Sunday, March 13, 2011

Understanding Information Overload: Email

"When the amount of information available to be filtered is effectively unlimited, as is the case on the Net, then every improvement in the quality of filters will make information overload worse." Situational overload and Ambient Overload (Nicholas Carr, March 11, 2011)

In his post on "Situational Overload and Ambient Overload," Nicholas Carr differentiates between too types of issues:  Situational overload refers to the ability of finding the needle in the haystack (or our ability to search for something specific), while ambient overload refers to our ability to filter the unending rivers of information that are available to us to find things that are of interest to us.

In short, Clay Sharky's often quoted statement that "It's not information overload, it's filter failure" (Clay Sharky, Web 2.0 Expo) doesn't address all the angles of the information overload problem.

I was struck by this statement by Nicholas Carr because it helped me deepen my understanding of the confusion most people seem to experience around the words "information overload."  When people complain of information overload, they'll often use email as an example and mention that they receive hundreds of email every day, immediately followed by a statement to the effect that if they read all their emails, they'd have no time for real work.

I don't receive hundreds of email at work -- and I should be thankful for that -- but as an experiment, I started collecting in a folder all the messages that I receive that I consider to be a waste of my time and I should never have received.  I should mention here that we have an excellent spam filter and all the unnecessary email I am collecting are internal to the organization.  Most of these email messages come from individuals making use of distribution lists. Half of the messages don't apply to me at all, meaning that I am not the intended audience for that message. There are particularly annoying examples of this: 1) the message reminding me to submit my timesheet, which would be nice, except that I'm a contractor and I work on a different timesheet schedule; 2) the message advertizing all the wonderful training opportunities -- for which I don't qualify.

To address the problem, I have a number of options:
1) unsubscribe from these lists
That is not necessarily an option since I didn't subscribe in the first place.  I was automatically added based on my various organizational identities.
2) create an email rule to automatically divert all these messages to a folder and review/delete when I have time
3) create a rule that is specific enough to automatically delete the specific messages without targeting all messages to the offending distribution lists;
4) have a friendly conversation with the sender(s).

Then there's the occasional "donuts in the kitchen" announcement, which might be useful to some, but I don't work in the building where that kitchen is located, so again, that distribution list doesn't work for me.

Then there's the "I wanted to make sure you all receive this" message, when the message referenced has clearly been sent to every single individual in the organization.  Either the sender hasn't seen that the message was sent to everyone or the sender doesn't trust the recipients to read emails addressed to everyone, but they trust the reader to read emails from him/her.

In the work situation, I don't have complete control over what I receive and I have to pick my battles.  This one is probably not significant enough to turn it into a skirmish, but multiplied by thousands of employees receiving a dozen or more unnecessary emails a day, there may be a case of action.

My personal email inbox is another story.  Even without spam, I do get many more emails there and I make extensive use of filters to screen things efficiently and not miss important messages.  In my work inbox, I can't afford not to screen every message, even if only to delete.  In my home inbox, most of what I receive are things I asked for (notifications, subscriptions, etc...) but don't need to read until the weekend or don't have to read at all if I'm pressed for time.  That's the ambient overload aspect of the information problem, the same problem I encounter with RSS feeds I subscribe to and most of my use of Twitter.  That is something I can control.  I can decide how much time to spend screening Twitter feeds and RSS feeds. I can skip a whole week and not have to worry about it.  It's not essential to my existence.  Nothing will happen if I miss a week's worth of Twitter or a week's worth of RSS feeds.

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