Filtering Communications: Throwing the Baby Out with the Bathwater?

By April 25, 2011

“One of the effects of living with electric information is that we live habitually in a state of information overload. There’s always more than you can cope with.”

This quote by Marshall McLuhan has more than a small ring of truth to it. Anyone with an Internet connection or a Smartphone can now access hundreds of libraries, art galleries, and other reference materials at the push of a button. Doctors can now communicate with other doctors or with patients in remote areas to offer new solutions to those in need. Families can keep track of loved ones who are ill or far away with a few mouse clicks.

But the Internet is also becoming an increasingly saturated space in terms of communication and information. In the Information Age, we may now be moving toward a new and more dangerous age more akin to being called the “Information Overload Age”. For every email from a loved one, we are receiving 10 from advertisers and spammers promising better ways of living for only a “small investment”. For every Facebook update from a friend with pictures of their new baby, we see ten from friends complaining about another long day at work (instead of feeling fortunate to have a job!).

The creators of these applications have offered help, however. Nearly every email program now offers protection against spam, and programs such as Facebook and Twitter offer solutions for parsing only the conversations you are actually interested in reading. Not to mention the faux-omnipotence of being able to “unfriend” or “unfollow” people at will. With enough knowledge and some work, any layperson can now parse every conversational brick into a nice, organized house.

Until the first time Interesting Friend (I’ll call him “IF”) sends you a message saying “Wow! Did you hear about what happened to Uninteresting Friend’s (“UF”) child? He got hit by a bus! I can’t believe you missed the funeral!” Now, you are long-time friends with IF and UF, but you were so tired of the endless photo albums on Facebook of his Chihuahua dressed up like period actors of the 1950’s that you had blocked UF’s updates. You also got so tired of the “Chihuahua Humphrey Bogart Monthly” newsletter from UF that you sent all of UF’s emails to the spam folder. Neither party in this situation is to blame nor completely free of blame, but the communication breakdown has almost certainly damaged a friendship.

This is an extreme situation, but there are many places where communication misses like these have hurt friendships, lost customers and applicants for businesses, and cost job-seekers great career opportunities. The opposite approach–reading through every bit of news feed, Twitter stream, email, text, voicemail, and special announcement you receive–can amount to a huge waste of time. So how do you cope?

The simplest solution for managing your incoming communications in the online world is ironically the same as managing your incoming communications in the offline world–listen more than you talk. Invite all manner of conversation, but master the art of skimming and collecting information on a very “high altitude” level. Also, realize that it is OK to keep your filters a bit tight, but make sure you know how to adjust them quickly in the event a conversation gets missed. Don’t be surprised, however, if there are still times where a tough apology for missing something will still be necessary. Lastly, make sure you choose your updates to your friends carefully. If you feel like you are sending too much email or too many updates to your friends and family, odds are that you are (except your mom, she can never have too many updates!). If you are unsure, ask. Your friends and family will tell you.

In conclusion, we have more information than ever at our fingertips, and with that have also come a host of new ways to communicate with others and allow them to communicate with us. Sources of information come from all over the globe in seconds, and it can be difficult to find a happy medium between what we consider a conversation and what we consider an interruption. We have clear lines drawn for what we consider to be junk from unknown sources and mediums, but when junk comes from friends it can be difficult to filter correctly or decide to engage in conversation for fear we will be drawn into more information overload. Using simple filters to paint the broad strokes of informational housecleaning paired with smarter fine strokes of smaller filters and general browsing techniques can ensure that the conversations you are focusing on the most are those which matter most to you without wasting time.