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Jane Wakefield: Hear the email generation calling

Email remains our favourite Internet toy - but for how long?
Written by Jane Wakefield, Contributor

Email has had something of a bad press recently, implicated in countless sackings and causing poor old Clair Swires never to be able to swallow anything again without being reminded that the whole world knows what her favourite snack is.

Now email has lead to murder.

Enraged by reading the sexually explicit conversation between her lover and a woman in Las Vegas, Jane Andrews is alleged to have set upon him with a cricket bat and a carving knife. The catalyst to this rage appears to have been a series of emails, one describing her in unflattering terms as a "pair of old slippers".

While being likened to an item of footwear is bound to make someone a little bit upset, it seems it was the sexy replies from the US lover which made her really mad. Had she realised anything about the nature of cybersex she might have understood that this email relationship was no cause for jealousy -- the woman in Las Vegas was just as likely to be a 54-year-old truck driver as a beautiful rival.

Email is the single biggest success story of the Net. As the dot-coms crash around it and executives spared from the fall close their eyes very tightly every night and pray that people will start clicking on ads and buying things on the Net, email shows no signs of losing popularity.

Except, perhaps, with paranoid managers worried that one of their team will be the next Claire Swires or that they will accidentally send an email saying "Our boss smells" to the, er, boss. And judging by research from Gartner they may well have cause to worry, with the average worker spending nearly an hour a day absorbed in email.

To make up for lost time, Gartner suggests managers train employees to use email "more efficiently" and to refrain from unnecessary replies such as "Glad to be of help". This somewhat ignores the nature of email and why it has been such a huge hit across the globe. Email is not particularly efficient because it is a form of communication and some people will write long, boring and unnecessary messages, others will write terse business-like to-the-point missives, some will write inconsequential rubbish while yet others will send mail that puts a smile on your face for the next week and a half.

While the Internet may prove a dauntingly large and empty place for many, email strikes a chord with even the greatest technophobe. It is about communication rather than technology, an idea that Internet companies have desperately been trying to emulate as a soundbite for their latest piece of software or e-commerce solution. But while the link between a boring piece of corporate software and communication is tenuous to say the least, email has communication at its heart and soul.

Sometime though, email tells us more than we want to know. Claire Swires might with justification accuse Bradley Chait of telling the world a little too much about their relationship and any soap fan who received the email telling everyone who shot Phil Mitchell just hours before the top secret plot was broadcast on Eastenders would also be justified in raising their fist at their mailbox.

Generally, though, email is something of a comfort to us: while bosses worry about the amount of time we spend in our mail clients, perhaps they should consider the fact that being able to chat to your friends halfway through the working day or flirting gently with the girl from sales that you have been drooling over for the past decade is more likely to keep us smiling happily at our desks than any form of pension or healthcare scheme ever could.

Remember those corporate balls that used to sit on shiny desks in the eighties keeping bored executives happy for hours -- well, minutes at least? Well, the naughties will see a new executive toy that sits on our desktops rather than our desks. The beauty of instant messaging is that, unlike the balls, you can pretend it isn't a toy but a necessary extension of our communications network and working day.

Generally, instant messaging is just a way of speaking to our mates in real time. It brings a whole new meaning to multi-tasking as it is possible (I know because I have done it) to have twenty or more IMs on the go at one time. The only thing you have to watch is that you don't send your boss the joke about nuns while telling your mate that yes, I would be extremely happy to crawl up your arse, Mr Jenkins.

The communications revolution is well and truly underway at work even if at home the majority of us are still relying on slow connections that clog up completely if someone emails us a large attachment.

Of course it is not just email that employers are worried about. Internet access and how much we should be allowed at work is also a bone of contention among firms across Europe. Employees are being sacked left, right and centre for a variety of crimes with a shocking array of severity. While one firm may ask you to pack your bags if they catch you booking your holiday online during your lunch hour another may well allow you to surf as many porn sites as you like drawing the line only if animals are involved.

Councillors in Richmond have called on the council -- which tactfully refused to identify an individual reprimanded for logging onto porn sites on one of the council's laptops -- to name and shame the culprit, fed up with the giggles and nudges every time one of them attends a public meeting.

Surfing the Internet and sending out ill-advised emails is a minefield for all firms and one that is allowing a whole bunch of lawyers to be able to afford that second four week holiday in Tuscany each year. It is a subject in urgent need of legal clarification as, according to the London Chamber of Commerce, 44 percent of UK firms currently have no email or Internet policy.

Conflicting pieces of government legislation -- the Human Rights Act on the one hand saying everyone should be nice to one another and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers saying that everyone is plotting evil and needs to be watched closely -- make it unlikely that any official guidelines about email and Internet monitoring in the workplace will be published until the end of the year.

Enjoy your surfing while you can.

Each generation seems to bring with it a new title. We have had the baby boomers, the generation that has grown up in the shadow of the Cold War, the X-generation, the MTV generation. There was even a lost generation (although I have forgotten which decade they came in and why they were lost). With email, instant messaging and texting now all part of the fabric of life we have a new clued-up bunch of kids to take its place in history -- the communication generation.

We can only hope that all this communication just a click away will help to rescue them from the angst and isolation experienced by their predecessors. Perhaps the communication tools the industry loves to tell us will radically alter all our lives, will have a more down-to-earth but profound effect, allowing the next generation to be found rather than lost.

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