» Archive for March, 2012

Why We Can’t (and Won’t) Disconnect

Friday, March 30th, 2012 by Jonathan Spira

Some peace and quiet

This past weekend, I unplugged. It turns out that I did this on the National Day of Unplugging but that was purely coincidental.

Over the past few years, I’ve given much thought to the reasons why people increasingly feel the need to constantly glance at their smartphones, be it for texting, e-mail, news, social networking, or some other purpose.

Recently I was sitting at dinner in the Bay Area with a few people and one of them was glancing furtively at his iPhone. “Be social,” the person sitting across from him said.

And I countered, “But he IS being social, just not with us.”

Whether we like it or not, mankind has achieved a higher degree of connectedness and this is all thanks to a silicon-packed piece of plastic that we carry around in our pockets (the health consequences of which are, incidentally, not entirely clear).

In older days we had the market square, the commons. In fin de siècle Vienna we had the Kaffeehaus (coffee house).

These places were where we went and, in a way, they are where we go today, albeit in a rather virtual fashion.

We go to these social gathering places because while we are off engaged in some activity, our friends may be doing something else, presumably without us. We need to know what they are doing or we might miss out on something.

In addition to monitoring what others are up to, we feel compelled to broadcast what we ourselves are doing. Today, we do this with tools such as Facebook and Twitter but tomorrow it may be something entirely different.

We now both consume and generate these streams of information somewhat unconsciously (witness the case a few years ago of the pupil brought to the principal’s office for texting, and sat there mindlessly texting while the principal berated him about texting in class).

We NEED to know what our friends are doing and we are no longer content to wait for a postcard or letter (or even an e-mail). We have truly evolved to a society that not only thrives on instant gratification but has brought instant gratification to an entirely new level.

It wasn’t always this way. We were a patient folk. We waited a week or ten days for something to be delivered (now if something we order doesn’t arrive by 10:30 a.m. the next day we are stalking the courier’s truck on the Web).

So back to my unplugged weekend. My partner and I finally had a weekend together and we spent it in Carmel, at the Highlands Inn overlooking Big Sur. It was peaceful, the ocean waves were the biggest source of entertainment, and I had – well in advance of the trip – vowed not to do any work or check e-mail.

That enabled us to spend time together, doing the 17-mile Drive, enjoying the coastal highway, enjoying the local cuisine, and spending time together without the interference of our friends’ activities.

The result: Not only was it a fun weekend but I felt refreshed and reenergized, ready for the challenges of the workweek. And I will do this again, real soon.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

The Genie is out of the bottle and he can read your mind

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012 by Cody Burke

What does your e-mail say about you?

The Economist last week reported on advanced linguistic analysis software that has been designed to “show an employee’s emotional state over time.” The software, developed by Ernst & Young, analyzes the content of e-mail communications to pinpoint potential problem areas. The example cited was monitoring e-mail for signs of employees who may be more likely to commit illegal acts.

The software is said to do this by creating a profile of a given employee’s emotional state over a period of time. Said employee might be acting angrily or in a secretive manner and this might guide internal investigators in knowing whom to keep an eye on.

The software, which essentially mines the data in e-mail messages, collects and summarizes patterns. Because what might identify one group of employees as angry might be misleading when looking at another workgroup, humans examine the results and code them appropriately based on the person’s job and workgroup among other criteria.

The human coding enables the linguistic software to adapt and learn industry-specific vernacular and speech patterns. For example, in the case of traders, the software is taught that swearing is common in that industry, and thus not an indicator of elevated stress levels.

Because this software is aimed at detecting events that might happen in the future in addition to problems that might be occurring in the present, its use is likely to be controversial. Presumably no one would have a problem if all it did was track down individuals who were predisposed to committing fraud and cheating investors, but the tool’s other potential applications are chilling.

Let’s look at how other companies have used data-mining tools to uncover information that people would not willingly disclose – or might not even be aware of themselves. For example, could the software identify a woman who is trying to become pregnant, resulting in her being passed over for a promotion? The retailer Target was recently profiled by the New York Times for doing something very similar, although they were seeking to target pregnant women with maternity-focused coupon offers by analyzing shopping data to identify the expecting women.

While it would be illegal for a company to deny a promotion on the basis of pregnancy or even a contemplated pregnancy, discrimination cases are common and do not always result in victories for the employees involved. The range of information that could be gathered by this kind of software opens the door to many other potential privacy issues, ranging from the disclosure of sensitive healthcare information to revelations about sexual orientation.

Ironically, while I was thinking about this topic, I stumbled across a New York Times piece that is a timely companion article to the Economist’s. It details how in China Internet users are forced to use a creative system of slang and near-homonyms to evade what is officially referred to in China as the Golden Shield Project, or more commonly in the rest of the world as the Great Firewall of China.

