Reality Bytes: Real-Time Angst

BOSTON (05/31/2000) - The Internet has garnered a lot of ink for its ability to empower the lowly individual. Whether it's haggling for the best price on a 2000 BMW Z3 or hunting down a first edition of The Grapes of Wrath, the internet can put people smack in the middle of transactions that were formerly handled by specialized professionals.

But there's a downside to this newfound power. Now that we have the ability to check stock portfolios, monitor every caprice of online auctions and get up-to-the-minute sports scores, many of us are becoming obsessive control freaks. We agonize over every blip in the market, compulsively check eBay Inc. to make sure we're not missing out on a good deal and furtively monitor the goings-on at Mercata in the hope of saving a few bucks. We may indeed be more informed and enjoy more power in transactions, but at the same time we're losing control of our lives.

The result is frustration, anxiety, even a sense of nagging despair. I know.

I've experienced these feelings firsthand. There was a time not too long ago when I was satisfied with the monthly statements I received from my investment company. Although the information was already a week out of date by the time the statements appeared in my mailbox, I didn't care. I knew I could check the value of my account daily by using a Touch-Tone service, but I didn't indulge myself much. The periodic statements seemed to reinforce the idea of investing for the long haul. I filed them away in loose-leaf folders that slowly took over a shelf in a bookcase.

Then came the Internet. My investment company--let's call it Loyalty Investments--set up a website featuring online trades, daily closing prices and more fundamental information than even Warren Buffet could want. I created a portfolio page that kept a running total of my gains and losses for both my mutual fund investments and individual stocks I own. (When I upgraded to a new version of Netscape, I was delighted to see the gains and losses appear in green and red, respectively.) Although I was still in the market long-term, I experienced a visceral thrill checking my net worth a couple of times a day.

It wasn't long before the couple of times a day became more and more frequent.

On particularly volatile trading days (and we know how often those occur lately), I'd keep my portfolio page on my screen and hit the reload button every half hour or so. If I saw too much red, I'd walk glumly around the office in a semi-catatonic state as if I had just squandered my life savings playing the slots at Foxwoods Casino. If a whole lot of green appeared, I'd entertain thoughts of quitting my job to spend my days trying to get my golf handicap significantly below my age.

Keeping one eye always on the stock market started to taint me. When a colleague attended a conference where Alan Greenspan was speaking, I didn't tell her to have a good time and come back with lots of story ideas. In an e-mail tinged with desperation, I begged her to call me ASAP if the Fed Chief made even the slightest hint about raising rates.

And this bipolar behavior flourished during a time when I had no intention of selling anything.

When I did decide to sell about 25 percent of my holdings for a down payment on a house, any semblance of emotional stability I had quickly evaporated. I waited until the end of January to make my move, so the IRS wouldn't ambush me with a hefty capital gains tax bill. I checked my portfolio more than a dozen times a day for two weeks or so, then I determined the time had come. It wasn't as if Jupiter finally aligned with Mars; I just couldn't take watching the market fluctuate any longer.

Other people must have had the same response. By 11 a.m. on the day in question, the Dow Jones was well on its way to posting a three-digit upswing. I dialed Loyalty's 800-number to make a quick trade using the Touch-Tone system, and I was absolutely flabbergasted. I couldn't access the system to make a trade, and following a cursory message to try the website, I was summarily disconnected. But with the collective pulse of greed sweeping individual investors looking to cash in on the market's latest mood swing, I couldn't trade online either. The sense of panic I felt was enough to make the thought of lunch out of the question. I sold the next day, when--true to form--the market gave back its gains.

So much for the power of the individual. Instead of feeling in control, I felt lost, overwhelmed and more than a tad depressed. I'm not alone in feeling disenfranchised. As we all become accustomed to incessantly keeping up with the vagaries of the stock market, auction sites or any other internet venue where information changes by the second, we invariably feel as if the very ground is shifting beneath our feet. In the end, the up-to-the-minute information is useless if we can't act on it when we want to.The obsession with staying informed isn't just bad for individuals' psyches. It's bad for the companies that inevitably can't satisfy our quest for instant gratification. The day after my trading effort was thwarted, I got a solicitation in the regular mail from my investment company. On the envelope was the marketers' question: "What do 134,248 Loyalty investors have in common?" My sardonic answer: They all must be trying to access the Touch-Tone trading system at the same time.

Needless to say, the whole experience didn't instill any confidence that Loyalty cared about me as a customer and was willing to deliver on its promise to instant access. While companies have always made gaffes, now they commit them on the internet in full view of customers who can have emotional, even irrational reactions. If I were speaking to a Loyalty broker who couldn't execute a trade on my behalf in a timely manner, I might still be angry, but I wouldn't feel despondent. But because the technical tools promised to me wouldn't allow me to make the trade I wanted when I wanted, my ensuing sense of powerlessness made me a prime candidate for therapy.

As companies rush to offer services via the internet, they should be prepared to deal with the psychological ramifications of the medium. Customers will become enthralled with the self-service model and come to depend on the internet as if it were a lifeline.

As for me, I've made significant progress since January. I no longer check my stocks daily, I log on to the local news site only once each morning, and I never check my favorite online bookstore for current sales. I suppose I'm one of the lucky ones, because I've come to terms with my limitations as far as the internet goes.

I no longer have to know about things simply because they're a click away. I learned from personal experience that sometimes ignorance can be bliss. Or at least good for your mental health.

Although she no longer checks her inbox 50 times a day, you can e-mail Senior Editor Megan Santosus at santosus@cio.com.

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