By Mark Harrington
and Charles V. Zehren
From early in the morning until late at night, Eileen Henning, a Glen Head mother of four and computer training specialist, finds herself tapping out missives on CompuServe, her Internet service provider, in order to keep connected with her busy, far-flung family.
There are e-mail postings for husband Rick at work, daughters Liz and Laura in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., son Rich in Massachusetts, and son Michael at Chaminade High in Mineola. Most things emotional or personal are still the province of the telephone, if they can't hold for a face-to-face meeting. But e-mail, she says, covers everything else -- from travel arrangements to recipes to jokes to files containing interesting news stories. It's as if they're all still at home, she says.
"I'm using e-mail more because everyone else is using it more," Henning said. "It allows all of us to stay closer together despite our crazy lives."
How significant is e-mail in our lives today?
Ask Eileen Henning, whose nuclear family -- like most in this day and age of constant job movement -- has been spread to the four corners of the country, if not the world. How disrupting is it when a virus hits?
Ask Sreenath Sreenivasan, an associate professor of new media studies at Columbia University, or Maria Allen, a corporate attorney at Manhattan .offices of Greenberg Traurig LLP. Sreenivasan woke early Thursday, but decided not to go to work because he had a headache and a sore throat. The solution? Work from home, of course, using his e-mail account to let everyone know where he was, and what he was doing.
He fired up the computer, jumped into e-mail and unwittingly opened up a file by a local television news director that read simply "ILOVEYOU." Before he knew what hit him, dozens of cherished digital photos of family members stored in his PC were destroyed by the Love Bug virus, which some research firms have said could have been carried by up to 45 million e-mails on Thursday alone.
Later, Sreenivasan learned he had passed on the virus to hundreds of others, including his wife's office colleagues. "It was so stupid! So embarrassing! I can't believe it," he said. "Of all people, I should do this! I'm still kicking myself."
For attorney Allen, whose time is money, the loss during the workday is a significant event. On Thursday, she said she found herself wasting hours on end printing out and faxing documents that she normally would send to clients with a click.
"When your whole e-mail system goes down, you just have to realize how much you rely upon it," Allen said. "I've had to do things the old-fashioned way, which is so time consuming." Worse, e-mail alerts that went out to partners across the country to cancel a meeting scheduled for Friday in New York never arrived at the destinations. Attorneys flew in from Washington, Florida and California to attend the meeting that was not to be.
"It's the primary way to communicate with clients and send documents," Allen said. "We represent a lot of high-tech companies and, for them, that's the way to communicate. It's quicker; it's also easier. I can be on the phone with .someone, and immediately send the document we're talking about."
How pervasive is e-mail?
Consider that nearly 900 billion individual e-mail messages were sent out in America in 1999, a number that is expected to hit 1.4 trillion this year, according to International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass. And that doesn't include so-called spam messages, mass e-mailings sent out by marketing firms.
According to the U.S. Post Office, the correspondence and transactions covered by e-mail and Web-based systems now account for a roughly $17 billion loss against the Post Office's $63 billion in annual revenue.
Spokesman Greg Frey, in Washington, D.C., says the service is well aware that this market segment is likely to shrink considerably in the years ahead, as a generation that grew up using e-mail and playing video games begins to generate income. The amount of first-class mail the postal service carries is projected to stop growing in the year 2003, he said, and begin declining for the first time ever after 2004.
E-mail is good, Frey said, "for everyday things." But he suggested that when people want correspondence to "mean something, people still write it out on paper, put a stamp on it, and send it."
But while people usually only have one box at home for their paper mail, they frequently have several e-mail accounts, experts say. Lauren Haywood, acting president and chief executive of the Electronic Messaging Association, for instance, notes that the average user has 1.5 e-mail boxes -- which can be both convenient and a pain in the neck, she says.
"Because e-mail has become so pervasive in our lives, it requires a lot more management," she said. "A lot of executives who can't handle the volume of mail have developed separate private e-mail accounts. It becomes a scheduling issue."
While 1.5 accounts may be an average, according to Haywood's group, other experts suggest the figure may be much higher because of the availablity of free e-mail at Web sites, from Yahoo! to Hotmail. Opening an account on these sites takes only a minute, these experts point out. Your identity is not verified and, since the accounts are administered on the Internet (rather than within an office), they can be accessed from anywhere at any time.
These are assets, many analysts suggest, that have been conducive to drawing in youngsters whose home and school e-mail can be surveyed by parents.
Hotmail.com, the Web's most widely used free e-mail service with 58 million registered users, has little way of knowing whether the names registered to accounts are real or fictitious. Robert Mendelsohn, a professor of sociology at South Dakota State University, remembers when the power of e-mail really struck him.
He had invited a controversial speaker to a class. The talk had so riled students that he had nine angry notes in his e-mail box by the time he walked back to his office. Those messages formed the basis of subsequent class discussion.
"There's a fundamentally democratic character about e-mail," he suggested. "I can e-mail very prominent people and get a response back close to immediately or that day. It's easy, so people tend to respond quickly, and to give an honest response."
He thinks the so-called "Love Bug" attacks are the first to bring home the idea that e-mail has now become as pervasive in our daily lives as television, radio, telephones and cars. "Previous attacks," he explained, "affected just the tech folks. Now technology is becoming part of everyone's life and therefore the effects of such e-mail attacks are ubiquitous. As technology spreads, we all become vulnerable in our own homes."
But Rob Enderle, an analyst with Giga Information Systems, a Norwell, Mass., research firm, said there is a light at the end of the virus tunnel. While damaging for the short term, viruses like the "Love Bug" ultimately wind up benefiting the defenses of computer users that deal with them.
"It's raised the importance of having adequate practices in place" to thwart such infiltrations, he said. Even "malicious mischief on a grand scale" isn't enough to impede the growth of e-mail, Enderle added. "You don't change behavior like that. People now want things immediately."
Ask Michael Barson, a veteran book publicist who represents the works of such top authors as Tom Clancy and Robert B. Parker. Barson, 49, says he receives, answers and initiates up to 60 e-mails a day in his office at G.P. Putnam's Sons in New York.
"I communicate with a lot of authors this way, as well as bookstores and more and more book reviewers," he said. "I keep my e-mail on my computer screen all day long. That way I can deal with things immediately once I see an e-mail has arrived."
Barson admits he was not an early adopter of e-mail, dating the start of his e-mail usage to 18 months ago. But now, just a short year-and-a-half later, "I totally rely on it," he said.
Staff writers Paul Colford and Pradnya Joshi contributed to this report.