22 minute read

Working in Cyberspace


Melissa J. Doak

In the modern workplace, there is no denying the indispensability of the computer. According to a report issued by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in 2005, seventy-seven million workers, or 55.5 percent of the entire American workforce, used a computer on the job in 2003. That is more than double the number of workplace computer users in 1984, and the numbers will almost certainly continue to grow.

In the past decade alone, one major use of computers at work has grown at breakneck speed: accessing the Internet. More than two in five (41.7 percent) of American workers accessed the Internet or used e-mail at work in 2003. The Internet and the World Wide Web have become so pervasive in the workplace that signs of their influence can be seen everywhere. Instead of making a phone call to a colleague or client, workers now send e-mail or an instant message. Rather than mailing a document, employees simply send a file over the Internet. Print and television advertisements for nearly every company—large or small, old or new—contain a Web address. Business is no longer just business, commerce, or retail—now it is also "e-business," "e-commerce," or "e-tail." Thousands of companies conduct business solely on the Web, without any storefront. Although these Internet companies, often called "dot-coms," have had their ups and downs, the strongest have survived and are flourishing.

For many workers in the twenty-first century, the Internet has become an indispensable tool. According to the BLS, workers in managerial and professional specialty occupations, especially finance, management, and business, are the largest users of computers (79.6 percent) and the Internet (67.1 percent). Over two-thirds (67.3 percent) of those in sales and office occupations used a computer at work; almost one-half (47.9 percent) used the Internet. On the other hand, only 27.5 percent of service workers, 26.4 percent of those in natural resources, construction, and maintenance occupations, and 26 percent of those in production, transportation, and material moving occupations used a computer at work, and even lower percentages of those workers used the Internet.

Some jobs involve working directly in cyberspace, either creating or maintaining the Internet. These workers still make up a fairly small percentage of the overall workforce, however. For other workers, even though they are not involved directly in the development or maintenance of cyberspace features and components, the Internet is a tool that makes their job easier and their time more productive. Many have decided to use the capabilities of the Internet to telecommute or begin a home-based business. However, with the explosion of Internet and e-mail use, also come problems that should be addressed.

Melissa J. Doak is a freelance writer of reference books and educational materials.


In the early 1990s it was the exception rather than the rule for even a large corporation to have its own Web site. Today, it is practically unheard of for any company, even a tiny mom-and-pop operation, to not have a professionally designed site. In fact, for many smaller companies, a Web site is the only way to reach a large market for their products and services. This proliferation of Web sites has led to a significant increase in the number of jobs in cyberspace.

Network, Database, and Computer Systems Administrators

The rapid spread of computers and Internet use has resulted in a great demand for trained professionals to develop and maintain these systems. Storing, managing, and extracting data quickly and efficiently has become ever more complex as the Internet and electronic business generate huge and growing volumes of data. Database administrators work with database software, determining how to organize and store this large volume of data. These workers must set up computer databases to meet user requirements, as well as test and maintain the databases. Database administrators often are responsible for planning and implementing security measures. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the number of positions for database administrators will increase by 38.2 percent between 2004 and 2014, from approximately 104,000 to 144,000 jobs.

Because networks are configured in many ways, network systems and data communications analysts and administrators are needed to design, test, evaluate, and oversee systems that range from local connections between two offices in the same building to vast global networks. Voice mail and e-mail systems, local and wide area networks, the Internet and intranets (self-contained internal networks within an organization that use wireless technology) are among the data communications systems these professionals work with. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that network systems and data communications analysts will be the second-fastest-growing occupation between 2004 and 2014, with the number of positions increasing by 54.6 percent during that time. Network and computer systems administrators will also be a fast-growing occupation; the number of positions for this group is projected to increase by 38.4 percent over the decade.

Design, Development, and Maintenance

The growth of the Web has generated a variety of other occupations related to the design, development, and maintenance of Web sites and their servers. The Internet, accessed with a few clicks of a mouse, seems deceptively simple. But a great deal of work goes on behind the scenes to keep the Web running smoothly. The people who develop and maintain the internal workings of the Internet, as well as private networks called intranets that operate through Internet technology, are some of the most highly skilled professionals in cyberspace. Examples of jobs in Web design and maintenance include computer programmers, Web site developers and designers, information security specialists, and information architects. As the number of job openings in this area is greater than the number of qualified people, workers in Web design and maintenance are in great demand.

