by John Suler, Ph.D.

Although it seems that almost everyone is using e-mail nowadays, not everyone is using it to the same extent. One way to classify people is by the frequency and intensity of their e-mail use. People in each category tend to behave a bit differently in their e-mail relationships than people in other categories. The impact e-mail has on your interpersonal life increases as you become more avidly involved. It becomes an upward spiraling process: the more you e-mail, the more relationships you develop, the more you need to continue e-mailing in order to stay connected to your colleagues and friends. With that ever-expanding e-mail life comes increased skill in composing and reading e-mail. You become sensitized to the nuances of e-mail relationships, which makes that interpersonal world even more enticing, challenging, and rewarding.

For avid e-mail users, the computer is a major feature of their interpersonal and/or professional life, including dyad relationships and group memberships. Their online world has become deeply ingrained into their psyche and e-mail is an extremely important pathway for psychologically maintaining the integrity of that world. They check their e-mail at least once a day, often several times a day. It's one of very first things they do in the morning and may be the last thing they do before bedtime. They may receive a hundred or more messages -- the bulk of those messages coming from the group lists to which they belong. Some avid users may have their e-mail programs set to automatically download at regular intervals, while even more hardcore users (who may do their professional work online) check each message as soon as it comes in.

For the avid user, a technical failure resulting in a loss of e-mail capability is a catastrophe. You feel cut off, out of the loop. Many avid users have some type of back-up system to counteract such disasters -- for example, a second or third e-mail account, or a second e-mail capable computer (e.g., a computer at the office and at home). Avid users almost always have at least one online buddy who acts as an emergency intermediary. When the user's e-mail capability goes down, he or she contacts the buddy who relays news of the user's predicament to their online friends and colleagues.

Regular e-mail users check and write e-mail a few times each week, often at a prescribed time. That scheduled e-mail session becomes a type of psychological "space" in which they leave the face-to-face world and momentarily immerse themselves into their cyberspace social reality. Their internet relationships can become a very significant feature of their lives, as with the avid user -- although their e-mail worlds do not take on the same intensity as with avid users. Technical failures resulting in disconnection also doesn't stir up the same degree of anxiety.

The casual e-mail user does e-mail sporadically, maybe once a week, or less than that. For these users, e-mail is a curiosity, a toy to play with, and an amusement for leisure time. They may enjoy tinkering with this form of communication -- and may even establish some friends and colleagues through it. But e-mail has not become an important feature of their interpersonal world. Difficulties may arise when regular users -- and especially avid users -- begin e-mailing with casual users. There is a disparity in the perceived importance of developing the relationship via e-mail. The avid or regular user may be expecting more frequent exchanges, but does not receive them. Experienced users quickly recognize this disparity and adjust accordingly. The problem usually arises when the casual user has misrepresented him or herself. "Sure! I do e-mail all the time!" These casual users misunderstand what experienced e-mailing is all about -- or they naively are mislead by their "wannabe" inclinations.

E-mail usually is one of the first things a new internet user attempts. So the newbie e-mail user usually has just entered the world of cyberspace They don't understand the rules of the road or how things work. They may breach etiquette, like typing in caps, which is the text-talk equivalent of shouting. They don't fully understand the depth and complexity of the e-mail world. They don't yet appreciate its potential for developing relationships. Essentially, they don't know what they are getting into. Avid users often can spot a newbie very quickly. Some of these more experienced users enjoy taking the newbie under their wing. Other undesirable types may toy with or try to take advantage of the naive newbie. Eventually, the newbie differentiates into one of the other three types of e-mail users.


John Suler, PhD, is Professor of Psychology at Rider University and a practicing clinical psychologist. He has published on psychotherapy, mental imagery, and eastern philosophy. He currently maintains several web sites.


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