While anxiety and frustration were visible on the faces of those gathered at this Core Conversation, it wasn’t due to the gruelling conference – or social – schedule (in-step with the syndrome under discussion, it’s taken me just over a year to write up this final blog post from SXSW Interactive 2008).
And yours truly? By random chance I’d been scanning the room, looking for something else that I knew was on there, but stumbled upon this instead and was drawn to it in a heartbeat.
Weirdly my serendipitous discovery in meat space of a conversation I didn’t intend to find, mirrored one of the key issues in the larger digital challenge it was grappling with: the overload tendancy that’s wedded to being “always on”. You’re only ever one link away from some interesting new fact or opinion.
In a wholesale Being John Malkovich moment, I’d gone through a port-hole and all the voices and daily dillemas in my head that worry about overload were embodied and talking to each other in front of me… Nurse, the screens!
Do we know what we’re doing?
Here’s the backdrop: we’re overwhelmed by information, drowning in email, weary with un-read feeds, tired of Twitter, assailed by mobile comms, productively challenged… and yet the nagging feeling that we’re probably missing something very important is strong enough to trample all common sense, and our counter-productive habits surface given the slightest glimmer of opportunity.
Pleasingly, the first point Frietas made was the counter-argument: there’s a generation being raised who are multimedia and multi-tasking all in parallel, and are socially different from us. Hurray for them I guess, but what about the rest of us, who didn’t use a computer till we were 10 or maybe even 20 years old, and the internet even later? What solace can we take from the information overload?
Self-help required: employers and govt 4 steps behind (as usual)
The group – while commonly exhausted – had plenty of suggestions for coping-strategies. If you’re a freelancer, consultant, or just the type who catches up on email and admin at odd hours due to parenting duties or whatever; don’t give the impression that you’re available and working there and then or the email stream will just increase. Write emails in draft in the evening and weekend if needs be; but send them in office hours.
If you check email, Twitter and RSS feeds first thing in the morning you’ll have nothing done by 11am or midday, and that puts you on a psychological downer for the rest of the day. To compound matters, the rest of the day will be less productive than it would have been because of what you did (or rather didn’t do) in the morning.
“Eat the frog” was one of Ryan’s suggestions. Do the thing you really don’t want to do as your first task: a small accomplishment that gives you an immediate sense of achievement and helps you face the rest of the day.
We then paused to talk to the person next to us, and I found myself listening to the woes of a web project manger working at the Austin branch of a large US advertising agency, but she could have been from anywhere. She described an incredibly busy agency scenario, with everyone working lots of unpaid overtime; calls and emails from her boss at the weekend; general over-work and insufficient numbers of skilled staff that sounded identical to many digital shops globally. She loved her job but was unhappy. There was never enough time and the torrent of email was endless.
On the positive side, it’s an ecosystem of information that we’re all contributing to with blogs, wikis, social networks, microblogging, etc, noted Ryan. This is true, but how much of what we’re actually sharing is valuable, discoverable, and to whom?
One woman told of how she goes on regular media diets. This reminded me a lot of some ideas floated at the Digital Health Clinic run by Gavin O’Carroll which I attended in London late in 2007. I’ve tried out a diet myself, and it worked a tonic.
In fact the DHS clinic spurred me to check-out of Facebook completely for a few weeks at the end of December 2007. My usage of it has been sparse ever since, but for me Twitter is still a toxic siren. Tweetdeck (which I’ve tried) and the like promise to detoxify the stream, with the ability to sort and stratify the importance of our relationships and incoming data-stream on Twitter. While that’s progress to be welcomed, it’s still a mechanistic approach to filtering and managing highly-nuanced communication.
Widgets and tactics help, but it’s complicated…
Talking of which, some other tools mentioned were the dashboard widget that monitors what apps you are on and when you switch between them. The much-feted Feltron was also cited – it tracks what you do on your computer and builds up an annual report.
Part of the challenge derives from the weak divide between work and social / fun stuff, Ryan commented. There’s an element of truth here – for some – but it makes me wonder, how did I not feel this pressure when I was editing a music website back in dotcom boom 1.0? I was obsessed by the subject matter, and 2-3 nights a week I went out to gigs or clubs in connection with my role. And was I poorer, stupider, less happy or as shattered then? No on all counts I’m afraid. The salience of Ryan’s point is more general, as the context and nature of work and the concomitant technology has evolved.
