Monthly Archives: June 2011

Neil Postman: “Information has become a form of garbage”

My all-time favorite social critic is NYU Professor Neil Postman. I recently rediscovered his thought-provoking book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. I want to share his take on information overload:

In the United States, we have 260,000 billboards; 11,250 newspapers; 11,556 periodicals; 27,000 video outlets for renting video tapes; more than 500 million radios; and more than 100 million computers. Ninety-eight percent of American homes have a television set; more than half our homes have more than one. There are 40,000 new book titles published every year (300,000 worldwide), and every day in America 41 million photographs are taken. And if this is not enough, more than 60 billion pieces of junk mail (thanks to computer technology) find their way into our mail-boxes every year.

From millions of sources all over the globe, through every possible channel and medium — light waves, airwaves, ticker tapes, computer banks, telephone wires, television cables, satellites, printing presses — information pours in. Behind it, in every imaginable form of storage — on paper, on video and audio tape, on discs, film, and silicon chips — is an ever greater volume of information waiting to be retrieved. Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, we are awash in information. And all the sorcerer has left us is a broom.

Information has become a form of garbage, not only incapable of answering the most fundamental human questions but barely useful in providing coherent direction to the solution of even mundane problems. To say it still another way: The milieu in which Technopoly flourishes is one in which the tie between information and human purpose has been severed, i.e., information appears indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and at high speeds, and disconnected from theory, meaning, or purpose.

All of this has called into being a new world. I have referred to it elsewhere as a peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is an improbable world. It is a world in which the idea of human progress, as Bacon expressed it, has been replaced by the idea of technological progress. The aim is not to reduce ignorance, superstition, and suffering but to accommodate ourselves to the requirements of new technologies. We tell ourselves, of course, that such accomodations will lead to a better life, but that is only the rhetorical residue of a vanishing technocracy.

We are a culture consuming itself with information, and many of us do not even wonder how to control the process. We proceed under the assumption that information is our friend, believing that cultures may suffer grievously from a lack of information, which, of course, they do. It is only now beginning to be understood that cultures may also suffer grievously from information glut, information without meaning, information without control mechanisms.

The late Dr. Postman published those words in 1992, before most people had even heard of the World Wide Web. The more things change . . .



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June 27 ‘virtual literary salon’ will discuss five information overload books

Five influential authors—all of whom have written books on various aspects of information overload—will come together June 27 in a “virtual literary salon.”

The free teleconference is produced by the Information Overload Research Group and runs from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. EDT.

The five authors and their books:

Dave Crenshaw, The Myth of Multitasking: How ‘Doing It All’ Gets Nothing Done (

Daniel Forrester, Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking in Your Organization ( / @dpforrester)

Maggie Jackson, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (

William Powers, Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age ( / @HamletsBB)

Jonathan Spira, Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization (

Each author will discuss two topics—why they wrote their book, and the issues and solutions that are most significant. I’ve read Hamlet’s BlackBerry, Distracted and Overload!, and they’re all well worth your time. (The other two are on my must-read-soon list.)

You’ll find more detail than I’ve included here at, where you can register for the free teleconference.

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Employee communications will soon equal enterprise social networking

One of my favorite thinkers about employee communications is David Murray. He’s also one of the most engaging writers I know and runs a blog called Writing Boots. Recently, he bemoaned the fact that internal communications as a discipline seems to be moving backward:

When I was editor of the weekly communication trade publication The Ragan Report in the 1990s, all I had to do to get a raft of letters was refer to an employee publication as a “house organ.”

The operative phrase was: You just set employee communication back 30 years!

Silly, I know, to think you could set a whole profession back 30 years just by using old terminology.

But I do miss the underlying assumption, that this was a profession progressing. Progressing in all sorts of ways—from top-down to interactive, from “babies and bowling scores” to strategic, from corporate platitudes and stilted language to human candor.

These days, if you were going to set the profession back 30 years, in which direction would you push?

