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pinEditorial: Too Much Information

Overload Journal #111 - October 2012 + Journal Editorial   Author: Frances Buontempo
Overload usually has an editorial. Frances Buontempo explains why she hasn’t had time to write one for this issue.

I apologise that I have not had time to write a proper editorial this time. I have been far too busy, but I’m not sure what I’ve spent my time doing, so I took some time out to research this. Hopefully the results will suffice, in lieu of an editorial.

How do you spend your time? How much of it is in front of a computer? How much of it is dealing with emails or being distracted, or even informed, by social networking sites? My personal answers are

  1. Unwisely
  2. Too much

I wondered if I spend too much time on emails because I get more than some people, so asked on accu-general. I got four numerical answers, so this is clearly not valid to draw general conclusions from. Nonetheless,

Paul F:

For my summer hols, I didn’t read any e-mail for 3 weeks [including 1 day bank holiday], and I had about 1000 mails or about 70 per working day at work. On this account I had something like 1600, almost all from mailing lists (accu-general, Qt interest, doxygen, valgrind) or spam, or about 80 per day, working or not working.

Alan G:

Yesterday I was offline and so got 0. On Wednesday I got 258 (plus some on accounts that are less easy to count).

Richard Howells:

About 100 that I actually see, plus about 100 the spam filter catches. I skim the list and occasionally notice the odd false positive. There may be more false positives that I don’t notice.

Colin Paul Gloster:

After deleting (some) spam I estimate an arithmetic mean of circa 147 emails per day in a sample of 243 recent days.

Previously, my gmail account got about 100 a day, ignoring spam. This has now dropped to 20 or so, because my email now automatically marks certain messages as read and sends them to a relevant folder. This allows me to use my inbox as a to-do list and choose when to spend time reading things on discussion groups etc. However, I do still spend too much time reading them. The problem of deciding what to read in detail also applies to facebook and twitter. Certainly twitter messages are short, but sometimes twitter reaches a speed of one tweet per minute. Several of these also end up on facebook. Oh for something to just summarise this for me without the duplication, and also filter out ‘noise’, such as “Aaaaa-waaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyyyyy!”, “phew”, “Nooooooooooooooooo!”, “Home again, home again. (Still quite pissed)”.1 This data deluge is certainly a case of far too much information.

The article ‘Am I wasting my time organizing email?’ suggests “foldering may be a reaction to incoming message volume” [Whittaker11]. Most people on the accu-general ‘survey’ mentioned the spam filter. This most basic form of folder is extremely common. Various algorithms are employed to catch spam. I wonder if similar algorithms could be employed to catch other emails, that while not spam, the recipient would have no interest in. As Alan Griffiths mentioned, deciding what to read can be influenced by mood, so trying to automate this could be difficult.

How do people decide which emails to read?

Paul F mentioned glancing at automatic status updates just to check there are no problems. I have used filters to send automatic updates to folders, attempting to leave them as unread if there’s a problem. This reduces the volume of email to deal with. Why are there so many machines sending out emails that other machines ‘read’ and then squirrel away? Perhaps there is no point in emails such as these. Since we are also influenced by who sent them, possibly the subject line, possibly how much time we have on our hands, attempting to automate an ‘Is it worth reading’ filter would be an interesting challenge.

Why do we save emails?

A blog posting on the 37signals website [37signals05] asks the question, do we save our phone calls. No we don’t. We might take notes if needed, but most phone call conversations are throw away. We’ll ring back if we forget something, so why do we keep such a huge volume of emails? Upon asking Google, ‘why do we save emails’, I was presented with information on:

  1. Why I need to save money
  2. Why we need to save the Arctic
  3. Why I need to save rooster tail feathers (that one nearly pulled me in, wasting more time)
  4. Why should we save tigers.

Since Google won’t answer the question this requires some thought. Some employers enforce email keeping, perhaps for regulatory purposes, but they will then archive all the emails for us. Having saved all the emails, how do we approach finding them later on? Einstein reminds us [Einstein]:

Intelligence is not the ability to store information, but to know where to find it.

The re-finding email survey mentioned previously, [Whittaker11], concluded people’s behaviour varied and was influenced by their email client: threaded conversations reduce the amount of scrolling down needed to scan for a previous communication, so tended to reduce the number of folders used. Having many folders requires a degree of effort and memory in order to find where you might have put something, and finally better searching tools speeds up retrieval. I sometimes wonder if anything really bad would happen if I deleted all my emails.

Perhaps Knuth’s approach to email is the only sensible one [Knuth]:

I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I’d used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime.

Though I have tended to concentrate on emails so far, facebook and twitter have been mentioned in passing. It sometimes seems that I am drowning in noise, but there are gems in the stream which I don’t want to miss. Other things add to the stream of data. Why do I have so many bookmarks in my browser? In the process of researching something, I will leave myself a trail of other, sometimes only vaguely related, background to follow up on one day. Will I ever read them? Do they even exist anymore? Mind you, why do I have so many books in my house that I haven’t read yet? Partly because I waste time trying to deal with emails, and maybe because I start reading books that are too big. Why are so many technical books so big? The other day, I weighed K&R. It come in at a sensible 375 grammes. How many technical books do you own that weigh less than this? How many books would you not put on your kitchen scales since they look far too big? I recently contacted Amazon and asked them to state the weight of the books they sell and allow me to order search results by weight. Feel free to back me up on this.

What have we learnt?

Trying to sift the wheat from the chaff manually is time consuming. Ideally something that would automatically summarise all interesting emails, tweets, facebook posts, books and so on and provide it in one short post would be a brilliant time-saver. Whatever happened to summly? [Summly] Trying to automatically define interesting is a very difficult problem, and might just be a day-dream. I have saved myself time by keeping an eye on the clock and being more aggressive about ignoring or deleting posts before being distracted by them.

References

[37signals05] ‘Why do we treat email differently than a phone call?’ (2005): http://37signals.com/svn/archives2/why_do_we_treat_email_differently_than_a_phone_call.php

[Einstein] Einstein – http://www.phnet.fi/public/mamaa1/einstein.htm

[Knuth] Knuth, D. ‘Email (let’s drop the hyphen)’ http://www-cs-faculty.stanford.edu/~uno/email.html

[Summly] http://www.summly.com/

[Whittaker11] Whittaker, S., Matthews, T., Cerruti, J., Badenes, H. and Tang, J. (2011) ‘Am I wasting my time organizing email? A study of email refinding’ in Proceedings of the 2011 annual conference on Human factors in computing systems, also available from http://people.ucsc.edu/~swhittak/papers/chi2011_refinding_email_camera_ready.pdf

  1. You know who you are!

Overload Journal #111 - October 2012 + Journal Editorial