The concept of “friendless zero” got the first real laughs of the session. Analogous to the Inbox Zero movement (which gets your inbox down to the magic digit), Ryan admitted he’d gone in that direction lately, keeping his Twitter follows down to a tiny number of close friends and colleagues. Still, I’ve heard countless stories of how people brutally cut back their RSS feeds to the bare essentials only to find a few months alter they’ve crept back up again. I abandoned Bloglines two years ago myself for the same reason; and I haven’t replaced it with another reader. Nothing bad has happened because of this 😉
If engineers fall short, what else is there?
The question was asked: can we automate relevance of information and people? That’s an engineer’s approach to human interaction, observed Ryan. My friend is a 5, my mother is a 3, etc… it simply doesn’t make sense of or cater for the complexity of our relationships.
Another suggestion from the group was only have one device out at a time [great, but are you going to ignore your mobile ringing or beeping just because you’re working on your laptop?]. Someone else suggested the classic panacea of having a hobby that takes you out of yourself.
Much of it comes down to time-management and managing expectations, someone said. That may be true, but these are delicate skills to master and practice, and who in the social media ferment is evangelising them? Discounting Tim Ferris of course, who has actually elevated it to the realms of a modern-day religion (and religion is in the province of the supernatural); oh yeah, and sad-sacks for whom GTD becomes the only topic of conversation.
Central exhaustion system
One reason that it’s so important for us to check our various feeds [and devices sir 😉 ], Ryan argued, is that we’re also interacting with another layer of information and media that is apart from our direct experience and what we’re doing. This works for me. It’s the invisible skin of data and interaction layering over our immediate and physical lives. But isn’t that what old skool social connections – aka the ideas and experiences we hold in common with other people – have always done? And wasn’t the point of the session to explore how we maintain productivity, creativity and being “in the zone” in the face of endless sources to discover and distractions?
Maybe it’s just me, but the flow isn’t all that (yet); or at least, it’s over-rated. Un-critical social media mavens love to sanctify it, but many information workers are paying the price for the level of dysfunction it produces in its current embryonic state. It’s plumping-up already maxed-out email and task agendas.
While a perfect infomediary grid beckons – the venerated digital nervous system predicted of yore – we’re left to deal with our real, complicated and imperfect experiences. Naturally the recession / depression / correction – or what you will – isn’t helping. We’re all working that little bit harder (than last year). We’re all that little bit more insecure, and we’re that little bit more atomised too.
The spread of Being John Malkovich Syndrome (#bjms) is merely the solace we can take from each other here and now. It holds the seeds of promise, but it’s not yet fit for purpose. Sifting meaning and / or value from the voices, chatter and keywords we skim through is an arduous, often wasteful and frequently un-manageable task.
Twitteresque – digital stylistics or path to a higher being?
Speaking of Twitter, just today Nic Brisbourne summed-up part of the signal-to-noise filtering challenge:
“I’m not sure that tools are the only answer though… I recently read Lessig’s Code2.0, a book in which he talks at length about how communities are governed and regulated. He persuasively argues that for there are four modes of regulation – architecture/code, law, norms and the market (more details here) – Tweetdeck et al are code based solutions to the problem of too much traffic on Twitter, but the other modalities or regulation (as Lessig would describe them) are also important.
“It is pretty clear to me that as the community grows something is going to have to change – and as I have written before it is instructive to think of the Twitter community as an emergent system with rules that need to evolve to ensure that the signal to noise ratio is maintained at a sensible level whilst keeping the service growing… The health of the Twitter community (as with all communities online and offline) is 100% dependent on the rules”
So given the openness of Twitter, the emergent norms are either (1) anyone’s guess , or (2) the same norms we see operating in other civilised (or – slight difference here – “consensual”) communities. Place your bets.
Broadsight’s Alan Patrick keeps saying he hears less noise on Twitter and more signal. I’ve not seen evidence yet, although most of the folk I follow are reasonably well-behaved. To those I’ve un-followed, it’s not because I doubt your genius 🙂 But whatever Alan is on, I want some…
Digital Health drop-in surgery 19th March
In the meantime if you’re feeling the overload burn, Gavin O’Carroll is running a Digital Health Service drop-in surgery this Thursday 19th March 2009 at the RSA
FURTHER READING ON INFORMATION OVERLOAD:
My other SXSW 2008 panel reports: