Don’t look back in anger

I used to get mad. Then someone told me that animals get mad, but humans get angry. And now IT users get Web rage.

They’re on the warpath again, these enraged knowledge workers, smashing their keyboards and in some cases physically assaulting their neighbours. I am advocating an end to

the carnage and calling for a kinder, gentler enterprise technology environment. I won’t sink to their abusive level, but I’m prepared to channel my own aggressive energy into combating this cycle of violence. That’s right: this is a throwdown.

My incentive comes from a recently released study of Web rage by a U.K.-based polling firm called Market & Opinion Research International. More than half of the Internet users who took part in the survey said they experienced Net-related frustration on a weekly basis, and one out of 10 users said they deal with it daily.

This is by no means the first study of its kind. Frustration with technology has been a regular source of fodder for the lifestyle section of daily newspapers since PCs entered the mainstream. Usually these stories are given headlines like “”Rage Against the Machine,”” and they document the sob stories of disgruntled IT neophytes who haven’t yet learned how to print. They talk about hollering at the PC as though it were an incompetent servant, and dream of throwing the monitor through their living-room window.

It’s worse in the workplace. We’ve all seen people seethe at their inability to perform what seemed like simple computing tasks, forcing us to drop our duties to become a sort of on-the-spot counselling service. Yesterday I got a phone call from a co-worker who was crying because her PC crashed after she had spent more than an hour writing an important document in a browser. You can offer advice (such as: never write an important document in a browser) but usually not at the time, because you’re forced to cope with the emotional crisis.

It is obviously upsetting to lose work or to be impaired from conducting your business, but the Market & Opinion Research study suggests the rage is escalating. Seven per cent of respondents said they hit their equipment. Four per cent pound on their desks, while two per cent said they’ve actually hit the person who sits next to them. All this because, most respondents said, a Web page didn’t load fast enough.

Web rage followed fast on the heels of road rage, and the analogy is clear. Like car owners, Web surfers deal with traffic, but unlike someone stuck on a highway, you get stuck and have no idea when you’ll be free. That’s why you take it out on the hardware. The Market & Opinion Research results closely match that of a study conducted two years ago by Roper Starch Worldwide, which said it takes only 12 minutes of fruitless searching before Web rage is unleashed.

Maybe we all occasionally get fed up with our IT systems, but calling it Web rage is too easy. There was a time during the mid-’90s when the volume of confessional memoirs and talk show diatribes created a “”victim”” culture. This emphasis has since shifted to a culture in which a few people can now get away with what is actually a run of the mill temper tantrum. The numbers indicate as much. The two per cent of Web rage “”victims”” who hit people, for example, do not indicate a large mass of clinically unbalanced IT users. They are employees who deserve a reprimand, not a diagnosis.

There are many things the industry needs to do to make technology easier to use, and there is certainly a gap between how some IT experts view “”simplicity”” compared to the average corporate customer. That’s not an excuse for unprofessional conduct, for which the use of “”Web rage”” makes too many allowances. Before they lash out again, someone needs to tell the Web ragers to get a grip on themselves.

sschick@plesman.com

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