Electronic business (e-business), any process that a business organization conducts over a computer network, is a rapidly growing sector of the Internet. One part of e-business, electronic commerce (e-commerce), is the buying and selling of goods and services online. As e-commerce expands, there is a corresponding growth of firms that specialize in developing and maintaining sites on the World Wide Web for business clients, as well as firms that develop and maintain intranets. These firms recruit computer specialists, including programmers, software engineers, systems analysts, Web designers, and content developers. Teams of these computer professionals design computer networks, implement upgrades or conversions, custom design software programs, develop and maintain Web sites, and maintain networks on a day-to-day basis.

With the growth of e-commerce has also come an increased focus on security. Threats include computer viruses that can disable entire business systems and credit card fraud, which threatens the consumers e-businesses are trying to attract. Security consulting firms employ specialists who analyze vulnerability and specialize in providing protection, including virus protection and firewalls, to make computer networks safe. Cyberspace security professionals will be in increasing demand as e-commerce continues to grow.


The Internet has become indispensable in many jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that more than two of every five employed persons used e-mail or connected to the Internet while working. Workers use the Internet to communicate with others, to conduct research, to transfer information, and to solve problems.

Communication Revolutionized

The single most common use of the Internet at work is for communication with others. E-mail has revolutionized the way that workers communicate with supervisors, coworkers, clients, and customers. E-mail and the Web have allowed many small businesses to expand their customer base from their local area to a national or even international arena. Customers can use e-mail to place orders, check their order status, and ask questions. Some companies can streamline their business by using e-mail instead of expensive toll-free phone numbers staffed by order takers and customer service representatives.

E-mail is extremely useful in communicating within businesses and organizations as well. Gone are the days when paper memos littered inboxes. In the modern office, memos regarding everything from the latest sales figures to the company picnic are circulated via e-mail. An interoffice e-mail can be sent to one recipient or hundreds of recipients with the click of a button. (The downside of this capability, of course, is that it is equally easy for confidential information to be inadvertently disseminated to hundreds of recipients.) With interoffice e-mail, photocopying time and expense are reduced, and crucial or confidential memos are less likely to get lost on workers' desks. In the global marketplace, e-mail also allows colleagues on opposite sides of the world to communicate without the expense of long-distance telephone calls. In addition, time zones are of little consequence because e-mail can be answered at the convenience of the recipient.

For colleagues who are working online at the same time, instant messaging is becoming a useful tool. Instant messaging (IM) is a quick and easy way to communicate with one or more people online in real time—sort of a cross between e-mail and a telephone call. With instant messaging software and a list of contact names (often called screen names) to communicate with, users can send and receive on-screen messages with any of their contacts that are online at the same time. Some corporations are deploying enterprise-wide instant messaging systems to increase productivity and interoffice communication. About eleven million people already use instant messaging at work, according to a report issued in 2004 by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Videoconferencing is another form of office communication that takes place over the Internet, revolutionizing the way meetings are conducted. Rather than having to meet physically in one conference room at a given location, workers can meet in cyberspace, "face-to-face," in real time, from multiple locations. With a high-speed Internet connection, a small video camera, and a headset, people can meet in cyberspace using the video functions of free instant messaging programs or other Web collaboration tools like Macromedia Breeze, Wired-Red, or GroupSystems. Because people can actually see and hear one another, videoconferencing is often more useful than e-mail or phone calls for meetings that involve several people. It allows for collaboration and teamwork, as if all workers were in the same room instead of hundreds or thousands of miles away from one another. An executive on a business trip to Europe can continue to get a daily update from her assistants in New York City. A designer in Los Angeles can meet face-to-face with a prospective client in Chicago, without leaving his office. Useful applications for this technology are endless.


With the proliferation of information available in cyberspace, the Internet has become a useful research tool. Investigating the pros and cons of starting a home-based business? The mega-search engine Google can help. Putting together a presentation for the company board meeting? Find needed facts and figures on the Internet. Need some historical or biographical information for a report? Access the database resources of the local library with a few clicks of the computer mouse. The Internet is an incredible resource for finding information.

The Internet is particularly useful in locating the most up-to-date information about a subject. Not only are this week's currency exchange rates available, but so are this afternoon's closing stock quotes and next week's weather forecast. Unlike printed research materials, such as books and magazines, Internet "pages" can be quickly and continually updated, which can make the most current news available almost as soon as it happens.