By using words that are homonyms of censored terms, Chinese activists and regular citizens skirt around the algorithms that identify banned words. For example, “harmony” is a key word used by the government to justify censorship, so Internet users make use of the word hexie (which means river crab) to describe oppression. The word is a homophone and homograph to harmonious in Chinese pinyin (Latin script transcription of Chinese characters), meaning the terms are indistinguishable from one another. Censoring river crab would also censor harmony. Although government censors are aware of the double meaning, they cannot censor the word because it would disrupt their own messaging regarding a “harmonious society.”

What worries me (and most likely others) is that the use of advanced linguistic software of the kind developed by Ernst & Young will not stop at monitoring internal communications for potential fraud. Technologies are neutral, but the use of them is not. The Great Firewall of China will be strengthened by this kind of software, and the potential for discrimination and privacy invasions will increase. Sure, some rogue traders will be stopped, but at what cost?
Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex. He can be reached at cburke@basex.com

E-mail Marketer: Meet Information Overload

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012 by Jonathan Spira

Please just stop

Have you heard from your favorite retailer recently? If so, it’s probably been via e-mail and you probably didn’t open most of them.

According to research by Responsys, a company that provides marketing tools, the top 100 online retailers sent an average of 177 e-mail messages to each customer in 2011, an 87% increase from 2007.

If you think that’s a lot, consider that some retailers, led by Neiman Marcus, sent as many as 1.5 messages per day.

I’ve noticed this trend as well and decided not to unsubscribe to some of the more egregious offenders in an effort to capture some data points.

In my inbox, Restoration Hardware and Bloomingdale’s are the top offenders.

On March 10th, Bloomingdale’s told me to “Go Exotic In Trend-Right Tribal Prints” after having told me that “Ladylike Dresses [are] In Bloom” on the 9th. But that wasn’t the only e-mail on the 10th: Exactly eight minutes before that e-mail came, Bloomingdale’s told me about “HOT Things We Love” and that I could “Buy More, Save More!” if I wanted to.

The funny thing is that I’m not really a prospective customer for most of what Bloomingdale’s is offering to me. Occasionally, the store gets it right and tells me about a men’s department sale but 90% of its missives miss the target. As if to further illustrate how off-target the mailings can be, the next day, 11 March, was focused on “The Pleated Skirt.” On the 13th, Bloomie’s got a bit closer – it offered me 20-50% savings on “Home” items.

In the period of one week, Bloomingdale’s sent 1.3 e-mail messages per day – all of them for products I wouldn’t buy with the exception of possibly a few products for the home. And the store has never asked me to complete a profile indicating my interests, either.

Restoration Hardware also e-mails me incessantly. On the 10th, the store introduced its “deconstructed” collection and, on the 9th, I found out that the 900-page Spring Source Books were out (didn’t we used to call them catalogs?). While it doesn’t send me as much e-mail as Bloomingdale’s, it does send quite a few offers and the only reason I am even looking at any of these is because I am writing this article.

E-mail marketing messages don’t have any kind of special privileges when it comes to Information Overload. Just as knowledge workers miss critical work-related e-mail in their inboxes, they also miss much marketing e-mail as well. It’s no wonder that the open rate and clickthroughs have declined significantly. Marketing firm Harte-Hanks found that consumers opened 19% of retail-related e-mail messages in 2007 (the clickthrough rate was 3.9% then) while the number dropped precipitously to 12.5% and 2.8%, respectively, by 2011.

Some marketers attribute the decline to burnout on the part of consumers but that only tells a small part of the story. The average knowledge worker received 93 e-mail messages per day in 2010 according to my research and that number is growing steadily.

The problem is that the typical knowledge worker simply can’t manage 93 e-mail messages and still get work done, so it’s no surprise that more retail-oriented e-mail messages are simply going by the wayside.

Put differently, and I am sure I am not alone, I would not have subscribed to any marketing messages had I not been interested in counting them and analyzing them. I typically make purchases when I independently come to the conclusion that I need or want something and I am very resistant to marketing propaganda. In fact, such efforts typically push me in the opposite direction.

In my conversations with marketing executives, I have learnt that they are unaware of the impact of Information Overload on their efforts despite the fact that they themselves admit to being overloaded. Perhaps if they put themselves in the place of the recipients of their missives, they might be able to come up with better and more effective e-mail campaigns that ultimately reduce the number of e-mails being sent.

[Editor's note: one marketer that seems to have the right idea is Newegg. I have recently noticed that after looking at some item on their website, and not making a purchase, a week or so later there would be a message in my inbox offering a handful of items fitting the specific category I looked at on the previous visit.-BA]

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

Tablet Reality Check

Friday, March 9th, 2012 by Cody Burke

Still a bit heavy...

With this week’s announcement of the new iPad and expectations for high sales and increased tablet ownership at all-time highs, it is worth taking a minute to review the tablet landscape.

