I want to tell you about my Silicon Valley friend who used his personal computer to become a woman.
"I was signed on to a bunch of [PC] bulletin boards trying to talk with people but without too much success," said Rob (his real name).
Then Rob decided to sign on as Susan B. (not his real pseudonym) and "all of a sudden, I'm the most popular person on the network. . . . I made up a whole character: a 22-year-old Stanford co-ed majoring in English. When someone asked me if I was cute, I typed, 'Everybody's cute in 40 characters' [the screen size of a Commodore 64]."
This digital masquerade went on for several weeks as "Susan" became, to use Rob's phrase, a "teleflirt."
"I found out a lot; [bulletin boards] are the equivalent of a bar," said Rob. "There are a lot of lonely, unhappy people online, and I didn't want to become their fantasy figure. When a guy asked me for my address to send me a valentine, I knew I had gone too far."
Sort of gives a whole new meaning to the phrase electronic "mail (male)" -- which is what this column is about.
I'm fascinated by electronic mail -- I use it regularly -- and am astonished that it hasn't become much more popular in the PC and corporate worlds.
As Rob's experience indicates, there's an intriguing sociology of electronic interaction -- not unlike that of how people who haven't met each other interact over the phone.
Electronic messaging strikes me as a radically different form of interpersonal communications. Although it lacks the formality of the print memo, it's not as intensely interactive and "chatty" as the phone. People seem to take on a different persona when they communicate via computer. Some people write in "bullet" form; others try to be online Henny Youngmans; still others send their notes out as pithy epigrams.
In the office here, electronic mail is used to remind people of meetings, make them aware of impending deadlines and to gossip, gossip, gossip. (Indeed, one unlucky couple-in-lust found their electronic missives posted on a bulletin board [a paper one] for all the world to see. Fortunately, the cruel prankster deleted their names from the posted printouts.)
The "message function" thus has become the digital equivalent of the office water cooler -- it has practical and cultural impact on our lives.
In a business sense, alone, electronic mail can palpably change the way an office is run. According to a recent Southern Illinois University study, literally 100 percent of the managers surveyed at a defense logistics agency felt that electronic mail made it easier to communicate across departmental lines.
Indeed, the study ascertained that the managers used electronic mail to send nearly 40 percent of their outgoing documents, while a control group of nonelectronic mail users reported that nearly 70 percent of their outgoing documents were distributed via the in-house paper mail system.
The survey also indicated that electronic mail improves the timeliness of information, and makes it easier to call meetings and receive status reports as well as to request help on projects and to monitor activities.
On the flip side, these managers said electronic mail did not result in a deluge of information overload.
Now, why don't we see computer and telecommunications companies selling the virtues of electronic mail as a business tool? Clearly, communications is an integral part of office computer technology -- and the ability to speedily and easily communicate with one's colleagues is at least as important as doing a spreadsheet model of widget sales in the Northeast Corridor.
Even more importantly, PC companies (and smart companies with PCs) should sell the social benefits of PC interaction to potential users.
Electronic mail is fun! -- even if you aren't pretending to be someone you're not.
Being able to conduct four or five correspondences via the electronic mail is much quicker than paper, and you don't run into the "telephone tag" phenomenon that's endemic in every organization having more than eight people.
You can create little networks of acquaintances and colleagues that let you easily keep in touch with what's going on. Electronic mail is a new way to promote communications in the office and should be treated as such. Sappily put, it's another way for people to get to know each other in a nonthreatening manner.
Why the computer/telecommunications industries are ignoring this, I don't know. Why smart companies don't glom onto electronic mail as a tool that promotes morale and productivity at the same time -- I don't know either.
PC owners out there and enlightened managers at companies with a large PC population should aggressively push to get their organizations to set up some sort of in-house electronic-mail networks. The benefits more than outweigh the marginal costs.