Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Economics of Information Flow

I spent many years working with document management systems - software that would facilitate the distribution, flow and storage of information within an organization. I worked with both public and private institutions; large and small; everything from mid-size single office companies to extended multi-nationals; municipal, state and federal government to colleges and universities. And they all had somewhat unique patterns of information flow that were apparently driven less by their physical structure and management structure and more by the players who held positions of influence within the structure.

This holds true at a very granular level. The amount of and quality of information flowing in and out of any particular office is less about the function of the office than the management style of the person in the office. Anyway, over this time period I witnessed the growth and maturation of various internal proprietary email software systems and eventually with the opening up of the internet, the ubiquitous email systems of today.

Pay Attention!
How often we hear this dictum as we grow up. And there really is an underlying economics that plays out in information flow as we grow older. In a typical office environment you both create and read (consume) many items of information throughout the day. When you send a memo to someone, you are asking that they ‘pay’ attention to it. You are asking them to ‘spend’ time with it and they have to judge how much of their time it is ‘worth’.

The intended recipient looks for various clues to make these judgements, and as we moved from a world of paper documents sent via interoffice mail to the world of digital word processing and instantaneous email, the nature of these clues changed as well. In the paper world, I may judge how ‘formal’ a communication seems to be by how it is packaged… what kind of paper it is on… in a binder or not, and how it was sent to me.

As email systems evolved into a kind of dull uniformity with least-common-denominator functionality, a small set of meta-data sifted out as the only clues we have about such items. We can see a) From - who sent it, b) Title - what they called it (30 characters or less, usually), and c) When it was sent. Though it is little enough to go on, we clearly make decisions and prioritize how we view items based on these clues. Items from your boss likely get top attention; items you were expecting from someone or a title that hints at major organization changes grab your attention also.

Another reality though was the explosion of content. Email systems made it easy to create and distribute things, and even worse to forward items on to virtually any number of people. A physical inbox can only handle so many items before they topple out the side and onto the floor. An electronic one, however, has no such limit, but it easily stretches the limits of our abilities to deal with what’s in it!

The 1980s saw the explosion of inter-office email and the 1990s added email from the rest of the world through the internet. Yet we were given fewer clues than ever about the contents of each individual item. The beginning waves of spam added even more to the problem, since it often uses the from and title fields to grab our attention. There are now more emails sent per day than there are people on the planet! And the numbers will probably continue to grow.

Coupled with the rise of cell phone usage in the last decade, computer based instant messaging and the more recent rise of cell phone based SMS text messaging… we are increasingly flooded with information. Is it any surprise that we have a growing attention deficit disorder problem?

SNS Comes of Age
Our youth (and growing numbers of adults) seem to be seeking refuge in social networking software (SNS) such as MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn or others. They have more tools for creating connections with others and filtering out unwanted spam, and they offer many dynamic social networking tools as well. Many of the youth on MySpace indicate they no longer use email, but use only the equivalent messaging tools within the SNS.

The dramatic usage growth of MySpace (nearly the top visited site on the net) and Facebook (5 million new users in the past six weeks) definitely points to a growing trend, and recent calls for the development of common standards for social networking software sounds a lot like a replay of the call for email standards in the late 80s. Whatever direction this takes, we are rapidly becoming a society that though drowning in information seems to reflect a dearth of substantive human communication. Either the tools or filters to handle it better will have to evolve quickly!

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