Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Responding to Communication Overload

In the third part of my series against self-verification I'd like to revisit a list I made a while back of things I hate. One of the items on that list was when people do not respond to messages. I had several people in mind when I wrote that, but one of them was the owner of the DSI Comedy Theater, executive producer of the North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival, and all around busy guy, Zach Ward. I recently mentioned this to him and our conversation was very insightful.

He said that he gets so many messages in the day, by his count in the hundreds, that to give a thoughtful response to each would be a full time job. As Get-It-Done-Guy Stever Robbins puts it, email has changed the burden of communication. In the past the sender had write, stamp, and mail a letter. No one spent 20 cents and 20 minutes writing something that's not worth 2 minutes to read. Now we've written and sent with barely a thought. That doesn't mean, however, that we can't cut out other communication tools like Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, to spend more time responding to personal messages. But as I now understand, there is a major difference between public and private conversations.

Firstly, private messages are only seen by a few. Social networking sites are just that, for building a large social network. A response on Twitter is seen and appreciated by many more people than an email. Also, being successful is partially about being a super-connector. More connections means more messages. So what's the solution? Here's some ideas that might help those who feel overwhelmed:

1) Realize that too many social connections have costs. Each person you connect with is another potential message. There is a cost to being popular.
2) Realize that too many social connections have benefits. An idea from Economist Jeff Ely is that by using public communications tools like Twitter and Facebook you can signal to others that you are busy. If you're too busy, people may assume their message got lost in the shuffle.
3) The more you raise the awareness of your message overload, the more sympathy others will have for your late/no response. Blogger Alexandra Samuel has decided to let everyone know she's too busy with an email auto-reply and a Too Big For One Person (#TB41P) hashtag.
4) There are plenty of messages that only require a little response. If I send you an interesting link, I'm usually just looking for an "awesome, thanks".
5) Any private question that requires more than a simple request can be made public. I've done that with my reader request posts. Try to turn a time consuming private questions into public production.
6) Top economics blogger Greg Mankiw proposes a tax on emailing him (I think Tyler Cowen wanted the opposite, but I can't find the link). Maybe if the email is worth his read, you can get your money back.
7) We can all be more sympathetic. I personally can't remember the last time I had an empty inbox. When I send someone a message, I try and forget about it. If they respond they respond. If they don't, they don't.

One final thing worth mentioning is that I am not overwhelmed by the number of messages I receive. So feel free to email or comment and as always, thanks for spending your precious time reading.

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You are the reason why I do not write privately. I would love to hear your thoughts, whether you agree or not.