In 2008, 28-year-old Mary Farrell interviewed for a position as an addictions counselor at a counseling center in Buffalo, NY. She was offered the job and left a similar position in Baltimore, MD to accept the new post.
On her first day, Farrell learned that she would not be able to access the Internet. In fact, the counseling center’s tight budget meant Farrell would not be able to have a personal computer.
“When you start a job, you assume that you will have a computer, that it will be a given,” says Farrell. “In the year and a half that I’ve been there, I’ve brought it up no less than 20 times, even during our annual review. I keep asking: when is this going to change? My boss told me to give it a few more years.”
At her previous job, Farrell completed almost all administrative tasks online. She could even log contact notes from patient meetings.
At her current job, Farrell is definitely the youngest person in her office, and she admits that she is the only one who complains about the lack of Internet. Every day, she must complete a significant amount of paperwork by hand.
“I think my handwriting is really good since that’s all I do all day,” says Farrell. “I worry that I’m going to lose my computer typing skills because I’m hardly ever on the computer.”
The hardest part about working at a counseling center without Internet access is finding resources for patients. Sometimes locating a phone number or address can be a grueling task. Says Farrell, “Most people in my office use a phone book. A major aspect of my job is locating resources for patients. I might need to find a list of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or outpatient counseling centers. Having access to the Internet would make things much more efficient and make a lot more sense.”
While Farrell could benefit from Internet access for practical reasons, many young people can’t imagine spending their work day without the Internet simply because they can’t sit still for eight hours. The Internet is a great distraction, and it can help refresh the creative brain. Facebook, Twitter, Google Reader, and Pandora are all websites that can break up the monotony of a highly-structured work day.
But even before the creation of social networking sites, workers welcomed most distractions: reading material, cigarettes, and conversations with coworkers.
Ken Denney from Atlanta, GA was a news reporter and editor at a major southeastern newspaper between 1979 and 1986. He says, “In the late 1980s, those of us who were bored at our desk could look at Associated Press stories as they came over the wire, or read long feature stories that would be stored on the AP system for future use by its member newspapers. Needless to say, the diversity of that material was nothing compared to the Internet.”
In the 1980s, the decade during which many young people who today can’t imagine work life without the Internet were born, offices were buzzing with strange jargon and phrases that signaled significant changes in connectivity and communication: ditto masters, photocopying slide materials on acetate, and ARPANET, the earliest version of the Internet as we know it today.
Before e-mail mishaps and employees terminated for inappropriate content posted to Facebook, employees wrote memos and spoke on the phone.
Says Rob Bedell, owner of Bedell Media & Consulting, “In some ways, it worked better before the Internet. It was easier to understand a person’s tone and there was less of a chance for misinterpretation. There were still distractions, though. A co-worker might have wanted to tell you every detail about their life, and it was harder to avoid them since they were in front of you.”
Wanda Fischer, a public information officer from Albany, NY has watched technology change and evolve in the workplace since 1968, when she began working as a secretary at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“We spent a great deal of time on the phone, writing messages on little pink slips, and trying to keep track of the people who worked with us,” says Fischer. “We had an overhead paging system, similar to what they have in schools today. We hand-logged every memo and piece of correspondence we sent out. We did have a computer, but it was the size of an average living room. It broke down at least twice a day.”
Fischer even explained a process that she called “secretarial surgery”. If she had to correct a typewritten sentence, she would re-type the paragraph, manually cut and paste the new paragraph over the old one, and then tape it onto the page. She hid the tape lines by “painting” over the tape edges with Wite-Out (“the greatest thing ever”) and photocopying the doctored page.
Imagine putting that much effort into an e-mail. With Gmail, an employee can write and then discard a draft of an e-mail with the simple click of a button. Gmail users can “undo” an e-mail, even after it’s been sent.
Many people who have witnessed the rapid embrace of the Internet are certain that it saves time, energy, and resources. Says Fischer, “Things were very different before the Internet. If we needed to do research, we had to take a trip to the library and look up information on index cards in the card catalogue and then find the book listed on the card and check it out. We often had to look at old newspapers on microfilm on very old-fashioned microfilm readers.”
Regardless, some employers argue that the Internet is a huge time-waster for employees. They will install firewalls to prevent employees from surfing social networking sites and enforce strict policies for unrelated and/or inappropriate Internet use.
Sierra Webb is a 27-year-old public relations specialist for the town of Apple Valley, CA. Her employer restricts Internet access with Barracuda, a firewall program. Says Webb, “Even while using a personal laptop, if we log on to the free wireless network, we are still blocked from anything like social networking or e-mail sites.”
She does not have Internet access at home but does own a BlackBerry, which she thinks is sufficient.
“After spending nine hours a day on a computer at work (mostly offline, even though some Internet use like website maintenance, research, and purchasing is necessary), the last thing I want to do when I get home is turn on a computer,” says Webb. “I avoid it as much as I can in my personal life now. If I need Internet access I can just go down to the local coffee shop, frozen yogurt shop, or book store.”
To remain competitive, media and communications companies have always employed cutting-edge technology. Modern publishing companies would not survive if they printed books on the original Gutenberg press. For people who work at these companies, access to the Internet can either help or hinder their ability to do their jobs.
“We had individual PCs on our desk hooked to a mainframe, and we even had an internal messaging system (but it was not called e-mail). The only connectivity we had with the outside world was through the Associated Press newswire,” says Denney, who believes his newsroom of the 1980s was technologically advanced for its time.
These days, with downsized newsrooms, underpaid journalists, and newsroom employees taking on more tasks, reporters may not be as dedicated to their beats as they have been in the past. Some rely on shortcuts like Help a Reporter Out. Others even use Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites to find sources and story ideas.
“We were expected to get out of the office and patrol our beats. I covered the police station and the courthouse, so I spent a good part of my day in both locations, stopping back in the office to write up my stories,” says Denney. “I believe some reporters still work this way, but my impression is that most do not and instead sit in the office and field e-mails with only occasional excursions into the real world. This, I think, has harmed journalism in the long run.”
Given the growing importance of social networking for business, marketing and public relations professionals at companies that use firewalls sometimes request special access to social networks and other restricted websites. Without access to these sites, they may be missing vital opportunities.
“While Barracuda blocks us at times, we have a process by which our information systems staff can give us access to a particular site with supervisor approval,” says Webb. “So basically, if I need access to do my job, I can request it and get around the block.”
Farrell is going to keep asking for Internet until she gets it, even if she has to ask for years.
Says Farrell, “I definitely miss the Internet. Only a month after I started my job, I upgraded to a BlackBerry. I can’t stand to not get e-mails during the day.”