In cyberspace, e-mail addresses act like virtual spectators

If you address an e-mail to several people at the same time, you should not expect an enthusiastic response

Mass alone does not make the difference. The meaning of this saying has now been proven true for e-mail traffic as well. If you ever thought it was a good idea to send e-mails to more people for urgent questions, you are mistaken.

Because the recipient of an e-mail apparently also wants to have his uniqueness confirmed. If he sees himself as one among many, his desire to answer dwindles considerably. Greg barron, a psychologist at the technion technology institute in haifa, israel, has investigated the behavior of e-mail recipients. In the new scientist of coming saturday he reports now that who pushes urgent requests snappily packed as form letter into the cyberspace, no satisfying answers will get: "each addressee will ame that the other helps."

For their behavioral test, greg barron and his colleague eldad yechiam set up a yahoo account for a fictitious student named sarah feldman. They then sent e-mails to 240 researchers, administrators and students of the technion technology institute asking whether the institute had a biology faculty. The addressees were divided into two groups. Group one received an e-mail in which only their own name appeared in the address field, group two could see in the address field that four other people had received the same e-mail. The result: only half of those whose names were listed in the address field answered at all; among those who were addressed alone, the rate was 74 percent. The latter also took the most time to respond, with nearly a third of them providing answers that barron and yechiam described as "very helpful" because they were able to get more than a simple "yes, there is a biology department" also contained further information. In the other group, this was only the case for a meager 16 percent. Here, rather rude advice to the fictional sarah in the style of "go to the web page and look it up yourself" prevailed.

Barron compares this behavior to onlookers at the scene of a crime. They no longer feel obliged to intervene if other people are still there.

In cyberspace, e-mail addresses are like virtual bystanders, so there may be ambiguity about responsibility.

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