Information found on the Internet, however, is not infallible. Not only is there an overwhelming amount of information available to sort through, there is the reliability factor to consider. When books, journal articles, and newspaper and magazine articles are published in paper form, they generally go through a rigorous fact-checking process to make sure the information contained in them is accurate. No such process exists for much of the information published on the Internet. Anyone with basic Web authoring tools and a Web hosting service can publish whatever they want—fact or fiction—in cyberspace. Trying to filter out the accurate from the dubious or downright wrong information can be an arduous and time-consuming task. Although it is important to know how to search the Internet, it is equally, if not more, important to know which sources to trust.

Fortunately, there are some guidelines to follow when evaluating information on the Internet. A good place to start is with the letters following the "dot" at the end of the Web address. These letters indicate the Web site type or purpose. A Web address that ends in ".com," for example, is usually a commercial site. If the Web site is for a company that is in business to sell products or services, the information provided—much like any other form of advertising—may be biased. On the other hand, the online editions of major newspapers, magazines, and other traditional media sources are usually found at Web sites that use the ".com" extension. Information retrieved from these sites can generally be considered as reliable as whatever is published in their print editions.

A Web site address ending in ".gov" denotes an official site of the U.S. government. Statistical information obtained from a government site, for example, is almost always factually accurate, although researchers should keep in mind that some government resources are partisan in content or funding support, and thus may also be biased. Information found at (or linked to) college or other educational Web sites (those ending in ".edu") and at sites for nonprofit organizations (".org") are generally thought to be trustworthy.

Regardless of where data or information is posted, asking several questions can help a user determine its trustworthiness. Who is the author, and what are her qualifications (education, experience) that relate to the information she is presenting? Is the piece you have found peer reviewed? Are there sources or a bibliography included? Are there obvious errors (in grammar or spelling, for example) that offer the clue that this is not a reliable source? Is the page biased, or does it use inflammatory language? What is the purpose of the page? Was it published recently, or is the information outdated? Taking the time to evaluate the information found in cyberspace is well worth the effort.

Information Transfer

Years ago, information transfer involved typing a document on a typewriter, photocopying it, and sending it by mail to its destination. If the document needed to travel a great distance, it could take days or even weeks to arrive. In more recent years, overnight courier services and fax machines greatly improved the speed at which information could be transferred. But the Internet has made even these improvements seem outmoded. With the Internet, files can be transferred from one computer to another in a matter of seconds, and the information to be sent is not limited to just a few pages of text. Today, complex documents, photographs, and even entire software programs can be quickly and easily transferred across cyberspace.

The business world has greatly benefited from this ability to quickly transfer information over great distances. Administrators can work on annual reports while on business trips and send huge documents, charts and graphs, or Power-Point presentations back to their home offices. Independent contractors can work on assignments that can be sent to companies around the world. Educators on sabbatical in other countries can respond to the work of their at-home peers and students almost as easily as if they were down the hall. And all of this information transfer can be done instantaneously, literally with the click of a button.

Help and Problem Solving

The Internet is also a valuable resource for finding solutions to problems in a wide variety of areas, especially technical ones. To solve a problem with a computer printer, for example, a user might first consult the printer manufacturer's Web site. If the problem affects the way the computer interacts with the printer, and if many users have encountered the same problem, there might be a "patch," or a software file, available for immediate download that can correct the problem. If not, there is usually a list of frequently asked questions (FAQs) posted by the manufacturer that might provide a solution. Another option might be to send an e-mail to the company's tech support team or begin an online instant message conversation with a customer service representative. Perhaps the manufacturer maintains a message board for discussions about its products. A message board is a Web feature that allows a group "conversation" to take place over a period of time. One participant posts a question on the message board, and others can post answers and other comments. Newsgroup postings and message boards from outside the company's Web site can also be searched for someone describing the same printer problem. Of the millions of people in the cyber community, chances are someone else has experienced the same problem and has posted a helpful suggestion for solving it.

In addition, print manuals for software programs are now a thing of the past. Until recent years, software programs came packaged with large printed manuals. Software programs now generally come only with a small printed "getting started" manual. For more extensive help, users access the software's help function, which includes a table of contents and an index of help topics. These topics are linked to the manufacturer's online manual. These manuals are interactive and quite user friendly.