For 12 years, Murray edited the premiere publication devoted to internal communications: The Journal of Employee Communication Management.

The journal thrived in the first few years of publication, remained profitable for a number of years after that, and lasted until about 2008, when it died, not because the Internet made such journals obsolete (the Harvard Business Review is still coming out). Mostly, it died because there weren’t enough people in the whole world who were actually thinking about employee communication to write 36 decent essays every year, let alone read them.

The talented Murray isn’t jobless; he now edits Vital Speeches of the Day. Since I have spent much of my career as an internal communicator, I responded to his blog post. My point: That employee communications as we practiced it when I published the company newspaper at Weyerhaeuser is indeed going away. The “big voice” rhetorical model is being replaced—slowly and unevenly, to be sure—by the conversational model. One-way communications to employees—via publications, emails, intranet pages, etc.—will be superseded in the next several years by enterprise social networking.

Yes, companies will still need an “organizational voice,” but that’s where you’ll find it. Along with individual executive voices. And the voices of every employee with something to say. Here are the comments I shared with Murray:

I agree with your general premise—that things certainly aren’t what they were 10 or 15 years ago. But I look at it more as a matter of changing with the times.

Internal communications (the discipline) came into its own during the smokestack era. Corporate Communications departments ran the printing presses, and for good reason. Communicating was expensive, and companies had to get the most out of what they spent. Corporate Communications assembled the copy and art, ensured accuracy of the content, hunted down typos, and generally made sure that the news was, indeed, fit to print. Oh, and there was a bonus: the Communications department served as a convenient choke point enabling senior management (via the review process) to keep unpleasant news away from employees.

Now it’s a different world. Everyone’s a publisher. Every employee has access to free tools that enable him or her to tell their story to the world. Instantly. We’ve just crossed the line where more than half of all mobile phones sold in the U.S. are smart phones.

Access to social media from corporate networks will soon largely be a non-issue (except for HR). NYU professor Clay Shirky points out that the filtering that used to take place before publication (see above) now takes place afterward. But it’s often not very effective.

So the content comes cascading down on all of us. And that’s another problem. We’re expected to consume and act on more information than we can possibly process. As Intel’s corporate anthropologist Genevieve Bell put it recently, “we’ve got to the point where the demands of our devices exceed our ability to meet them.”

I agree with many of the people she cites that the current communications environment is not necessarily an improvement. It impacts everything from personal productivity and satisfaction to the quality of organizational decisions. But we’re not likely to change it.

So in that environment, what’s the role of carefully crafted feature stories? Who has the time to write—or read—thoughtful analysis? Where’s the space for the kind of four-columns-wide-packs-a-punch photojournalism we used to do?

Fifteen years ago, I gave a presentation about how internal communicators had evolved from town criers to jungle guides (this was in the early days of corporate intranets). We need to evolve again (and a lot of us are). The best analogy at this point may be “communications engineer.”

We will not recognize internal communications by 2020 (and maybe a lot sooner). I believe the action will move to enterprise social networking platforms like Yammer, Chatter, Moxie, Jive and others. Those provide status updates, collaboration capabilities, location of expertise, the ability for communities to self-organize, and a whole lot more. They’re not yet the “norm” in the majority of organizations, but they will be. And they will constitute a huge share of “internal communications.”

We need to figure out how we can bring value that IT can’t—and what we contribute in an environment where anyone can easily publish content—or it will be “welcome to irrelevancy.” Here’s where I think we fit in:

— We won’t be prized for our ability to tell stories. 22-year-olds with Flipcams (or whatever’s next) who work in Operations can put together videos that we can’t top.

— We may not be asked to help other organizations within the enterprise communicate their content. If they don’t already, they will soon have the tools and talent to speak to their audiences without our help.

— We may not even be paid to be “communications strategists,” as that term has been understood for decades. John Perry Barlow once said, “Email goes through an organization chart like meat tenderizer.” Social media does the same for communications strategies.

