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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.

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.

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.


The Man Who Didn’t Invent E-mail

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012 by Jonathan Spira

You invented e-mail? Really?

Recently, I was shocked to learn that a 14-year old named V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai invented e-mail in 1978.  This story came to me via the Washington Post, which reported on February 17 that the “inventor” was being honored by the Smithsonian.  A Time magazine online story which I hadn’t seen until the past week apparently broke the “news” last November.

Why am I using quotation marks (which I typically abhor) around the word “inventor” and “news”?  The answer is simple.  When I first read the story in the Wash Post, I started laughing and quickly double-checked the calendar to see if it were April 1st.  Since it wasn’t, I felt compelled to set the record straight and I am sure that I am not the only one doing so.

If you go back to the Wash Post story today, you’ll see a “clarification” (whoops, there are those pesky quotation marks again) explaining that “a number of readers have accurately pointed out that electronic messaging predates V. A. Shiva Ayyadurai’s work in 1978. However, Ayyadurai holds the copyright to the computer program called “email,” establishing him as the creator of the “computer program for [an] electronic mail system” with that name, according to the U.S. Copyright Office.”

Let’s look back for a moment.   E-mail was a feature of 1960s mainframe computer systems that had the capability allowing a user to send a message to another user of the same system.  This was an advancement of real-time chat programs that were in use up until that point (yes, chat was around in the 1960s).  The MIT CTSS (ca. 1965) is likely to have been the first system that incorporated this kind of e-mail.

In terms of e-mail as we know it now, meaning the ability to send a message to someone using a different computer or computer system, credit goes to Ray Tomlinson (who also invented the use of the “@” symbol in the addressing scheme).  I cover this in my book, Overload!, and this was the killer app of its time.

Now, back to our hero, Mr. Ayyadurai.  While the clarification issued by the Wash Post serves to indicate that there was some degree of public outcry about the article, its wording is ambiguous at best.  Holding the copyright to a computer program named “EMAIL” is not the same thing as having invented e-mail.  Were I to write a messaging program today (assuming I took a crash course in programming first), I too would be able to copyright my very own “EMAIL” program.  So could you, for that matter.

What makes me uneasy about this is that all of the press coverage comes in advance of the publication of Ayyadurai’s book, The EMAIL Revolution.  While the cover of the book seems to be ready, the description merely says “”Lorem ipsum…”   His Web site is a masterpiece of self promotion that also includes a video he prepared: “Turmeric: Wonder Herb of India.”

I stand by what is not really my claim but that of many eminent computer historians, namely that Ray Tomlinson is the inventor and father of modern e-mail.  At least Ray didn’t capitalize it and he certainly isn’t trying to capitalize on it either.

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

E-mail Disclaimer Overload

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012 by Jonathan Spira

Just the message please

I recently noticed not one, not two, but 11 disclaimers at the bottom of an extensive e-mail exchange that occurred over a period of several days.

I noticed that disclaimers first started appearing on some e-mail messages from lawyers a few years back, but more recently, accountants, bankers, financial advisers, and certain types of consultants have also gotten into the act.

Most disclaimers ostensibly serve three functions, although their actual efficacy is subject to question (and would be the topic of an entirely different article):
1.) Notify the recipient that the e-mail message may contain “information that is privileged, confidential and exempt from disclosure under applicable law.”
2.) Tell the recipient NOT to read the e-mail if he is not the intended recipient (presumably, telling the recipient not to read it won’t make him more curious, especially when the disclaimer is at the very end of the message and he’s presumably already read it).
3.) Ask the recipient to destroy the communication if he’s not the intended recipient and, additionally, to notify the sender thusly.

There’s a problem inherent in all of these disclaimers, namely, their position relative to the text of the e-mail message.

Our research on Information Overload has taught me that knowledge workers frequently don’t make it past the middle of the second paragraph of a message. The likelihood of someone making it all the way down to the disclaimer and then reading it is about as likely as someone reading an end-user license agreement (EULA) for a piece of software. (The software companies know that it is very unlikely that a EULA will be read; years ago, PC Pitstop, an antispyware maker, put a note in its own EULA promising $1,000 to the first person who sent an e-mail to a specific e-mail address. It took four months and several thousand downloads before that e-mail arrived and the sender received the $1,000 for his trouble.)

Despite all of this, I really didn’t give much thought to the disclaimer problem until I read an article in the Wall Street Journal (Warning: If the Email You Just Read Isn’t for You, Don’t Read It”) focusing on it. (The premise of the piece was that disclaimers are routinely ignored and held by many to be silly.)

What was really telling were some of the comments from readers. There was clear agreement that the disclaimers were, well, just silly.

Garrett Mcdaniel wrote that, at a previous employment, he added sentences including “Failure to do so will result in the unintended recipient’s immediate extradition to Guantanamo from which they will never be seen or heard from again” or “Crest has been shown to be an effective decay preventive dentifrice when used in a conscientiously applied program….” Neither was ever noticed by a recipient.

Finally, Peter Eggert included a disclaimer on his own comment:
“This comment is the property of Peter and is in no way a representation of his lawyer, dog, parents, the Sun, Jerry Seinfeld, Uranus, or Major League Baseball. Any attempts to recreate this comment shall be deemed ineligible under the SEC Act of 1933, Miranda v. Arizona, and “Finders Keepers”.”

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

January 18, 2012 – A notable day in information history

Thursday, January 26th, 2012 by Jonathan Spira
Google SOPA 18 January black bar

The only valid censorship of ideas is the right of people not to listen. ~Tommy Smothers

In what had an eerie resemblance to a No Email Friday but which occurred for very different reasons, portions of the Internet went dark last week.

On January 18, major Web sites including Wikipedia and Reddit were closed to business. Google did not shut down but covered up its logo with a large black bar, making it look as if the site had been censored.

These were all part of a grassroots effort to protest anti-piracy legislation, namely the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect I.P. Act (PIPA), which had been working their way through Congress.

This is the first time in history that major Web sites banded together in protest and it was largely led by information providers (i.e. Wikipedia and Google), which get more traffic than other sites.

After the protest, dozens of members of Congress as well as the White House dropped their support of the bills and the sponsors of SOPA and PIPA are contemplating considerable changes to the bills.

While some of the Internet sites went a bit overboard with scare tactics about SOPA and PIPA, ultimately the power of the people – and information providers – prevailed. The people spoke and the government listened and made an abrupt about face.

And regardless of any future legislation that may address anti-piracy, January 18, 2012 was a notable day in information history.

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

New Year’s Resolutions for the Overloaded

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011 by Jonathan Spira


It’s hard to believe, but the New Year is almost upon us.  In the interest of not contributing further to your overload, dear reader, I’ll keep my resolutions brief.

E-mail – as demonstrated by the amount of coverage that the Atos e-mail ban received in recent weeks – is still a hot topic, so let’s try to fix it for 2012.

First, when preparing an e-mail message for the consumption of others, write it with the recipient in mind and please take a moment and read it for comprehension before clicking on Send.

Second, when replying to an e-mail, please read the entire message you are replying to.  It’s amazing how many people reply asking a question about what the writer very clearly covered in paragraph seven of the original e-mail.

Third, on the topic of even having a paragraph seven in an e-mail message, keep e-mail messages short and on topic.  Cramming three or four (or 10 or 20) topics and questions into one e-mail simply means that most of them will be ignored and unread.

I can’t promise this will remedy all of the ills of the world but following these three easy steps will Lower the Overload in 2012.

Happy Holidays! Happy New Year! Prosit Neujahr!

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


Ban E-mail? Stop the Madness!

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011 by Jonathan Spira

Throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

Last week, Atos, a French IT company, announced a ban on internal e-mail.  Atos’ management justified the action as a way to stop wasteful messaging.  It says that staffers get an average of 200 e-mail messages per day (the average, according to our calculations, 93), and that most are not “critical.”

Atos wants to move conversations that would take place in e-mail to tools such as Microsoft Office Communicator instant messaging and face-to-face discussions.  Aside from the fact that managers there should read my “What Works Better When?” treatise, I have to wonder how it was determined that “most” of the e-mail exchanges were not necessary.

It’s quite true that e-mail can be wasteful, and furthermore I’m willing to bet that Atos didn’t even begin to calculate the cost of “unnecessary” interruptions, which would magnify the presumed cost of wasteful e-mail exchanges five fold in many cases.

What does trouble me to some extent is the amount of press that Atos’ action has gotten.  While Atos’ management may have indeed given some though to the problem, other managers may simply read the headlines (“Huge Company Bans Internal E-mail” was a popular one) and decide to pull the plug.

Does anyone remember No E-mail Wednesdays?  They were immediately followed by E-mail Tsunami Thursdays.

E-mail has become the prime means of moving information both within an enterprise and beyond its borders.  Is it the ideal means?  No, of course not.  But to paraphrase Sir Winston, e-mail is the worst form of messaging except for all the others that have been tried.

Instant messaging and social networks all have their place, but there are still many types of messages, ranging from out-of-office communications to thoughts that require a longer explanation, where e-mail is still the best medium.

Now, if we could all exercise a bit of control when it comes to the number of recipients…

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

Fixing E-mail

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011 by Jonathan Spira

Is there a reply in there somewhere?

How many times do you send an e-mail message to someone and not get a reply?  Fairly often, I’d wager.

But how do you know and keep track of times when you don’t get a reply?

Sometimes I think back, oh, I sent an e-mail and so-and-so doesn’t seem to have replied.  When did I send it?  What was the subject?  Did I miss the reply?

When this happens, I first have to search for the e-mail that I had originally sent.  Sometimes that takes just a second, sometimes it takes a while.  Then I have to determine whether the question or issue is still important and, if so, what the next course of action might be.

I could send another e-mail but that could go unnoticed as well.  I don’t know if the recipient saw the first e-mail or even if it actually arrived (e-mail delivery is not infallible).

I can then resend it, forward it, or forward the e-mail to someone else who may be able to help me.  In some cases, it might make far more sense to switch communications channels altogether and make a phone call or send an instant message (especially internally).

Of course, this is all predicated on my being able to recall that a.) I had sent the e-mail and b.) that no reply had been forthcoming.  Much e-mail goes unreplied to and some of it is actually important.

In the meantime, some important issues go overlooked and much time is wasted.  I probably become aware of at least one unanswered e-mail each day and figuring out what the status of that message is, as well what actions are required can take anywhere from five to 15 minutes.  If every knowledge worker in the U.S. dealt with this issue on a daily basis, we would find we lose 12.576  million hours on a given day, at a cost of $264 million (this is based on 78.6 million knowledge workers and 10 minutes or 16% of one hour lost).

Of course, what could be even more costly are the ramifications of an e-mail message which has perhaps not been acted upon or read or replied to.  It’s impossible to calculate these costs but, in some cases, they can be significant, resulting in a loss of business, missed opportunity, or simply confusion and frustration for the knowledge worker who does not know if the e-mail was ever received and acted upon.

While there are several third-party Microsoft Outlook plug-ins and tools that address this issue, what we really need is an option in the out-of-the-box e-mail client (IBM, Microsoft are you listening?) that allows me to set a time period for receiving replies to flagged e-mail so that, when no reply is forthcoming within this timeframe, the e-mail client alerts me.  Sounds like an easy fix to me.

UPDATE – Since this Commentary was published on Tuesday, a reader pointed out that he uses the follow-up feature in Microsoft Outlook (there is a similar feature in Lotus Notes, which is what I use). The problem is that this requires the sender of the e-mail to set up the follow-up flag when sending (although it can also be set at a later point in time), and the feature serves only as a reminder for further action since it does not know whether the recipient has or has not replied to the e-mail.


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

Thoughts From Information Overload Awareness Day 2011

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011 by Jonathan Spira

Lower the Overload, send less e-mail

Information Overload Awareness Day (IOAD) continued the dialog I sought to begin three years ago with the first IOAD.

To be candid, for the past few months, I’ve been a bit overloaded as have my colleagues at Basex and we were considering on moving IOAD to December.

We were therefore surprised a few weeks ago when we noticed articles announcing that Information Overload Awareness Day 2011 would be on October 20 once again.  A phone conversation I had with Marsha Egan, who runs the aptly named InBoxDetox.com and has supported IOAD all three years, was enlightening to say the least.  It’s ironic, Marsha pointed out, that we are so overloaded that we couldn’t even turn off IOAD.

I had created IOAD but by year three, it had taken on a life of its own.

To “celebrate” IOAD, I asked knowledge workers around the world to send 10% fewer e-mail messages each day.  E-mail by itself is just one manifestation of Information Overload but it may well be the poster child.  I was pleased to see countless bloggers and journalists pick up the call this year and ask their readers to Lower the Overload by sending fewer electronic missives.

I’ve done a lot of speaking about Information Overload in the past few months and I just returned from Scottsdale, Arizona, where I spoke at a meeting of the Institute for Information Infrastructure Protection.  The meeting specifically addressed Cybersecurity Through A Behavioral Lens and I was asked to speak about Information Overload.

It was a gratifying talk in part because the Q&A that followed almost didn’t end (it eventually had to end because many of the participants had flown out that same day and were still on east coast time and my keynote followed the dinner hour) and in part because the attendees were some of the leading thinkers in the field.  As it turned out, the behavioral observations my colleagues and I were making about Information Overload had great applicability to cybersecurity issues and the questions and discussion largely centered on building a bridge between the two disciplines.

It turns out that even cybersecurity experts and academicians in this field are not immune to the problems of Information Overload and this group in particular related to the story told to me by Col. Peter Marksteiner of the rogue e-mail that was forwarded and forwarded until it brought down the e-mail servers at Maxwell Air Force Base – during a cybersecurity event there in June 2008.

If you haven’t yet started to Lower the Overload, you can still take stock of your own information habits and take the first step by sending fewer e-mail messages to fewer recipients.  If we all do this, it will make a difference.

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