Before the 1990s it cost money to send and receive information. Letters had to be typed by specialists, put in envelopes and stamped. PR firms used messengers to deliver urgent items to media offices. Companies employed typists; senior people, who were never expected to type, were given Personal Assistants. Philips calculated the cost of a letter (£3) and used this shocking figure to promote sales of dictation machines.
If you wanted to receive information you had to pay for it: you bought a newspaper, maybe several, and you subscribed to professional, trade and technical titles which usually arrived by post. If you worked in the City you paid high prices for timely information from specialist sources; it arrived by fax or by hand.
Direct mail, which preferred to call itself direct marketing, was by 1996 a highly-refined art. It was expensive to send thousands or millions of sales-letters out by post, so direct marketing experts became skilled at minimising their costs by analysing what worked and what didn’t.
Whatever kind of commercial communication you were initiating, and whatever kind of business information you were receiving, it cost money. There was a lot of waste, but both senders and receivers were conscious of the cost and sought as far as possible to minimise it.
All that changed in the late 90s, starting with the release of Windows 95.
Now we could send any number of communications to any number of people at, apparently, zero cost. It changed the nature of business correspondence; we swiftly got used to receiving a blizzard of irrelevant and time-wasting messages simply because it was easy – and cost-free – for the sender to cc or bcc everyone on a list.
Journalists began to get 100, then 200 and in some cases 400 story propositions a day: not because anyone seriously thought they would be interested, but because it was easier to ‘spray and pray’ than to think about compiling a distribution list. The semi-automatic rifle gave way to the mini-gun, operated by an intern or a trainee with little effort, knowledge or guidance.
Other behavioural changes crept in. The mechanical layout of email messages encouraged a terse style and deterred the use of small courtesies. The instantaneous speed of email transmission provoked rapid response at the expense of clear thinking and accuracy. Brevity and its brother, abbreviation, were taken to denote energy, action, positivity… often at the expense of comprehensibility.
Attention-spans shortened, in the case of young males to (literally) less than that of a goldfish. Browsers and then Google meant that almost any information was available within a few clicks: the unintended consequence was that knowing things became less important than being able to find things on the web. The age of ‘electronic confetti’ had arrived. And it was all free, or seemed to be.
When the media get into the habit of deleting swathes of PR emails unread, and the average duration of website visits is 15 seconds, costlessness begins to look like a mixed benefit. A reaction sets in: quality journalism, written by knowledgeable professionals and therefore worth something, commands a price whether online or in print. Paid circulations fall – except in the case of (for example) The Economist and Private Eye. People who use information to earn their living don’t want listicles: they want verified facts and wise opinion – which cost money, as they always have.
Whether we are professional users of information or just ‘ordinary consumers’ – most of us are both – we are struggling with an excess of information. The average adult in western Europe receives over 4,000 commercial messages a day, offline and online. The natural result is that we screen most of them out, though senders might not realise it. Chartbeat analysed 2bn site visits and concluded that there was no apparent correlation between social share and engagement. A substantial minority of online messages are shared without ever being read; this gives an impression of engagement which is, in fact, an illusion.
Pictures are much easier to absorb than text, so more and more online traffic consists of images. Factoids are quicker to take in than facts; simplified stories, often thrown together at the expense of accuracy and always at the expense of nuance, get more shares and so drive a nervous editorial agenda towards the lowest common denominator. We hear that ’content is king’ but what matters most to media owners is circulation, as it always has.
Speed and simplification are not in themselves harmful, but they combine to impoverish the quality and depth of the information we receive from media outlets, and from each other. Worse, they open the door to those who, for nefarious reasons, commercial reasons or just for fun, want to deceive us with fake stories – like Tiger Woods’ treatment at a sex-addiction clinic. Celebrities and institutions are a natural target for this kind of fraud, which is easy to perpetrate – so much so that the media share notes on verification through groups like Craig Silverman’s; but they are always, in the nature of things, one step behind the fraudsters.
Everyone over the age of fifteen complains about information overload. What can we do about it?
Take more trouble over distribution lists. Consider whether or not the recipient will really find our communication interesting or useful. If in doubt, don’t send. If we bombard other people with irrelevant material they will do the same to us.
Take more time over drafting. Yes, we are all busy and time is at a premium – but one of the reasons for that is the time we waste trying to extract meaning from carelessly-written communications. We all know it’s harder to write cogently – but if a well-crafted message is a compliment, then the opposite is the opposite.
Put quality above quantity. Nowadays most of us have a lurking feeling that we should be sending out tons of emails, tweets, posts and ‘contributions to the conversation’ or we will cease to exist. It’s not true: most of what we receive is a nuisance at best, so it follows that what we send could do with more careful editing.
Imagine that everything we transmit costs us money, as it did in the old days before 1995. If that email meant a deduction of £3 from our bank account, would we still send it? Very likely not