According to Pew Research, as of January 2012 the number of adults in the U.S. who own a tablet stands at 19%.  That number doubled from mid-December, due to the holiday season and driven by the introduction of lower cost tablets such as the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet.  Interestingly, the numbers for e-reader ownership are identical, with 19% of U.S. adults owning one.  Apple CEO Tim Cook went so far as to predict in a recent speech that tablets will soon outsell PCs.  I would argue that at least in the short term, a more likely prediction is the continuing blurring of the lines between mobile and PC operating systems (see the recently announced Windows 8 and Apple OS X Mountain Lion), allowing tablets to function as extensions of a user’s PC.

Options for tablet ownership have expanded significantly as the number of companies releasing Android-based tablets has risen.  However, the iPad still dominates the market with 59%, according to February estimates by DisplaySeach.  The iPad is followed by Amazon (17%), Samsung (7%), Asus (4.6%), and Barnes and Noble (3.5%).

Size options abound for tablets.  The standard remains around 10”, with the iPad at 9.7”, but Samsung in particular has released tablets in 10.1”, 8.9”, 7”, and recently, 5”.  Samsung’s 5” Galaxy Note is more of a phone/tablet hybrid than pure tablet, but the company now plans to release larger versions of the Note.  The Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet are both 7”, but are underpowered compared to the more expensive iPad and Android offerings on the market.  Both run heavily modified versions of Android and essentially form a sub-set of tablets, halfway between an e-reader and a full featured tablet.

Consumers are using tablets in a variety of locations.  Seventy percent use tablets while they watch TV, according to Nielsen data from May 2011.  A further 50% report tablet use while in bed and one in four tablet owners uses it in the bathroom.  Interestingly but perhaps not surprisingly, tablet use leads to decreased use of both desktop PCs (35% report less use) and laptops (32%).  As of one year ago, in March 2011, Google AdMob found that when using tablets, the most reported activity is gaming (84%), followed by search (78%) and e-mail (74%).

Personally, as I have struggled to find the perfect use for my own tablet, a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, I find myself reflected in these statistics.  I certainly have ended up using the tablet while watching TV and while in bed, and gaming, search, as well as light e-mailing suit the form factor and capabilities of the tablet perfectly.  Because (as a writer) I work with words, I have not found a way to use the tablet for work, although I can see how some professions, such as artists who need to show work to clients, would find tablets helpful.

Oh, and here is what you really came for.  Apple unveiled a new iPad with a sharper display and support for 4G mobile data networks.  The new third-generation iPad has a high resolution Retina display with four times the number of pixels found in the iPad 2.   Also aboard the new iPad is a five-megapixel rear camera that is capable of 1080p video recording, and includes built-in video stabilization. The iPad is powered by an A5X processor with quad-core graphics that is designed to support the Retina display and also be power efficient.  For more information, please read full coverage at Frequent Business Traveler.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.  He can be reached at cburke@basex.com

Beep. Beep. Beep.

Thursday, March 1st, 2012 by Jonathan Spira

So much temptation...

When I look around, I see temptation. Information. It’s like crack. You get a little information and you immediately want more.

Three beeps indicate a text message. My friends and colleagues who want my attention send me text messages when they want an immediate reply. E-mail, despite being in real time, has become less so. The same goes for instant messages, which can be ignored as well.

I get so many e-mails that I turned off the various alerts (sound and screen) long ago. Had I left the e-mail chime on, it would be one continuous noise. For the same reason, my Lotus Sametime instant messaging software also no longer chimes.

Americans today spend a vast amount of the day consuming information. A 2009 report from the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) found that each person spends an average of 12 hours per day surfing the Web and watching TV, although the study counted 1 hour of watching TV and surfing the Web as 2 hours, so some hours were counted twice. While the typical individual watches TV for 5 hours, uses the computer for 2, and spends 1 hour gaming, only 36 minutes are given to print media, representing a huge shift in how we consume information.

In a typical hour spent online, according to Nielsen data from 2010, the average user spends 13 minutes on social networking sites, 5 minutes on e-mail, and just over 2 minutes using instant messaging tools. Interestingly, when Nielsen looked at online activities on mobile devices, 26 minutes of every hour was spent on e-mail, compared to only 6 spent on social networking sites.

Our choices in media consumption and activity are not without consequence; the way in which we stimulate our brains as we consume information can have a very real impact on our cognitive abilities.

A study of 11 German schoolboys at the Deutsche Sporthochschule Köln (German Sports University Cologne), published in the November 2007 issue of Pediatrics, investigated “the effects of singular excessive television and computer game consumption on sleep patterns and memory performance of children.” The research, led by Markus Dworak of the Institut für Bewegungs und Neurowissenschaft, which is part of the Deutsche Sporthochschule, involved having the boys play video games for 1 hour after doing their homework on alternate nights. The other nights, the boys would watch television or a movie. The researchers looked at the impact of different media on the boys’ brainwave patterns while asleep and measured their ability to recollect information from homework assignments. Playing video games, as compared to watching television, led to a “significant decline” in the boys’ ability to remember vocabulary assignments and also resulted in poorer sleep quality.

The temptation to give in to interruptions from our devices is strong.  However, we must resist the siren’s call and stay focused.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.