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Electronic mail (email) has emerged as the key application for Internet-based

communication in both contemporary organisations and personal domains. As

such, it has the potential to be one of the major determinants in shaping the

emergence of an interactive society.

This chapter presents an ethnographic story about intraorganisational email that

is grounded in my practice-oriented qualitative research. I undertook a case

study to find out more about what is actually going on with email in organisations.

In doing so, I delved deeply into the study participants’ intertwined layers of

meaning of, and experiences with, email through their interpretations and

descriptions of such experiences.

And while ethnographies remain an alternative to mainstream approaches of

knowledge construction in information systems research, increasingly such

methodologies are being drawn upon to construct additional understandings

(based on real-life examples) around people as social actors and their interactions

with the technologies and systems they use (Schultze & Bolard, 2000;

Stahl, 2003). A theme which Lamb & Kling’s (2003) recent work directs

attention to is the need for information systems research to make more use of

this “social actors” metaphor, claiming it “readily expands the scope and scale

of the social space of people’s interactions” (p.224).

In crafting together the ethnographic data and the theoretical arguments, I

discovered a range of interesting and even unexpected interpretations about

how the work environment is continually being socially constructed by the

social actors present and the multiple significances of email within such

constructs. These discoveries provide a vivid and multi-faceted interpretative

window on organisational life that indicates some of the fluidity and

connectiveness that is happening as we move towards a more interactive

society. The spaces visible through such a window can be viewed from different

perspectives and so it was with my research.

I adapted Carey’s 1989 model: he used the concept that communication could

be looked at from two different dimensions, that is, communication as message

transmission or communication as social ritual. Although Carey’s research

concerned mass communication, I applied the two dimensions of his model to

my email research. Numerous themes emerged around email as both message

transmission and social ritual and at times, it was difficult to maintain such a

dichotomy as specific themes could be considered in association with both

dimensions of the model.

In making sense of the interactions around organisational email, I have

developed a concept I call “a message web”. The term captures the social and

technological forces within evolving forms of organisational communication

(incorporating both message transmission and social ritual) while it also

highlights the connections between emerging communicative practices associated

with virtual space and interactions within organisational culture.

The story I tell in this chapter concentrates on just one aspect of the case study’s

message web; that is, the ways that the participants constructed their understanding

about, and use of, email’s functionality to duplicate and then distribute

information. Within this theme, the uses of group distribution lists and the

practices associated with copying messages emerged as being a significant

element within their interactions.

In addition, I also embed brief personal reflections into the story to draw

attention to the taken for granted aspects of the many voices that are present

(although not necessarily always acknowledged) in research activities. “In

doing so, I challenge the boundaries of what is acceptable [research] writing

and also what it is acceptable to write about” (Day, 2002, para. 8). These

reflections expose fleeting glimpses of my thinking in facing numerous dilemmas

and indicate the paths I took to resolve them, sometimes referred to as a

“confessional genre of representation” (see Schultze, 2000).

In making visible some of my meaning-construction processes, I seek to engage

you, the reader, with an invitation to also critique my thinking and my decisions.

I concur with Bochner (2000) when he says, “I want a story that doesn’t just

refer to subjective life, but instead acts it out in ways that show me what life feels

like now and what it can mean.” Including these reflections allow me to act out

some of my experiences while also making the situational and the consequential

nature of social research visible.

Background and Theoretical Framework

While email-related research has quite a long history, interest in the social

aspects appears on the rise. In the mid-1990s, Fulk, Schmitz & Ryu (1995)

claimed that, “[n]ew media such as electronic mail are no longer so new in

organizations; they have been established features of everyday work environments.

Yet there remains a great need to understand how these media are

perceived and used within social and organizational contexts” (p. 259). By

1999, “[a]lthough e-mail does not have the same effect in every organization,

researchers agree that e-mail is significantly changing life in organizations”

(Minsky & Marin, p. 195). And by 2003, Tyler, Wilkinson & Huberman were

arguing that, “[e]mail has become the predominant means of communication …

it pervades business, social and technical exchanges and as such it is a highly

relevant area for research on communities and social networks” (Introduction

Section, para. 1).

Mainstream public commentators provide a more hyped-up view of what is

happening, for instance the phenomenon of the Cluetrain Manifesto (Levine,

Locke, Searls & Weinberger, 2000) seemed to strike an immediate chord by

tapping into a wellspring of excitement about the Internet. Originally created as

a document on a website in 1999 and then released as a book in 2000, the

Manifesto provides 95 theses which the authors declare to be the key to

business success in a digital world. The underlying premise is that markets are

conversations: interactive conversations with both customers and staff.

What we are seeing is that over time, a comprehensive and rich picture of email

is being constructed. Additional layers of complexity are revealed as email’s

varied relationships, interactions and uses unfold as an integral element within

organisational life. Ducheneaut & Bellotti (2001) have described email as

having become a place where many of us live; “as email captures an increasing

share of an organization’s total communication volume, individuals progressively

appropriate their email client as a habitat in which they spend most of their

work day” (p. 37).

The idea that email is merging into the space where we work (and even live) is

the directing framework for the project called Reinventing Email at the

Collaborative User Experience (CUE) Research Group, IBM Watson Research

Centre. Muller & Gruen (Researchers at CUE) contest the simplistic

notion that email only “serves as a tool for communication and collaboration

within organizations” and instead they argue that email itself can be “the object

of the collaboration.” Using examples such as an executive and their assistant

sharing access and responsibility for the same mail, they see users “discovering

new, unanticipated uses … [and] by using the technology to new purposes, they

‘reinvent’ it” (2003).

This perspective that users can (and do) reinvent the technology has some

association with Kiesler’s 1997 claim that there are different types of social

effects, i.e., mundane and significant. She claimed that technology could

amplify or transform social processes resulting in effects that are either:

• Mundane, where the technology simply amplifies or augments what

people have done in the past (by doing it more accurately, more quickly

or cheaply) or

• Significant, in that technology can transform how people think about the

world and enact their social roles within it.

This two level perspective had earlier been explored by Sproull & Kiesler

(1991) in their research using what they termed “first and second level effects”

that flow from the introduction of new information and communication technologies.

First level effects are primarily associated with increased efficiency and a

reduction in the costs of sharing information. Second level effects flow from the

unforeseen variations which the technology makes possible: new ways of

working and doing business, new ways of living and creating a community, and

especially new ways of thinking and learning. The consequences of second level

effects can dramatically extend beyond those of first level efficiency effects

(Sproull & Kiesler, 1991).

People are able to do new things that “leads to thinking in new ways and thereby

to fundamental changes in how people work and interact” (Sproull & Kiesler,

1991, p. 35). It is people’s behaviour, not just the attributes of the technology,

which determine whether a technology is amplifying or transformative (Kiesler,

1997, p. xii). Gómez (1998) explained that, “second level effects are generally

unanticipated, slow in emerging, and are related to changes in social patterns

and the interdependence among users” (p. 225).

Phillips & Eisenberg (1993, 1996) studied email use in a not-for-profit research

organisation associated with a university. They found that different email

strategies, from simple, direct requests to more complex manoeuvrings were

being used. In conclusion, they suggested “some of the features of email

encourage co-workers (but not so much supervisors) to put pressure on their

peers and to use the publicness of the information to force accountability”

(Phillips & Eisenberg, 1993).

The notion of users “rethinking” how email can be used and a move towards

these second level effects was evident in Kersten & Phillips (1992) early work

around email being used to manage impressions. They suggested email users

could integrate a range of different goal-directed behaviours that could be

considered as impression management strategies, for instance ingratiation, selfpromotion

and intimidation.

More recently, O’Sullivan (2000) has also studied how the role of impression

management impacts of interpersonal communication technology choice. Even

though his study concerned personal relationships rather than interactions at

work, his findings support the perspective that views the use of mediated

communication channels as a way of managing self-relevant information in

pursuit of self-presentational goals (p. 403). He concluded that in situations

where positive impressions may be threatened, using a mediated communication

channel (such as email) means that self-revelation could be more controlled,

which could be advantageous to the sender.

In a more general study of email use within four disparate organizations, Ruggeri

Stevens & McElhill (2000) have devised “a multi-dimensional ‘positioning’

model for practical use by managers” to explore their organisation’s present use

of email. The dimension, labelled People Influences, attempts to measure the

degree to which email is being used to serve individual needs compared to

group/corporate needs. They include the practice of sending copies of messages

to managers to force the main recipient into specific actions and the use

of email to safeguard a position (which their study respondents referred to as

a “Cover Your Backside” tactic) as examples of weaknesses on this dimension

(pp. 276-277).

The practice of duplicating information brings fresh challenges for both managers

and staff with increased potential for mismanagement and abuse. Schwartz

(2003) recently studied “the effects of mailing list mismanagement from the

user’s perspective at a research and teaching University.” He analysed the

impact of an error that resulted in two messages being cross-posted between

a voluntary moderated mailing list of 6,100 subscribers in 67 countries and a

much smaller mandatory unmoderated list consisting of 352 faculty members.

In the 11 days after the error, 31,680 unnecessary email messages passed

between the 352 members of the smaller list. Schwartz concluded that if you

assume “that each member spent only 45 seconds to download, read, and

delete each message, there were a total of 396 work-hours wasted.”

The possibilities that email opens up within organisational life appear to be both

significant and multifaceted and much remains to be discovered.