Friday, 18 June 2010

Information overloads

A number of blogs have been linked to in the past few weeks which have, in effect, been about information overload.

It's made me think about how I use social media, and how I use my iPhone specifically. It's also made me realise that for some people, social media is becoming an albatross around their neck. It shouldn't be this way.

Take the social out of social media for a second, and what have you got? Media. Communication. Data. News. Information. The social side is almost irrelevant when you think of it in these terms - you are the end receptor of a massive amount of information on Facebook, Twitter et al and it really can be as simple as that. You can sit and watch, you can sit and read, there is no necessity to sit and interact. It could be argued that perhaps you are only getting half the intended outcome if you only watch and read and never respond, but the choice is ultimately yours.

If the weight of expected interaction is weighing you down, then perhaps you need to step back from things for a bit and become an observer. Watch the data streams scrolling down, learn from them whatever you can, and leave it at that. Step away. Take the information, use it, budget with it, plan with it, use it to inform your decisions, but don't respond, don't get involved and don't become drained. Social media is not supposed to be a problem. It is supposed to be a tool in a box, among many other tools.

I come at things from a slightly different angle. I am a geek. I suspect quite a large amount of Twitters userbase, for example, are. And so because we are geeks, there is a very large liklihood that we have been using what has now been niftily coined as social media for years. Very many years. Somewhere in the region of 20 years for some of us, though I was a late starter and only started communicating with random people on the internet about 15 years ago. But it is as much an intrinsic part of my life as picking up the phone to communicate with someone. In fact I must confess, I am far more likely to communicate via text than telephone and there are a number of reasons for that.

The biggest one, ironically, is information overload. If I call you on the telephone, there is an expectation that if you are in you will answer it. It might be something important, afterall, and once you have answered the phone, it is very difficult to then explain you're tired and only answered in case it was important. It's a socially awkward situation imposed on someone else, putting the other person on the other end of the phone in the position of 'answer and carry on speaking' or 'ignore and possibly miss really quite important news'.

Dropping an email in an inbox is different. There is no expectation on turnaround time. There is no awkwardness. There is just a little marker in someones inbox which says 'Hi, could use some interaction/date for an event sorting/just to say hi/nothing important' and it can be left to a time when the receiver has a spare moment in their day when it is appropriate for them to answer. There is no forced expectation.

Now take that concept a little further. Imagine a world where everyone operated on their own timescales if something wasn't 'important'. Imagine a world, for example, where you could email your GP and explain you needed an appointment for something not urgent. A refill of a prescription which needs an appointment perhaps, or a vaccination for a trip abroad, or just for some advice on a non urgent twinge in your arm. No hanging on the phone for 30 minutes listening to the endless 'you are now x in the queue'. No tired over worked harassed receptionist. Just a marker in someones inbox which says 'Hi, I need some help when you've got a bit of time'.

The sender is free to wander off and do something else. Like look after their new born child, or look after their elderly relative, or indeed even go off to work. Meanwhile, the marker sits in the inbox, waiting for someone else to finish with the early morning rush when things are mad, to grab a brew, and to sit down and wade through all those markers, firing off replies and updating the appointment database at their leisure. It doesn't matter if a crisis happens and they get interupted and have to dash off - the marker remains until it's dealt with. No one is put on hold, no one is charged any money for wanting to use a free service, everyone wins. They win in time, energy, patience and the ability to not be tied physically to the end of a phone.

The same usage works right the way across using social media as a communication tool. The onus is not on you to respond immediately. Just because someone can send a Tweet in real time does not mean you must respond in real time. As long as you have clearly stated turnaround times and manage peoples expectations, why exactly does it have to be instant? Yes there may be communications coming into you which do need an immediate response - fine. Scan down the list every hour and farm the important ones off, deal with them, forward them to the right person, retweet them to the right account and you've spent 10 seconds dealing with something urgent.

Data doesn't have to be drowned in. It doesn't have to be an albatross. If managed properly, with the right frameworks set up, data is merely another asset to be managed, something to be learned from, and ultimately something to be won with. Knowledge is power. Negative or positive, it is still power.

It's time to stop talking about social media, and to start using social media, media, communication, data, whatever you want to call it, to make peoples lives easier, gentler, less stressful and more centred around the increasingly time poor way people live their lives. It can be done.

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