change form was the explicit instruction to “Ack” back every single change you wanted to make.  “Ack” was short for “Acknowledge” and if you changed five things in your domain record, you had to specifically type “Ack” in the proper space provided for each change you were making.  Miss a single Ack?  You had to start over.

The “Ack Back” process was tiring — especially if you owned a lot of domains — but it taught you how to carefully read and how to insert each “Ack” into the proper line — and you quickly learned a computer robot response was trained to look for and amend the proper “Acks” in a unique context to process the request.  You learned to follow rules and to adhere to a strict call and response that offered zero flexibility in the communicative dyad.

Us “Internet Old Timers” are furious “Ack Backers” — you email us, we endlessly reply back — because we’ve been trained by our InterNIC experience that an Ack is the only and appropriate response.  Sometimes an “Ack” changes into an “Ok” — and that’s fine because an “Ok” is an “Ack” in sandals and short sleeves — while no response whatsoever is considered a “Fail.” 

“We Who Have Lived Through The Internet Fire” also understand email messages can get lost, misdirected, marked as Spam and sometimes just never arrive where they are expected — and there’s no way to know the why of it — and that’s why we always “Acknowledge” back even if a common assumption can be made that the message was received.

Kids today have no memory of the “Ack Back” and they heuristically assume successful email delivery and receipt is as reliable as a heartbeat when the dangers to data loss are still substantial — but not as immediately deathly as twenty years ago — and that’s why an “Ok” must always be sent in reply even if you don’t feel it is necessary.  That “Ack” lets the sender know you got the message even if you have nothing else to add.

The next time you ask for information and receive it — send back an “Ack.”

The next time you are asked a question you may not want to answer — Don’t answer, but “Ack” back.

The next time you ask for a favor and get it — you don’t have to send a “Thank You,” but you must “Ack.”

Sometimes you can get caught in a circle of “Acking Back” and that’s okay, because to not “Ack” is to entirely refuse to effectively communicate a proper end to a never-ending beginning.

11 Comments

  1. I like the ack idea. I have a friend who will always write back to e-mails, even if just to write his own version of the ack — which is then followed hours later by his actual response. 🙂

  2. You’re right that lots of people don’t Ack back — but I find the young kids, when asked about it, have no clue they’re supposed to reply to email in the ways described. Sometimes you have to go as far to end your email with, “please reply to this email so I know you received it.”
    The link you provided is dead.

  3. That’s strange. The link comes up “Page Not Found” on two different computers. Oh, well.
    An “Auto Ack” email “vacation responder” is a fine solution, too. That way we know the email was successfully delivered and if no human response comes back, then we know we’re dealing with a lack of manners and not a technical delivery problem.

  4. ???
    Anyway, the article is interesting…talks about “silence as the worst feed back” and those who want to read it — it’s an article by Peter Bregman, published in Harvard Business Review blogs, the title is — “How to Handle Silence, The Worst Kind of feedback” — googling the same should help.
    Absolutely right! I love the “auto response” feature – at least I know my e mail is not lost in transit!