Productivity and Privacy

Although increased productivity is an important reason for using the Internet, this same tool can also cause decreased productivity. The problem stems from workers enjoying cyberspace diversions—such as "surfing" the Web, trading stocks online, hanging out in online chat rooms, sending and receiving personal e-mails, and playing Web-based games—during work hours. A Bureau of Labor Statistics survey found that 87.5 percent of employees thought it was appropriate for them to visit non-work-related Web sites during work hours and that 83.7 percent believed it was appropriate to send personal e-mail during the workday.

Surprisingly, in the same survey, about the same percentage of employers believed it was appropriate for their employees to surf non-work-related Web sites (82.2 percent) and send personal e-mail during the work day (83.7 percent). Still, productivity concerns have led many employers to crack down on employees who spend too much unnecessary time in cyberspace. Although employees often believe that their use of Internet and e-mail at work is and should be private, courts have consistently permitted employers to monitor that use, and even keep that monitoring secret. In Smyth v. The Pillsbury Company, for example, the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania found that there should be no reasonable expectation of privacy in e-mails sent at work, despite the company's statements that e-mail correspondence would be confidential. According to an American Management Association survey, more than 75 percent of U.S. businesses monitor their employees' Internet usage, e-mail, phone calls, and correspondence.

While some companies have removed Internet access or even fired employees because of personal Internet use, one problem is how to best go about monitoring Internet use without spending an inordinate amount of time and money doing so. Charles J. Muhl, in an article published in the Monthly Labor Review (February 2003), suggests that all employers should clearly detail to employees what are and what are not permissible uses of the Internet and e-mail at work, as well as which personal uses are allowed, if any. Employers should alert employees that e-mail and Internet use is not private, confidential, or privileged, and will be monitored. Infoworld, an online resource for the infrastructure technology (IT) industry, suggests that many companies find that establishing alerts based on keywords or particular behavior patterns is the most cost-effective method for monitoring Internet use. When a keyword is typed, the IT staff is alerted and full-scale monitoring can occur. A small New England insurance company posts a list in the office of Web sites recently frequented by employees. According to the insurance company, this technique has been an effective deterrent against employees wasting too much time on the Web.


Telecommuting is any method a worker uses to work productively while away from the traditional office, and it is a fast-growing trend in American society in the twenty-first century. This form of work is advantageous for everyone. From a business standpoint, allowing employees to telecommute reduces high overhead costs. From an employee's view, telecommuting reduces commuting costs, an important consideration as gas prices increase and more employees live at greater distances from their workplaces than ever before. A study conducted in 2005 by the technology research firm Gartner, Inc., states that 82.5 million Americans currently work from home at least once a week. The study predicts that that number will increase to 100 million by 2008. Although home-based workers currently represent a minority of the nation's workforce, their numbers have been rising dramatically in recent years. In large part, this is due to a drastic shift away from agriculture and manufacturing toward a service-based economy. A majority of Americans today are involved in work that creates and processes information.

The work of processing information has traditionally been done in corporate offices; however, the modern office is in transition. Companies are emphasizing efficiency over bureaucracy. With computers, fax machines, high-speed Internet connections, videoconferencing, email, and other technological tools, companies are able to save time and money while achieving their goals. This technology has also meant that for many workers, working together inside office buildings is no longer necessary. Home-based workers can communicate quickly and easily with coworkers and clients using accessible and affordable technological tools.

Of course not all employees are able to work from home. Workers employed, for example, in transportation, storefront retail sales, production and material distribution, or public school education must be in their respective workplaces in order to perform their jobs.

There are downsides to the accessibility of technological tools that make working from home so easy. An estimated seventeen million Americans work from their homes at least once a month but do not get paid for their work. These workers bring work home with them after putting in regular office hours because their employer expects them to get it done. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 75 percent of employees who continue to work once they get home do not get paid for their extra time. These workers, on average, spend seven hours at home on unpaid work each week.


The availability of low-cost computer equipment and high-speed Internet access has also made it easier for many people to work for themselves. Each year, computers, Internet connections, and Internet service providers become more powerful and less expensive. For many self-employed people, such as desktop publishers and Web site designers, a computer and Internet access is necessary for producing and delivering their goods or services. But even if a home business produces merchandise for sale, the Internet has become an indispensable marketing tool.

