There is a sense of feeling increasingly overwhelmed by the problems e-mail creates (also acute for people not in college, since the vast majority of Americans are still on dial-up systems). Employers get frustrated because workers spend so much time messaging one another with questions, problems and data sent merely because it's so easy. As we move towards an instantaneous model of communicating information, the pressure on everyone to manage information rises. Most people aren't getting much help.
It's simple to send instructions and directions via e-mail, but tougher to hold people accountable for messages delivered in ways they struggle to sort, absorb and file. It's easy enough -- and true enough -- to tell a boss or professor you didn't get the e-mail, don't remember it, or lost it in the crush. For example: "I get a ton of cover-your-ass e-mail from subordinates now," e-mailed Daniel, an account executive in Chicago. "People used to make decisions because I wasn't available, but now, why should they? My employees just e-mail me every little decision so they can't get into trouble and are rattled if I haven't answered them in five minutes. They are learning via e-mail not to think for themselves, not to be in positions where they can be held accountable. They just instantly message me. I'm personally already overwhelmed with e-mail from my superiors and customers, not to mention my wife and kids, and my fishing buddies have me on a dozen mailing lists about fishing I don't really need to be on."
Sandra Berman, a teaching assistant at an Ivy League school, says e-mail is a growing and problematic factor in her relationships with students. "I'm always getting messages minutes before papers are due telling me they won't be done, as if notifying me constitutes agreement. I get very complex questions about reports and papers phrased in questions and e-mails that are 25 words long. If you ask to meet somebody, they are amazed. When I e-mail people -- it's amazing, but kids don't set up appointments face-to-face much anymore -- they often tell me, 'oh, I didn't know about that deadline or schedule change.' And you know what? It happens to me all the time, so it could well be true. I can't really absorb the e-mail I get, and surely can't figure out how to sort and organize it, so something is getting lost."
The overload seems to be hitting offices and colleges particularly hard. The computer savvy have a fighting chance -- to some extent they can retaliate and cope with alternate accounts and IDs, and with filtering and sorting and blocking systems. But most students at most schools don't yet have the time, opportunity or skills. E-mail and IM systems are no longer optional; they're essential to registration, course work, communications and a social life.
Students complain with e-mail so ubiquitous, they spend hours e-mailing and IM-ing people who live two floors below or in the dorm next door. "I IM for a lunch date, to get pizza, to walk to class, to check on my friends and assignments," says Jane, a junior at the University of Chicago. "It sounds lazy, but it isn't, it's just easier." Jim Bagwell, a University of Michigan senior, says his friends become alarmed if he hasn't replied to their instant messages in a few minutes. "They think I'm in trouble, or having tech problems. Sometimes they get pissed off. They e-mail me and call me up to ask if I'm on or have gotten their messages. I'm answering messages as fast as I can, because I know people are waiting. I don't meet with professors anymore because they all are online now, and it's easier for them and me to talk through e-mail. I get so many e-mails they back up if I don't check them every few hours ... I'm becoming something of a slave to it. It's a grind. Over the summer, two friends and I went hiking in Canada. We couldn't believe what was waiting for us when we got back."
Bagwell said in some cases, friends were worried or offended that he hadn't replied in two weeks. He lost the chance to join some college groups because people assumed he wasn't interested, since he had taken so long to reply. "You ought to be able to go on a hike without freaking out everybody you know." There are no universally-shared notions of etiquette regarding e-mail, and, as a result, says Bagwell, he and his friends become somewhat compulsive about checking it. "Definitely, the stress level goes up when I'm not near a computer for a couple of hours. That can be hard on work and peace of mind.The consequences and expectation surrounding e-mail are deeper than people realize," he said. "I'm really think twice before going offline for two weeks again, especially when I get a real job. That makes me a POW."
As people get spammed and flamed, their inboxes clog with messages, partially- read documents, conversational threads and URL's. Important messages can get lost or overlooked -- in fact a growing number of messages are believed to be vanishing in the e-mail overload, ignored, forgotten or overlooked. Even for people with sophisticated sorting and organizing systems, managing an inbox has become increasingly complex. Unlike s-mail, there isn't the certain expectation that messages were sent or received.
"There are many levels on which e-mail affects communications," says Jay, a Stanford graduate assistant studying the social implications of E-mail Overload (he will finish his report next year, and we'll post it). "For one thing, people increasingly expect that people won't read or have the time to respond to e-mail. For another, we tend to rush our messages, since we are always afraid of falling behind. That leads to misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and just poor communicating. People format messages differently, so parts of messages are often missed or not seen at all. Others send multiple messages because they are e-mailing so impulsively they're always correcting or clarifying themselves. That's dangerous in personal relationships and business. There is now a frantic, hurried quality to e-mail communications that is getting worse by the year, as the number of people and businesses online grows."
Like Bagwell, people who use computing in their school, work or personal lives can find themselves inundated with messages if they're offline for even a few hours or days. It's not clear when conversations begin -- or when they should and do end. People who come online for the first time often express surprise at the brusque nature of many e-mail communications, since they don't yet know how cluttered their inboxes will become. E-mail has created a culture of such instant response that messagers expect instantaneous replies. Bosses expect employees to be online regularly, sometimes even in off-hours. E-mail alters the nature and content of communications. Letter-writing -- a nearly dead form of culture all by itself -- requires time to construct messages, while recipients have hours or days to consider their replies. Letter writers often put the same time and energy into writing that gamers or programmers put into their work and entertainment. Ordinary mail also makes advertising and marketing material easy to distinguish from personal communications; junk mail is easy to spot and toss. Now, spam often comes disguised as personal e-mail, with individualistic headings, an approach I consider close to fraud.
E-mail is responsible for the growth of distributed organizations, obviously, and it permits people to communicate easily and cheaply across geographical and time differences. But we know little about how people organize and manage the large amounts of information so many receive.
Look for more on this topic in an upcoming column.