You've got mail, but who's got the rules?

May 17, 2005|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

In the Stone Age of Internet technology, roughly seven to 10 years ago, your basic computer geeks would slavishly reel off e-mail replies as fast as their fingers could tap-dance across the keyboard. The daunting task often devoured the evening until finally the last e-mail was sent or exhaustion took over.

But in today's postmodern wireless world, the same now ex-geeks, probably retired millionaires or your bosses, are pushing back against the Sisyphean chore of e-mail. Nearly two-thirds of experienced computer users delay returning personal e-mails from one to three days, when they once would have immediately responded. Sometimes, it's even up to a week, and all, in perhaps an ultimately vain attempt, to reclaim their personal lives. Meanwhile, e-mail novices usually reflect the mentality of their forebears by constantly firing back replies.

That's just one nugget panned from a burgeoning, if still limited, body of research centering on e-mail and how this peculiar dues ex machines is rewriting the narrative of everyday life. With the phenomenon still emerging, researchers are just beginning to scrutinize e-mail habits and their psychological and cultural significance. But what's evident already is that e-mail is transforming personal communication in the same way letter writing and the telephone once did, not to mention changing our behavior in virtually every aspect of our lives, from business to romance, political to personal.

The available research on electronic communication, being done across the country in small pockets of academia and nonprofit groups, identifies a natural gap between the learning of a technology and dealing with its real-life implications. Millions of users, novice and experienced, are trying to find their way in this relatively new medium in terms of language, boundaries and even emotional responses.

Jeffrey Cole, director of the University of Southern California's Center for the Digital Future, likens the impact of the Internet and e-mail to the almighty television and predicts they could someday rival that of the printing press. Research shows e-mail is off to a promising start -- it's currently the No. 1 online activity and is used by more than 70% of all Americans, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, a nonprofit initiative funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Initial research focused on the rate of e-mail's rapid expansion -- sometimes referred to as the "gee whiz" phase -- and the fairly obvious reasons for it, namely, it was the next best thing to not being there. Convenient, immediate and efficient, the new form of communication quickly attracted notice for its ability to reshape basic societal organizations.

Its growing reach can easily be seen -- the widespread practice of setting business appointments via e-mail (thus reducing phone tag), the soaring use of e-file tax returns, the unexpected success of Howard Dean's presidential campaign and the creation of social networks that otherwise would be extremely difficult or impossible, like say a support group for twin-engine pilots or needlepoint enthusiasts, to name a few.

A second wave of research is delving deeper into these trends with a particular eye toward the psychology of e-mail. Thus far, the message seems to be that although e-mail is far and away a benefit, it does have its downside. For instance, e-mail often widens social networks, but users are finding out there can be a price for tracking down and reestablishing ties with old friends.

"We're really starting to see the blush come off this rose," said Deborah Fallows, a senior researcher on the Pew Project. "At first it's a thrill, and then there's this 'Uh-oh, I have to keep in touch with these people again' feeling."

Closer attention is being paid as well to what e-mail does to personality. Staring at a computer screen, usually in isolation, constitutes a distinct psychological environment, one that lowers inhibitions, argues Patricia Wallace, a psychologist and author of "The Internet in the Workplace: How New Technology is Transforming Work." As such, e-mail users are often more aggressive, even more intimate, than they should be.

"You're not watching another face or listening to a voice for a nuanced expression," said Wallace, senior director of information technology and distance learning at the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "You can't see or hear the things that can inform you, like a thermostat, about what the norms of behavior should be."

Without those common visual and aural cues to help convey meaning, e-mails can easily be misinterpreted even if the language is precise. Office e-mails have become so problematic that most workplaces are now legally obligated to monitor them, despite protests from privacy organizations. Over the past decade, a series of prominent state and federal cases on hostile work environments have tagged employers with the responsibility of monitoring employee e-mail.

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