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On Gchat, everyone can hear you scream

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When another Gmail user e-mails you, he or she automatically appears on your Gchat "buddy list," and vice versa. You suddenly find yourself with a permanent on-screen window into the other's life--for better or worse. (Photo by Danielle Friedman/CNS)

When Reena Watts signs in to her Gmail account, her eyes go straight to the lower-left-hand corner of her inbox—to her Gchat “buddy list”—to check out who’s online.

There she spots the regulars: the neighbor who says she always needs a nap. Friends from her old job in television. Her parents and their adorable joint e-mail address. Her Orthodox rabbi.

Yes, her rabbi.

The rabbi first popped up on the list a few months ago, after the stay-at-home mom sent an e-mail to her Northern California synagogue to get information about her membership dues. The next thing she knew, there he was, hanging out in her Gchat sidebar, all-present, all-knowing, like the Almighty himself—or so it felt.

For Watts, her once user-friendly e-mail service had gone a gigabite too far.

In just a few years, Gmail has become a far-reaching, ubiquitous presence in the online world. We all use it, and most of us love it. It currently boasts 113 million users worldwide, according to comScore research. But it turns out the mail program has a unique quirk that’s causing weird levels of discomfort: When another Gmail user e-mails you, he or she automatically appears on your Gchat “buddy list,” and vice versa. You become a part of each other’s Gchat family, so to speak, and find yourself with a permanent on-screen window into the other’s life.

Watts became (understandably) self-conscious when her rabbi showed up on her list. “I don’t necessarily want him to know how much time I spend online,” the 29-year-old says. And she began to worry: Will he judge me, quietly concluding that I’m wasting my life and “should be doing something a bit more holy?”

So Watts didn’t take any chances. Now when she sees her rabbi on Gchat, she often goes “invisible,” meaning he can’t see whether she’s online or not. And for safe measure, she keeps her status message virtuous: “loves her 2 men,” it currently reads, referring to her husband and son.

But the damage is done the moment you click Send, whether an e-mail is to your old college roommate or from that guy on Craigslist who wants to buy your couch. To Gmail, everyone’s a buddy.

Because of this default setting, millions have become privy to the daily routines (as revealed by green, red and orange dots) and passing thoughts (as typed out in status messages) of people with whom we have only formal or fleeting relationships. We know when people are at their desks and when they’re awake at 2 a.m.; we question why someone chose to have a tuna melt instead of a burrito, “as usual,” for lunch. We’re now able to instantly chat with people who might otherwise have asked us to make an old-fashioned appointment.

“The idea is that if you e-mail someone consistently, that person becomes a contact that you may want to communicate with in a different format or way,” says Leon Kotlyar, a spokesman for Google. (Kotlyar clarifies that “Gchat” is not the official name for the instant-message service, by the way, but the colloquial one—it’s technically called “chat in Gmail.”) This model is in line with what the online giant calls its “communication continuum,” a platform that allows users to move from one tool to another seamlessly.

But many don’t want a continuum. They prefer boundaries.

In this particular case, we can simply adjust our Gmail settings or block a contact once he or she has been added. But many Gchatters don’t want to offend or take the time or even know that these controls are possible. And so they find themselves navigating uncharted interpersonal territory.

For Heather Brown, a 25-year-old graphic designer living in Cape Town, South Africa, an uncomfortable Gchat conversation with her boss reinforced her belief that the tool is best reserved for friends and family—that boundaries matter.

Brown was a week away from leaving her job at an advertising agency when her boss suggested they talk via Gchat. He’d been out of the office visiting a client, and he wanted to touch base. She felt reluctant but said “fine.” In this case, the two weren’t even on each other’s buddy list—they had to take the extra step of adding each other.

Brown’s relationship with her boss was a formal one, and he was more than a decade her senior, so she wondered how such a “chatty,” by nature, conversation would unfold. She soon got her answer: awkwardly.

It began smoothly enough, but gradually, an alter ego seemed to emerge in her boss—a chat persona, as she describes it.

He went from talking about work to joking around, she says. “He was talking to me like he was a friend, being buddy-buddy.” It was disorienting. The conversation dragged on, in fits and starts, all morning. She compares the experience to being out with her friends for drinks then having her boss come over, say “hi,” and sit down. Then as now, she prefers to limit her Gchat use to more social purposes.

Yet some have no problem crossing hierarchical lines, in either direction.

For Margaret Soltan, an English professor at George Washington University, Gchat is wonderful for connecting with students outside of class.

Over the years, the tech-savvy teacher has accumulated dozens of students on her Gchat list, and she chats with them frequently. While not all realize that she can “see” them until she pings them for the first time—which, to be sure, can catch some off guard—she occasionally uses the tool to coordinate conferences or discuss letters of recommendation when time is tight. It’s convenient, she says.

Soltan also likes perusing students’ status messages. “They give me a little window” into them, she says. “They are like little mini-diaries of student life.”

Sometimes Soltan takes her observations a step further: When she spots a misspelling, she isn’t shy about pointing it out. “I’ll Gchat them and say, ‘Revise your message!’” she says, laughing. She tells them she’s joking a few seconds later—but they’re usually apologetic and a little embarrassed.

“I suppose you’re vulnerable to this kind of thing,” Soltan says. “Your crazy English professor bursts in and tells you to fix your spelling error!”

For many, having the power to peer into others’ lives can bring temptation and frustration. Perhaps most commonly, Gmail users report sending an e-mail then becoming baffled and aggravated when the recipient doesn’t respond for hours—yet is clearly online, checking his or her Gmail account, as indicated by the glowing green “available” dot next to his or her name. The urge to send a quick “follow-up” chat can be intense.

Yet with great power comes great responsibility.

“There is a social etiquette” to Gchat, says Eric Kuhn, a new-media consultant who writes on the topic for The Huffington Post. “And if you break that social etiquette, remember, you can be blocked.”

Indeed, the threat always looms—though who’s to say whether it’s a punishment or a reward?

Maybe your rabbi.

E-mail: daf2132@columbia.edu