Tackling the curse of e-mail overload

Junk: Forget spam. It's jokes and petitions from friends and family that cause clutter.

February 08, 1999|By Patti Hartigan | Patti Hartigan,BOSTON GLOBE

Do you have e-mail overload? Is your mailbox overflowing with joke files, chain letters, random musings, political treatises or knee-jerk petitions? Do you get lost in your in box, searching desperately for that urgent memo from your boss and all you can find is a Dr. Seuss-style poem about Zippergate or a recycled rumor, long since proven false, about designer Tommy Hilfiger?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you're not alone. You're receiving what what I call spam from friends, or fram, for short.

Technically, the notion of spam from friends is an oxymoron: Spam is net-speak for odious, unsolicited mail hawking get-rich-quick schemes or adult entertainment. Spam is a legal issue; fram is not. But it can become cumbersome or downright annoying when you're bombarded with too many promises of good humor or good karma when you're busy researching a serious topic (like Internet jokes). It's a problem, and it's getting worse.

A recent study revealed that 41 percent of Americans use the Internet, up from 14 percent in 1995. About 35 percent of the population uses e-mail, up from 10 percent three years ago, according to the survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Those numbers indicate that roughly a quarter of the population began using e-mail in the past three years, which means many of them are still in the early romance stage when they create gigantic group lists to communicate with a few hundred of their closest confidants.

That means more jokes. More chain letters. More petitions.

So what to do? The online netiquette guides don't offer a standard way to just say no. It's awkward; these are your friends, after all. We turned to the experts for some practical advice. Mark Leavitt, research director at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass., says, ``Just can it, delete it'' without reading it. But what about the one time a friend sends news of a death in the family or a windfall in the lottery?

Leavitt points out that one way to manage fram is to sign up for one of the free e-mail services offered on Internet portals like Hotbot and Yahoo and request that friends direct mail to that address. And some e-mail packages, like Eudora, have built-in filters, so you can automatically instruct the software to direct mail from certain people to separate folders and look at it when you have a free week or two. (I use Lotus Notes, and Leavitt confirmed what I discovered while searching for a filter. ``Don't even try it; it's not easy to use,'' he said.)

Fram, of course, is usually well intentioned, but some of it, particularly the chain letters, can have serious repercussions.

Computer consultant Steve Baldwin remembers what he calls the Great Chain Letter Incident of 1993 or 1994. He was working at the publishing firm Ziff-Davis, and one of those reach-out-and-mail-someone letters circulated around the office. It took up so much bandwidth that it threatened to paralyze the system, and the company issued a stiff warning to stop the insanity.

``Chain letters, however well intentioned, are a major violation of netiquette,'' Baldwin wrote in a recent (solicited) e-mail. For a history of electronic chain letters, see www.geocities.com/SoHo/Gallery/7333/. The site documents 393 missives and asks, ``Want to lose friends fast?''

But there is an element of superstition to those letters; you have to cross your fingers and knock wood while deleting them. Sherry Turkle, the MIT professor and clinical psychologist who specializes in the social impact of technology, acknowledges that she, too, is susceptible to their lure.

``When I received those things as a kid, I remember being thrilled and excited,'' she says. ``You had to retype it five times, put the stamp on, go to the post office. Now as an adult, they push that vulnerable little button from my childhood, that little superstitious twinge. But at a certain point, you have to delete it and prepare for a little bad karma.''

Some folks like Leavitt contend that chronic e-mailers are addicts, a concept Turkle rejects outright. People go through phases with e-mail, she says, and often, they use it as a coping tool. ``It gives people a constant sense of social action,'' she contends. ``They're stirring the pot. They're part of the party.'' Some of these folks send epistles to long group lists, confirming that they are part of a large social circle.

But that can tap into the insecurities of the recipient. ``What about me?'' you find yourself asking. ``Where are my 40 friends? Where are my funny stories?''

It's a vicious circle, this e-mail mania. Turkle predicts there's going to be a shakedown in the urge for constant communication.

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