From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

May 30, 2003*: Down and Out from E-mail.

Don't turn to these columns for breaking news. Ordinarily it's only after an issue has stopped making headlines, after it's faded from memory and become almost forgotten, that I find these columns the proper framework for a serious look at it. Perhaps the most obvious reason for my doing this is that I want to appear smart and knowledgeable about the issues I write about, and one of the best ways to do that is not to go out on a ledge and predict the future. Instead it's preferable to simply wait until the jury returns with its verdict and then say "see, I told you so". Another, perhaps less self-deprecating, reason is that the meteoric rise of many items I might write about is followed almost as swiftly with their decisive fall, and these columns aren't particularly concerned with the headline grabbing aspects of internet life. Fads come and go quickly on the internet, and I prefer to step back a bit so that I can gain a bit more perspective on the ebb and flow of internet life.

Of course it's not only fads that come and go, that seem to catch fire and then quickly burn themselves out without hardly leaving a trace. Jokes make the rounds, as do chain letters (though perhaps these should be classified as fads). And way up on the list of items that flash meteorically across our screens are studies that seem to be constantly discovering new dangers lurking in and around our internet use.

But in this particular case I feel a need to make an exception, and jump on the issue while it's still hot, even if that means breaking my own rule about letting issues cool down before writing about them. And although my haste might suggest that I don't have anything else to write about, the truth is that I'm in the midst of collecting and organzing material on at least three topics for other, probably more interesting, columns that I'm planning. My haste in this particular case isn't because "I've got to write about something", but because it seems as though this particular topic will soon be forgotten, cast on the dustbin of internet trivia where it belongs. But if it's still a bit fresh, I can at least milk a column out of it. New studies about new dangers make news before they're forgotten - usually very quickly forgoten. So, because chances are good I won't have another opportunity to kick it around I want to get a few blows in now. By next week, not to mention next month, it may already be a non-issue.

But enough of introductions. What's the subject?! Well, it seems that at least one social scientist in England has identified a social/psychological problem related to e-mail usage. And even more important, she's given it a name: Pre and Post Mail Tension. What is PPMT? Well, apparently a significant number of people who use e-mail are getting stressed out about it. As one article on the subject puts it:

As many as half of us fail to properly understand personal e-mails - giving rise to conflicts which may not have occurred if messages had been communicated face-to-face - and blame the resulting confusion for arguments and even relationship break-ups.

Which means? Well, I guess it means that we live in a pretty confusing and stressful world, and that, unless we're actors in a television sit-com, we should be careful about what we say and how we say it - in e-mail as in any other medium.

Who breaks these earth-shattering discoveries to the media, and how do they spread? I don't really know how these things get started, but it's not all that difficult to trace their development. Or at least it isn't in this particular case, since there seems to be an easily identifiable ur-text.

But of course if that's the entire issue, I don't have much of a column here. That in itself isn't the greatest problem, but what about Helen Petrie, Professor of Human Computer Interaction at City University, London who apparently led the research team that interviewed 26,000 people that ultimately led to identifying this important syndrome. If all we're talking about is a fear of being misunderstood, or of having our words backfire on us, it's hard to see how she's going to get much additional research funding.

And apparently I'm far from being the only person who can't figure out what the fuss is about. In the past "research" of this sort has led to extensive ridicule, along with quite a bit of well deserved criticism of the research methods. But with this new "issue" nobody even seems to care enough to even make fun of it. The first reports I've found about this important syndrome are from about the middle of April of this year. Around that time a few news services picked up on it and reported the story. But unlike the famous "internet paradox" study that received very extensive coverage, both from the traditional media and then from the internet cogniscenti who ripped it to shreds, after the first few headlines about PPTM nobody seems to care, and the story has been relegated to its well deserved place in oblivion.

Let's not get this wrong - I've been misunderstood in e-messages before (and in telephone conversations, face to face contact and .) and yes, sometimes it's even been stressful. To my mind, the expectation of immediacy can be quite a bit more stressful than the possibility of being misunderstood, but nobody seems to be studying that. The stress that springs from the demand for an immediate response may be something that only affects heavy users, and strange as it may seem (to me at least), not everyone is connected to a constant stream of incoming and outgoing e-mail. Some people seem to survive without ever checking their mail (though I can't imagine how). From the moment we're defined as heavy users, however, we're expected to be accessible to our mail all day, every day. And once we've started to fulfill that expectation, there's no going back - the people with whom we correspond become used to the fact that we answer immediately, and if we don't do so they assume that something is wrong. Seemingly logical explanations like "I decided to close the computer and sit down to read a book", or even "I was playing with my children", rather than being accepted, are viewed as excuses.

We live in a rather tense world, and that, pretty much by definition, gives rise to tension. I'm often fearful that someone is going to take my daily newspaper out of my mailbox before I get a check to do so. Considering that undoubtedly thousands of people take their papers out of their mailboxes, it's a fair guess that others have this fear as well. Nobody, however, seems yet to have defined a specific syndrome identified with that. It just doesn't have the classiness of something internet-related. But of course this was a non-issue to begin with. Even Helen Petrie acknowledged as much from the outset. In at least one of the news reports that broke this important story about PPMT to the world, she also noted:

the problem of Pre and Post-Mail Tension is caused not by e-mail itself, but how people let their anticipation and expectation get the better of them
My guess is that anticipation and expectation are going to be getting the better of us for a long time to come, no matter what technologies we use.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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