So what unique value do we add? I believe it’s this: We adjust the signal-to-noise ratio in favor of the signal. By virtue of who we are (the kind of people who want to do this work) and what we’ve studied, we understand how communications land on an audience and how the audience processes the inputs. We know what there needs to be less of. And we know how to make the most of the short bits of attention that employees can spare.

That sort of thing has always been part of our job. In the coming decades, however, it will be practiced very differently. We’ll be steering conversations (in person and online), finding new ways to influence, and helping shield employees from low-value information. It will require all the skills we currently have, and then some. It will involve complex and holistic thinking—not simply cranking out deliverables. We will need to help organizations build, maintain and constantly evolve the systems that communicate, engage employees, promote ever-increasing change, and foster collaboration.

If we do that really, really well, there might just be a place for us on the payroll.

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Will hashtags work with email?

A few months ago, I suggested that email was missing an important ingredient. Email messages include a setting to indicate the urgency, but nothing to indicate the kind of email it is.

Does it contain an action item? Does it relate to an upcoming meeting? Is it something you really need to know? Or can it be read at your convenience (or not at all)?

I developed a series of four-letter tags for subject lines (like URGT for “Urgent”) that were unlikely to appear in any email written in English—so they could safely be used for filtering.

Today, it hit me. Why go to that much trouble? Why not use hashtags?

So I sent my first email with a hashtag in the subject line:

#ACTION: Your brief bio needed to promote June 27 information overload teleconference

Now none of the well-known authors to whom I sent this are filtering for #ACTION. Probably no one is. Yet.

But you’re also not likely to see “I am asking you to take #action now” in a typical email message. So filters set for hashtags aren’t likely to be fooled by something else.

The big advantage of hashtags—as opposed to a system that an organization might have to “sell” to its employees—is that they consist of real words. Many people have extensive experience with hashtags. There’s no learning curve. And no change-management effort. It should be a lot easier to get a group to agree on a set of hashtags than to convince them to adopt URGT instead of #URGENT.

What was I thinking?

The one non-trivial hurdle is this: The hashtags will work only for the group that decides to embrace them. Although if the group is a 50,000-person corporation, the benefits would be significant.

But to really put a dent in information overload, email hashtags would need to be adopted by nearly everyone.

Is anyone saying that can’t happen?


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Overload! New book spells out the hazards of infoglut

We’ve learned from Nicholas Carr how the Internet is driving our thinking into “The Shallows.” Clay Shirky shared the blessings of our “Cognitive Surplus”—the resources that are voluntarily poured into making the world a better place through technology. James Gleick’s “The Information” chronicled how we’ve dealt with information through the ages.

Now Jonathan Spira (Wikipedia| IORG bio) comes forth with a book that goes easy on the social commentary and builds a compelling case with original research and well-chosen anecdotes about what information overload is doing to knowledge workers in the U.S. It’s called Overload! How Too Much Information is Hazardous to your Organization.

Spira, CEO and chief analyst at the New York research firm Basex, gets our attention with a boatload of factoids:

  • There are 78.6 million knowledge workers in the United States alone.
  • Information Overload cost the U.S. economy almost $1 trillion in 2010.
  • A minimum of 28 billion hours is lost each year to Information Overload in the United States.
  • Reading and processing just 100 e-mail messages can occupy over half of a knowledge worker’s day.
  • It takes five minutes to get back on track after a 30-second interruption.
  • For every 100 people who are unnecessarily copied on an e-mail, eight hours are lost.
  • 58 percent of government workers spend half the workday filing, deleting, or sorting information, at a cost of almost $31 billion dollars.
  • 66 percent of knowledge workers feel they don’t have enough time to get all of their work done.
  • 94 percent of those surveyed at some point have felt overwhelmed by information to the point of incapacitation.
  • One major Fortune 500 company estimates that Information Overload impacts its bottom line to the tune of $1 billion per year.
  • Information Overload has caused people to lose their ability to manage thoughts and ideas, contemplate, and even reason and think.

