A friend recently lamented that she was unable to reach a client on any of the three available contacts she had for him. “Ah, modern communication!”, she quipped.
It set me thinking. About two conflicting phenomena in my life. First, that I have 5 separate email accounts on my iDevices. I separate different threads of my life into those accounts. I also have active Whatsapp, Skype and Viber accounts for other uses. Second, that I disabled voice mail on my phones about 2-3 years ago. I do not encourage anyone to leave me voice mails, preferring text based messages from emails to Whatsapp to iMessage.
Then there are friends in big-cheese type jobs. They seem to use their work emails for everything. But they never take a phone call, preferring instead to use their secretaries and their voice mails as gatekeepers to manage access to themselves.
Thoroughly curious, I scrolled to see some of the status messages of my contacts on Whatsapp and Viber. I noticed that the Viber status message of a friend, who absolutely detests phone calls, reads “only if you must”.
This isn’t a new problem though. As a relatively early adopter of everything from Amazon reviews (first review written in 1999) to LinkedIn (in 2004) to Quora (just about 4 years ago at the time of writing), I have often found struggled with this overload. And about related issues.
About 7-8 years ago, a friend and I were discussing the etiquette for Google Chat. What happens when the green light on their names indicates they are “available” but they don’t respond when you ping them? Are there opening niceties we must engage in, or should we keep it short and sweet? How do we sign off? Soon after we had that conversation, I got quite tired being pinged, no matter what colour the “light”. I have solved the problem by going invisible on nearly all networks and channels I use. With a few closer friends, I have evolved a sort of linguistic shorthand which lets them assess whether I am seeking a real-time conversation or just sharing something they needn’t read or respond to right away.
So what is going on here? Why do we sign up to all these channels of access, and then put up these roadblocks?
Is there real access, or is it just an illusion?
Or are we just trying to cope with communication overload, while balancing it with our FOMO?
As I ‘fessed up, I have often struggled with this overload. But I was often saved, so to speak by the slowness of network effects materialising on social networks and communities. In other words, few people I knew in real life were on these networks so early.
But there comes a moment when a network — or a platform or tool — jumps the shark. A new normal must then emerge. I recall writing in 2000 about how some Goldman Sachs traders were using (bootleg) chat windows to be real time with their clients. I happened to mention it casually in a conference to a gentleman sitting next to me. He turned out to be their head of security in London. Talk about being in the right place at the right time! A year or so later, authorised IM/ chat clients became mainstream. That is when the proverbial hits the fan.
Meanwhile we find ways to cope — we duck, go cold turkey, find other (emerging?) networks, or switch off our online lives temporarily or permanently.
There is a period of hyper-communication, there is a period of quiet. There is information overload, then there is information diet. Sometimes we go indiscriminately all-you-can-consume, sometimes we curate and retreat into filter bubbles of our own or of algorithmic making.
The wheel will turn again. We will find new problems we cannot manage. Until we can.