E-mail is necessary, fun, but very addictive

I just checked my e-mail. Zero messages. How depressing.

Electronic mail is a funny thing. I, like many college students, was introduced to the whole concept of e-mail when I came to this grand institution of higher learning. Like most students, I started running to the computer lab every hour to see what new chain letters and messages from my friends were waiting in my "in" box. One day, I went to the lab three times before the screen gave me that anticipated message: "You have 1 new mail message." That one message sure made those trips worthwhile.

But, after a semester of computer labs, it was time to step up to the big time. I got my own computer so I could check my e-mail anytime - even while I was watching "The Price is Right," when I should have been in class. Boy, was I lazy. And soon, I was evolving to the point where I would have two, maybe even three messages waiting for me when I typed in that password. Now, I'm averaging 15 to 20 messages between log-ins - definitely moving up in the world. I've met people who have told me they get more than 60 messages a day. I think it's an ego thing - who's got the fastest car, who's got the biggest house, and now, who's got the most messages.

While I am proud of the fair number of messages I receive, I do fear that I am slowly becoming addicted. Last weekend, I went home to Phoenix, and the first thing I wanted to do was check my e-mail.

"Could I use your computer?" I asked my brother.

"Sure. What do you want to do?" he asked.

"Just check my e-mail," I told him.

He let out a brief chuckle and asked, "How are you going to do that?"

Realizing where I was, "Shoot! Don't you have a modem?" I asked.

"No!" he told me, amused at the fact that I was either loosing my mind or getting terribly frustrated. It was both.

And there I sat for the next 42 hours. I was electronically stranded in the middle of a bustling metropolis.

What worried me even more is, if I can't survive a weekend without checking my e-mail, what would I do if I had to give it up for good? What would I do without the handful of mailing lists I subscribe to? How on Earth would I communicate with friends at distant colleges? And, dear God, how would I possibly make it through a week without a chain letter to forward to my friends?!

But regardless of how addicted I have become to electronic communication, I have also seen how e-mail can go so very, very wrong. It all started earlier this year, when I responded to a simple question on the Daily Wildcat's mailing list. Within hours, it had become a debate with the paper's managing editor, and within days, it had become an electronic yelling match. But that wasn't the real problem. The really sad part was that the whole time we had been yelling at each other through e-mail, we had been sitting at our desks, no more than 20 yards from each other. Not once did we get up and verbally communicate. We let our fingers do the talking.

It was at that point when I realized I could not let e-mail rule my life. I am very dependent on it, and that's one thing. I may need my morning mail worse than I need that first cup of coffee, but I am still pressing the keys and controlling the flow of electrons. I have friends, however, who I think are on the verge of losing control. They stay up at all hours of the night reading their mail, chatting on IRC and seeking out people on-line to send messages to. I think every university needs a chapter of IA - Internetters Anonymous.

But until a friend comes up to me and says, "Joe, we need to talk about your problem," I will remain in the carpool lane of the information superhighway, waiting for someone else to tell me to "e-mail them" at "blah-blah at blah-blah-blah dot e dee you." Oh, how those sounds still soothe me. Who cares if the Postal Service wants to raise the price of a stamp?

Joseph Altman Jr.