posted 1 Oct 2007 in Volume 11 Issue 2
How would you and your company cope if we could hear spam?
I RECENTLY went to see a performance artist friend of mine that put on a show called, ‘Speech’. It was about communication and featured a very dramatic number called ‘Spam’. He had gathered and printed out all the things he had received in his life recently that he considered to be spam, from menus through the letterbox to e-mail and junk text messages. There were thousands of sheets of papers in the room, gathered over a very short space of time. Then, he and the rest of the cast proceeded to read at the same time, sheet after sheet of spam. It was deafening. And it made me think, have we just accepted this as part of our daily and online norm? Is our complacency towards spam actually contributing to the problem? And how on Earth can spammers think this is worth their time? Who responds to it anyway and how has our communication changed because of it?
On the surface, this may seem like more of a pub conversation than an opinion column but I feel that organisational communication is becoming less and less valued as the noise around us increases. We are happy to just delete message after message without thinking about it now. And it’s not just spam. So many organisations have gotten into the habit of sending group e-mails, and cc’ing everybody in the employee directory who is even remotely involved in the project, that talk is becoming cheap. You quickly scan the message and ask yourself ‘do I have to do anything?’ No? Good… delete. Repeat. God forbid what will happen if you go on holiday.
Combine the noise around us with the social network phenomenon and you’ve not only got a lot of spam but a lot of spam masquerading as content and communication. And that’s where I think the problem lies. We’re becoming blasé about all the words around us and more willing to output words, not listen to them. By cc’ing a group, we can tick the box that says we have informed everyone. But have we, really? Combine this with our impatience online when, if it’s not in the first page of the results, we’re not willing to look. Where will this leave us all in a few years? Up to our eyeballs in content that is primarily spam, spending the vast majority of our time sorting through the noise, impatiently and angrily. Filters are only somewhat effective and often place important messages in the junk folder. Some days I feel all I do is figure out what is important and relevant so I can come back to work the next day and do it all again. When do I actually work? Or is this now actually work?
Of course, I am being dramatic to make a point but as someone who helps organisations re-organise and optimise their content online every day, all this sorting out what is actually valuable versus what is simply spam is a worry. As companies open up their intranets to include wikis and blogs, encouraging everyman to author their own content, the problem will only grow. We must start thinking about making the words we contribute count just as we would appreciate the same courtesy from others as we have limited time to filter through it and decide what’s relevant. We must also start thinking about the reader, not just us as the sender.
Less is usually more, as they say, and giving the user a quality experience on your website or blog still involves setting up the correct content hierarchy and user journeys so they can contribute as appropriate, but find the content they came looking for without having to wade through page after page of noise. Good website design now must take into consideration noise to ease differentiation between fact from opinion and enable spam to be filtered out.
Additionally, as you think about opening up your communication, think about closing some of it down. What about making the group e-mail a thing of the past? Do we really all need to be cc’d? I know some organisations that have declared one day a week an e-mail free day and it’s made a real impact as it makes you stop and think about the act of communication instead of the habit of it.
And if you’re thinking of setting up any kind of wiki or blog on your site, be sure to understand where it fits contextually in your content structure and what content is now no longer relevant. Some users will always be ‘lurkers’ and won’t want to contribute so going too far in the open contributions route can be intimidating. There should always be a good balance of structure and content, community and collaboration. Just flipping the ‘edit’ switch on existing content isn’t appropriate either. The idea of having a wiki is to create a knowledge resource that increases in value by expert contributions, group thought and collaboration, not increased traffic that creates administration overhead and headaches for the owner.
So for now, I say thank goodness we can’t hear the noise that our e-mail inboxes, websites and text messages produce. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen.