'Communication Overload' May Be Real For Some People, Study Shows

December 04, 1997

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- While e-mail, voice mail, faxes, Web browsers and other electronic communication tools have made it easier to transmit and receive information, some users of these technologies report that life in the information fast lane is running them down.

Initial results from a study conducted at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois indicate that "communication overload" may indeed be a real problem for some people. In the NCSA study, individuals who use electronic communications reported more total communications than those who use only more "traditional" methods (392 per week versus 247).

"E-mail users also tend to overestimate their usage [number of messages sent and received], further suggesting a communication overload," said Alaina Kanfer, manager of NCSA's Technology Research Group and director of the study, which was supported in part by Nortel (Northern Telecom). "We may begin to feel that we are doing more work without actually getting more done."

Kanfer's speculation is based on preliminary results of the study, which analyzed in detail the communications of 60 community leaders in Champaign County (Ill.) over the course of a week. Participants were divided into two camps: high-volume e-mail users, and those who don't use e-mail. Using a paper diary and a hand-held electronic device, participants documented every communication they had -- face-to-face conversations, phone calls, e-mail, letters, etc. They also recorded information about their relationships to those with whom they communicated.

Kanfer said the study is different from past studies in that it doesn't just focus on communications within a single organization, but on "how technology is changing an individual's entire communications network." Among the changes documented by the researchers: "We've thought that e-mail opens the world for us, and we've tried using electronic communications to support distance relationships, especially at work -- with virtual workgroups, etc.," Kanfer said. "But until now, we've had no hard evidence to suggest that e-mail can, in fact, support these distant ties. Here we have such evidence, which also indicates that our ability to overcome distances in relationships comes with a potential cost -- to our local network of contacts closer to home."

To address that problem, Kanfer expects new electronic tools will be developed to support local communities and communications. In addition, she said, "we will see more attention to and training about when to use different communication media -- such as, don't e-mail all the time just because you can."Kanfer said she expects more results will be available by the end of the year. Those and current findings can be accessed at http://www.ncsa.uiuc.edu/edu/trg/email.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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