But in a new study supported by the National Science Foundation, an Ohio State University sociologist is trying to discover how e-mail has changed - or hasn't changed - the way people interact around the world.
"What we're trying to do is map the social connections that link people together through e-mail," said James Moody, assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State and leader of "The Electronic Small World Project."
"We want to understand how information flows through e-mail, how different people are connected, and how small the social world we live in really is."
The study involves having e-mail users complete an online survey that asks them a variety of demographic questions, such as their age, sex, race, education, marital status and employment. It then asks about their use of e-mail, including to whom they e-mail and how often they communicate. Participants also answer questions about the nature of their e-mail relationships.
So far, about 500 people have completed the online survey. The ambitious goal is to have a half-million people complete the survey.
Moody, who has studied the nature of social networks among teenagers and among neighbors, said he is interested in seeing how electronic relationships are similar to and different from those in the physical world.
"This is all new. There have been no other large-scale studies that I know of that looked at global relationships on e-mail. But in offline relationships, like those in high school, we have found that relationships are dynamic, they change a lot. One goal is to see if that is in the same with e-mail relationships."
Moody said he will contact people a year after they have completed the survey to see how their e-mail relationships have grown and changed over time.
One goal of the project is to test some of the assumptions people have made about online communication. For example, some researchers have suggested that online relationships can break down barriers of race and sex and economics because those characteristics aren't obvious over the Internet. But has this promise been fulfilled?
"This is an exploratory study, so we don't know the answers to these questions. But my suspicion is that there are still going to be economic and racial divisions, even over e-mail," he said. "My basic hypothesis is that online relationships are going to look a lot like face-to-face relationships in terms of whom we associate with."
However, it is also likely that e-mail is making the world a smaller place in some ways, Moody says. In one famous study done in the 1960s, Stanley Milgram found that Americans were only about six acquaintances away from anyone else in the country. This concept was made famous in the play "Six Degrees of Separation" by John Guare.
Moody said it is possible that e-mail has shortened that distance by making it easy for us to create and maintain relationships with people who are geographically distant.
"We see this phenomenon when we receive the same e-mail joke from a dozen different people we know. Millions of us are getting the same message that all started at one place. This suggests we're pretty well connected. This study will help to measure this connection."
As well as answering important questions about the nature of social networks online, Moody said The Electronic Small World Project will also yield practical benefits. One benefit could be to better understand how computer viruses spread and how to prevent them from running amuck.
"Just as it is easy to spread a joke over the internet, it is also easy to spread viruses," he said. "If we can understand the nature of these communication networks, we can learn how viruses spread and what we can do to help prevent them."
In addition, he said the research may lead to better ways to share and find information. Everyone who uses e-mail has knowledge that may be useful to someone else. Moody said if we better understand the structure of e-mail networks, we may develop ways to tap that information. "It is just a matter of connecting the right people."
Once the study is complete, Moody said participants will be able to go to the website and see how their e-mail relationships compare to those of others and see the pattern of connections throughout the world.
"New forms of technology can transform how people interact," Moody said. "We want to find out the role e-mail has had in transforming communication."