May 21, 2005
In the Stone Age of Internet technology, roughly seven to 10 years ago, your basic computer geeks would reel off e-mail replies as fast as their fingers could tap-dance across the keyboard.
But in today’s postmodern wireless world, the 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. Meanwhile, e-mail novices usually reflect the mentality of their forebears by constantly firing back replies.
Researchers are just beginning to scrutinize email habits and their psychological and cultural significance. But what’s evident already is that email is transforming personal communication in the same way letter writing and the telephone once did, changing our behavior in virtually every aspect of our lives, from business to romance, political to personal.
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 percent of all Americans, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
Research is delving deeper, 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 re-establishing ties with old friends.
‘‘We’re really starting to see the blush come off this rose,’’ says 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, says 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,’’ Wallace says. ‘‘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.
Much of the confusion associated with personal e-mail is simply the result of not having an established etiquette on the frontier of cyberspace. Estimates are it will take years to resolve basic questions such as: How often should e-mail be checked, how quickly should a reply be sent, what is appropriate material for an e-mail, and what are ethical uses of cc-ing?
One area undergoing some change is the ‘‘thank you’’ note. In recent years a thank you via e-mail, instead of one by snail mail, is becoming more accepted, especially with the plethora of gift-giving occasions — housewarming, baby showers, going-away parties, etc.
‘‘I always feel like I should send a handwritten note,’’ says Chris Angelli of Santa Monica, Calif., who also sent birth announcements for her children via e-mail. ‘‘But there’s a good chance there won’t be a thank-you at all if I wait that long.’’
E -mail’s penchant for promoting errors or faux pas of one kind or another has led to countermeasures to prevent them. One is a software program called Eudora, whose MoodWatch feature flags an email sender (and receiver) with one, two or three chili peppers when potentially inappropriate words or phrases are being used. For instance, trying to e-mail a message with ‘‘scum sucking loser’’ in it would trigger a ‘‘Mood Warning!’’ box with two chili peppers to pop up on your screen.
Yes, you can still send the message, but you’ve been warned.