Factors determining the formation of e-mail communities in a university class
This thesis is an attempt to explain some of the factors impacting on e-mail adoption and use in undergraduates. It is an extended case study, and therefore real world based, spanning eight years from 1993 to 2001, the population under scrutiny being five cohorts of undergraduates studying Psychology at a Scottish University. In a time of rapid technological advance, where computer experience is rising, access to computers is widespread, and IT training is compulsory for students in the institution under investigation, e-mail use has changed too. However, an unexpected drop in e-mail use during the 1996/97 session seemed to be atypical and led the original focus of the thesis away from individual differences such as computer experience, computer related attitudes, gender and personality, towards social and situational factors. Careful observation of the 1993/94 and 1994/95 cohorts’ e-mail behaviour, using surveys, e-mail logs, and examination of e-mail messages, provided insight into the unique nature of the e-mail environment for these groups. The final conclusions of the thesis are that what appeared to be small features of the e-mail system, and the nature of the computer laboratories where access was restricted to the class, provided the requirements for an e-mail community to form. Some significant results were found for individual differences, and these had some effect on the adoption of mail by the earliest users (those who really instigated the network) but a minimal effect on eventual e-mail use with the class. A group of enthusiastic e-mail users, with very little training in the system, began to mail either groups of classmates, or individuals, making use of the system’s list of class e-mail addresses, and the list of users logged on to the system. These were speculative messages to unknown recipients but they were to individuals the senders knew they had some common interest with as they were in the same social group (the class). The mail was mainly of a social nature, often almost synchronous, and obviously enjoyable to those who adopted the novel technology. The e-mail messages revealed evidence of ‘playfulness’ in the exchanges ranging from the use of nicknames in headers, signatures, and distribution of poetry, song lyrics, jokes and graphics. The class was large and forming e-mail relationships was one way of ‘meeting’ others. This behaviour was missing in the 1996/97 sample, when e-mail was not available in the computer laboratories. E-mail was available throughout the campus but the computer laboratory became a place for work only, and not for communication with classmates. In the 1999/00 and 2001/02 cohorts there is still no evidence of an electronic community forming in the class, despite even more computers being available for e-mail. Changeover to a university-wide e-mail system for students has removed the features that were so important to the formation of the network in the 1993/94 and 1994/95 cohorts.