Spira also presents 10 tips to help lower information overload, distilled from his 25 years as a technology thought leader:


  • I will not e-mail someone and then two seconds later follow up with an IM or phone call.
  • I will refrain from combining multiple themes and requests in a single e-mail.
  • I will make sure that the subject of my e-mail clearly reflects both the topic and urgency of the missive.
  • I will read my own e-mail before sending to make sure it is comprehensible to others.
  • I will not overburden colleagues with unnecessary e-mail, especialliy one-word replies such as “Thanks!” or “Great!” and will use “reply to all” only when absolutely necessary.

Instant messaging and presence awareness

  • I will not get impatient when there’s no immediate response to my message.
  • I will keep my presence awareness state up-to-date and visible to others so they know whether I’m busy or away.

All forms of communication

  • I will recognize that the intended recipient of my communications is not a mind reader, and therefore I will supply the necessary details in my messages so nothing is left to the imagination.
  • I will recognize that typed words can be misleading in terms of both tone and intent, and I will strive for clarity and simplicity in my messages. (The use of an occasional, well-placed emoticon can do wonders here.)
  • Finally, because i understand the complexity and severity of the problem of Information overload, I will do whatever I can to facilitate the transfer and sharing of knowledge.

Spira devotes a chapter to “The Tech Industry and Information Overload,” and presents a behind-the-scenes look at the founding of the Information Overload Research Group ( He offers probably the only accurate story out there of how IORG came to be. Despite the PR props that several large companies have received for “banding together” to solve the IO problem, the only meaningful support has come from Intel and Microsoft Research (for sponsoring the two-day conference at which IORG was born) and Xerox (for a grant that funded the organization’s first couple of years).

Full disclosure: Jonathan and I both serve on IORG’s board of directors.

Read the news release
Order from Amazon
Basex Blog
Overload Stories (an ongoing continuation of the book)

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The cost of email: New—and startling—numbers

Researchers in the UK and Australia have put new cost figures on email use by company employees—at least £5000 ($8175) and in some cases well over £10,000 ($16,350) per employee per year. The research appeared recently in the International Journal of Internet and Enterprise Management.

Thomas Jackson of the Department of Information Science, at Loughborough University, and colleague Sharman Lichtenstein, at Deakin University in Burwood, studied how email is used and abused at four organizations. Their formula is based on an average salary of £25,000 ($40,875). While email is, of course, the way a great deal of business gets accomplished, the researchers say its costs are increased by ambiguous unclear messages, e-mail overload, security and privacy issues, and e-mail interruptions. Their formula accounts for time spent reading email (average read time and average number of emails per day), as well as the interruption recovery time involved in reading those messages.

According to a news release from Inderscience, the report’s publisher, the survey of company email use revealed typically that:

  • Almost one in five emails was cc’ed unnecessarily to staff members other than the main recipient
  • 13% of received emails were irrelevant or untargeted
  • A mere 41%, much less than half, of received emails were for information purposes
  • Less than half of emails (46%) that required an action on the part of the recipient actually stated what the expected action was
  • 56% of employees remarked that email is used too often instead of telephone or face-to-face
  • Ironically, almost half of employees (45%) felt that their own emails were easy to read

Say Jackson and Lichtenstein: “These findings may help organisations to become more effective in managing their email communication systems. It is recommended that communication managers or others responsible for email policy and management examine their email policies and develop a ‘snapshot’ of how their employees use email. Such information will provide an organisation with a useful foundation from which to build their training to increase the effectiveness of their employees.”

The researchers also studied the effectiveness of training employees in the efficient use of email using Seminar-Based Training (SBT) and Computer-Based Training (CBT) delivery modes. Says Inderscience: “The findings suggest that SBT has a diminishing impact over a very short period of time, but a combined approach of SBT and CBT is more effective and provides better results.”

Read the news release at Alpha Galileo.

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