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COLUMN ONE : On-Line, and Maybe Out of Line : Talking by computer has changed the way workers behave (and misbehave). E-mail lets people be creative, free--and blunt. Firms try to short-circuit problems by getting users to think before they send.

September 24, 1993|JANNY SCOTT | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

John Jessen gets paid to snoop through other people's electronic mail--those impulsive scribblings that people like to think of as private. According to Jessen, he rarely blushes anymore. He's seen it all.

Take love letters. He only notices if they're missing: It's a tip-off that someone has been cleaning house, says Jessen, whose business is sniffing out incriminating electronic evidence in legal cases.

There was a boss's sniping that helped nail a case of sex discrimination. There are idle blabbings that reveal patent infringement. There are people conspiring to defraud an employer--leaving tracks in the company computer.

"There's no question whatsoever that people write and put things in the computer that they would not put anywhere else," said Jessen, a Seattle-based software sleuth, who has stumbled upon what is proving to be a great lesson of the electronic age.

Recent research into how people behave (and misbehave) on computer--how they chat, scheme, gossip, confer--suggests that many feel freer when talking electronically than they do talking face to face.

That lack of inhibition can be useful and creative in offices and classrooms. But it can also be destructive--a fact that is prompting some workplaces to train users to think before they send.

Studies have found that the language people use on a computer is spontaneous and uninhibited, with moments of surprising self-revelation. Words turn up in unusual contexts. Visual--or graphic--jokes are common.

Similar patterns surface in studies of the social dynamics of computerized workplaces: Milquetoasts assert themselves in on-line meetings, underlings short-circuit the hierarchy, decision makers embrace risk.

Even one on one, researchers say, there is an untrammeled quality to on-line behavior. Users have a tendency to fly off the electronic handle. They are more likely to be excessively blunt, even to act irresponsibly.

"People have conversations that they probably wouldn't have had if they had been together in a room," Jessen said. Normally, for such frankness to occur, "it would have been the old 'Get Smart' thing: They would have to have the 'Cone of Silence.' "

Now, companies are developing tricks aimed at staving off messy faux pas .

At IBM, an iron-clad imperative of the in-house computer conference is straight out of Debrett's Etiquette: No talk of religion or politics. Irony and sarcasm are discouraged too, in deference to foreign speakers.

When it became apparent two years ago that Los Angeles police officers had used patrol car computers for racially and sexually offensive jokes, the department assigned a team of censors to spot-check message traffic (a practice that in most cases appears to be legal).

At Southern California Edison, injudicious messaging became such a problem that a new command allows senders to yank back messages before they are read. It is one of the most popular functions on the computer system.

(It was of no use, however, to the Edison employee who composed a parody of the Book of Genesis--in which God was required to get an environmental impact report done before proceeding with the Creation. The author sent the parody to a co-worker, innocently enough. But the co-worker forwarded it to an automatic distribution list. Soon, it was in the files of hundreds of employees--and the author was facing a reprimand.)

No one knows how many Americans communicate by computer--by electronic mail or in computer conferences or bulletin boards. The Electronic Mail Assn., a trade group based in Arlington, Va., says one estimate puts the figure at 30 million to 50 million.

They range from members of President Clinton's communications staff to Cornell University students baring their souls to a computerized counseling service. There are lawyers, utility line workers, Hollywood executives, scientists and high school sophomores.

To the uninitiated, the shift to computers can be jarring.

"It's the insecurity of a new medium," said Einar Stefferud, president of Network Management Associates, a consulting firm in Huntington Beach. "Every time we invent a new medium--for communication or transport or whatever--we have to develop a new etiquette to live with it."

Ever since electronic mail became available in the 1960s, computerized communication has been seen as a medium as revolutionary as the telephone. Norms of behavior appropriate to phone or face-to-face encounters, or even letters, would not necessarily apply; old rules would have to be revised.

As many see it, the peculiar quality of electronic mail stems from two traits: It is text-based and it is evanescent. Missing from any computer encounter are the revealing grin or scowl or apologetic tone, or such social cues as the correspondent's corner office, fancy letterhead or nervous tic.

And when the text appears to be ephemeral, the stakes seem smaller.

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