The Relentless Tide of Communication
Thomas M. Cagley Jr.

Audio Version:  SPaMCAST 209

In an article titled “Stop the Insanity: How To Crush Communication Overload[1]” Tina Roth Eisenberg of Swiss Miss was quoted as describing her personal communication crisis as “Too many channels. Too many messages. Too much noise. Too much guilt.”  I understand the emotions behind those words every time I let my inbox, Twitter, Facebook and assorted text messages go for very long.  Have we reached a tipping point where enough is enough or is this just a rough patch on a continuous path toward data and information nirvana?

The pace and the burden of communication has changed over the span of human history.  A lot more information moves today than even a mere ten years ago. According to an article in the Economist in February 2010 (“Data, data everywhere”) the amount of information created was expected to double between 2009 and 2011.  Unaddressed by sheer volume are at least two key components along this evolutionary path; the ever increasing speed that data is expected to be consumed and the number of communications vehicles used to convey information. Compound the proliferation of vehicles and paths with the ability of the vehicles to cover a wider and wider audience with less effort increases the potential for the benefit and cost equation to get out of whack.  As an example of the change in speed, compare the speed and coverage potential of a handwritten letter circa 1966 with that of an e-mail, instant message or blog post of today.

The increase in speed and distribution potential for each message has intensified the sense of urgency that communications carry both in terms of the message content and the anticipation of consumption.  The sense of urgency is further complicated by the awesome amount of noise in all of the electronic communication channels.  The perception of urgency combined with the noise level has increased the need to monitor and triage as many communication channels as possible at the same time.  The perceived urgency (real or manufactured) generally attached, generates an almost pathological need for action ranging from continually monitoring, triaging, responding or just whining about the queue.

The self-imposed sense of urgency to continually stay connected is part of the appeal of social media tools like Twitter and Facebook.  To combat the stress that this urgency has created whole industries on communication self-help, new concepts such zero inbox and the added poignancy to organization and time management techniques (Getting Things Done is favorite of mine). Underscoring how mainstream this problem has become, I recently listened to the author Cory Doctrow described his strategy to filter his inbox noise on This Week In Tech (TWIT).  All of the other participants on the show chimed in with their personal strategies.  Not convinced? Just ask yourself how many people do you know that constantly check their email, their Twitter stream or Facebook page. My guess is that the percentage of your friends and acquaintances that fall into this camp is higher than you would have imagined and is growing.  All of these channels into your awareness stream have not gone unnoticed.  According to BizReport[2], email volume is up 10% in Q2 2012 year over year.  “Businesses may be cutting back on some traditional ad costs, but email isn’t one of the ‘traditional’ areas seeing a recession” According to data from Experian CheetahMail.  While advertising email volume might not be perfectly reflective of your inbox it speaks to a trend of higher volumes of email and other forms of electronic traffic.

Noise has reduced the overall value of the electronic communication medium by reducing the receiver’s communication efficiency and productivity.  The reduction of productivity is paradoxical as the rational for increasing the channels and pace of communication is not just to drive people into a state of continuous partial attention but rather to increase productivity.  In the end, the speed of a communication vehicle does not directly equate to value.

I participate on most of the major social media networks and have several email accounts.  Professionally I can’t not use any of these tools (yes for all of their shortcomings I believe they are tools).  In order to stay sane I have created a strategy for focusing on what is truly important then to prioritize based on urgency.  The important and urgent are at the top of the list.  My personal strategy begins with a zero inbox strategy for all email accounts.  I use email filters to push topics from email bulletin boards and other informational emails into special folders for reading or deleting based on capacity. Tools like Tweetdeck allow for a similar strategy on Twitter. Facebook is generally read when time is available.  Being a metrics person I track the state of my communications backlog so that i know when I lose control. FYI, comments on the blog and podcast are important and urgent.  Even when my process fails, I feel like I have a way to get back to under control.

Restoring the productivity edge to communication will require you to establish your own set of controls on the distribution channels you are involved with. In agile techniques I have stated that “he or she that prioritizes owns the direction”; the same can be said for whom ever controls the filters on your communication channels.  Unless you create a strategy and a set of controls to implement your strategies someone else will step into the void.  Who will apply the controls and act as the mediator?  Controls will never be popular or easy to apply even if you self-manage your own channels.  The social media and email train as a productivity improvement vehicle has left the building unfortunately without controls reality will not match the goals.  Get your communication vehicles under control and remember the new lessons you learn.  Those lessons will be important for making the next new communication vehicle a boon, rather than a potential straw on the camel’s back of communication.