Home-based businesses made up more than half (53 percent) of small businesses in fiscal year 2003. Home-based business owners may get all of their income from their business, or they may work at their home business on nights and weekends. Most of these businesses (91 percent) reported no paid employees. These businesses ran the gamut of industrial sectors: 60 percent were in service industries, 16 percent in construction, 14 percent in retail trade, and the rest were scattered across manufacturing, finance, transportation, communications, and wholesale trade. Writers, Web designers, bookkeepers, financial planners, customer support personnel, computer programmers, graphic designers, day care providers, and craftspeople have all begun successful home businesses. Almost any service can become the basis for a home-based business. For example, some people seek work preparing resumes, creating Web sites, or writing advertising copy. Cyberspace makes marketing and providing goods and services much easier than it once was.

Some people who begin home businesses choose to manufacture products such as gourmet, ready-made meals, educational toys, or custom-made jewelry. These production-oriented business people may rely on the Internet to research marketing techniques or potential new products, to advertise, to purchase supplies, and to sell their wares. Some small business owners work from home on a computer while their employees do much of the labor associated with their product in a factory setting elsewhere.

Other people specialize in buying and selling products online. For example, people may scour online sites, yard sales, or even the attics and basements of their families and friends, and then sell these objects through online auction sites such as eBay, Amazon.com, and Yahoo! Auctions. People sell a wide range of products online, from antiques and vintage clothing to used computers and nostalgic childhood toys. In 2003 online retailing grew 51 percent to a $114 billion industry, with a significant portion of this coming from online auction sites.

Independent contractors, also called freelancers, also rely on the Internet to procure and deliver work. These individuals work for companies on a project, or contract, basis, rather than as salaried employees. Some independent contractors work in the arts and include writers, photographers, and artists. Others provide consulting or clerical services, or perform work for hire such as construction and landscape design or maintenance. Most freelancers today are dependent on the Internet, as high-speed Internet connections provide the ability to instantly send files to clients located thousands of miles away. For example, an independent contractor who specializes in creating educational content for Web sites might work for publishers in Los Angeles, Cleveland, and Miami, while living and working in rural North Dakota. The Internet has greatly improved the potential client base of independent contractors.


Job Growth

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, five of the fifteen fastest-growing jobs between 2004 and 2014 will be in the computer field; these occupations will add nearly 650,000 new jobs to the economy over the ten-year period. The top five computer-related occupations will be network systems and data communications analysts, software application engineers, systems software engineers, network and database administrators, and database administrators. Some of these jobs will come from Internet companies, Web site designers, Internet service providers, search engines, software consulting firms, and telecommunications companies.

Clearly, jobs working in cyberspace are growing exponentially. Meanwhile the use of the Internet as an integral part of many jobs in the Information Age is here to stay. Regardless of whether one works directly in cyberspace or simply uses the Internet as a tool, the Internet has transformed both the workplace and the way people do their jobs. Cyberspace allows companies to expand geographically in terms of both employees and customers. In addition, workers benefit from Internet access by being able to do their jobs more quickly and efficiently.

The Demise of "The Job"?

As the twenty-first century progresses, the boundaries between the workplace and the home most likely will continue to blur. The number of home-based workers has increased steadily in recent years and will continue to do so. Some theorists have argued that cyberspace has not just transformed the way workers do their jobs, but in fact, is contributing to the disappearance of the very job itself. While people continue to work, that work won't be contained within what we now call "jobs." Note the amount of unpaid work, at home, that many workers today must do. Instead of a set number of hours each day that one must work in a job, work will become task- or project-oriented. Independent contractors exemplify this trend. They contract their services by the project; whether they work a typical nine-to-five day, fifteen hours a day, or a few hours at a time on evenings and weekends until the work is done is immaterial.

In 1995 Peter Leyden, in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, argued that our economy is losing "the job" as the concept behind how we organize work. "Our economy," he writes, "driven by the proliferation of digital technologies, is hurtling toward a time when working in jobs as we know them will not be the predominant way we get things done. In the Digital Age, we will still work. We will still earn livings. We will still produce things and provide services. But the majority of us likely won't go off to 'jobs' each day."

Contemplate that as you imagine your future working in cyberspace.

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Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesEmployment Trends