CrackBerrys: Exploring the Social Implications of Wireless Email Devices

author: JoAnne Yates, Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: Jan. 6, 2014,   recorded: June 2007,   views: 2168

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Fast-moving managers are finding that their most cherished high-tech gadget may actually be their worst enemy. JoAnne Yates reviews recent research into the evolving, dysfunctional affair between human and Blackberry. An in-depth glimpse at one company, complete with 48-hour Blackberry email logs and spouse interviews reveals a number of paradoxes, according to Yates. Key among them is the reported passion many users feel for a device that can connect them to their work 24/7, a device that can send alerts every few minutes that something needs to be dealt with. Yates and her colleagues looked at this firm,which had racked up four years of Blackberry usage, and found some typical patterns: People checked for messages quite frequently, but tended to respond in batches, and not immediately (unless the need was urgent). Blackberrys were used at weekend soccer games, at the symphony, and in one unhappy home, where a spouse didn’t enjoy its pervasive presence, “in a bathroom with the door closed.”

Yates found a number of contradictory responses among Blackberry jockeys: Users felt both controlled by the constant flood of messages, and in control via their power to not respond when ‘messaged.’ There’s also the “stress paradox,” where Blackberry users stay in constant contact so as to “not miss something that’s blowing up,” but over time find it impossible ever to disengage from the device, even on vacation. Spouses found their partners distracted and sometimes disabled by the ever-present Blackberry (some mentioned waking up at 3 a.m. to find their partners checking for messages). In sum, says Yates, interaction with Blackberrys cuts users off from the real outside world of families and non-work activities.

And, says Yates, while the Blackberry may facilitate workplace efficiency and autonomy, it “shifts expectations of availability.” When everyone in a firm keeps a Blackberry as constant companion, the temptation to send messages during evening and other downtime hours grows. There is “escalating commitment and dependence on the Blackberry, a spiral of expectations and feeling constantly on call.” The work day simply has no end.

Yates’ recommended antidote to the stress, addiction and disengagement that can accompany Blackberry use is for individuals and organizations to put the Blackberry in its place. Establish rules all must follow, such as outlawing Blackberrys during meetings and eliminating 3 a.m. emails. “If you’re an insomniac, do email, but batch and hold, send them at 7 a.m.,” suggests Yates.

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