"People overload" – The new correlating phenomenon to the Internet's information overload
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by Rachel Alexander | August 3rd, 2008

If you're thinking about calling me - DON'T!That person isn't ignoring you or being flaky, they're just overwhelmed with "people overload." For every extra email you
respond to, you give up other parts of your life.

Along with the Internet's "information overload" has come the vastly
expanded ability of people to contact other people. Now, anyone can
email anyone in the world. And with email signatures containing contact
information, or by asking someone to call you, more and more people are
getting your phone number and calling you.

Email is very democratic; it doesn't distinguish between your mom, your
employer, or a random press release sent from some organization 3,000
miles away. Sure there are ways to filter emails, but they all come to
you in some capacity. There isn't yet a sophisticated way to filter out
the emails that don't require any action on your part, versus the ones
that do. A random press release might be something you need to see,
because it might be something you'd like to write about or email to
your friends.

The bigger presence you have on the internet, the more this phenomenon
is becoming a problem. Some have tried to counter it by setting up a
default email auto-reply which usually says something like thank you
for the email, due to the large number of emails received the recipient
may not be able to get back to you.

Not everyone understands it. I spend way too much time explaining to
half my friends why the other half of my (more active, busier) friends
didn't respond to them.  Many people don't even understand this about
famous people, who have it ten times worse than the rest of us.

Every email that comes in is a weighing process: work-related emails
are first priority, since you depend on your job for income. Family
emails are next priority, followed by close friends whose emails
clearly require a response (and if you're in politics, that's a LOT of
emails). After that, it gets difficult. For every extra email you
respond to, you give up other parts of your life: cleaning the house,
fixing broken things around the house, cleaning the pool, getting maintenance done on your car, fixing glitches on and improving your websites, doing charitable work, going to the gym, spending time with your significant other, hobbies like writing, or gasp – taking some time for yourself and watching a movie. I feel guilty every time I watch a movie.

I have unfortunately alienated a few people over the years who did not
grasp this. I could not respond to all of their emails and phone calls
promptly and they became furious with me. It wasn't that I didn't like
them, they simply demanded more of my time than I could give them. I
don't have a couple hours a day to just gab on the phone generally.
Unlike some people, I actually enjoy people. But at some point I need
private time to get personal things done. Unfortunately with the advent of cell phones and blackberries, many people think that you are reachable 24/7. There are not enough hours in the day to do this. If I picked up every phone call that came in, I would get nothing done but talk on the phone all day.

After my cell phone bill came in this past month and it was $300
instead of the usual $55, I realized I had encountered a new phenomenon
of "people overload." The election season has exacerbated this.

What can be done about this? The average person can't afford a personal assistant. Probably awareness is the best solution.
Don't be a time leech. As more people realize that many of us are overwhelmed with requests
for contact, they will be more forgiving. If Jane doesn't respond to
your mass email forwarding the latest denounced rumor from snopes.com,
don't assume she's ignoring you. She may even have read it.

Labels: Culture: General, Culture: Media, General

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Responses to ""People overload" – The new correlating phenomenon to the Internet's information overload"

  1. Geech! I was going to send you a message, but after reading this, I think I'll just keep my thoughts to myself.

    Comment by Ivan Ivanovich | August 5, 2008

  2. Try mousing over the graphic next to this article….

    Comment by Rachel Alexander | August 5, 2008

  3. Despite being a writer of sorts, I am not that much of a verbal communicator. As surprising as that seems, I have never been one of those who spends hours on the phone, chatting at the water cooler, or forwarding emails indiscriminately. Since I developed a facial neuralgia (spiky face pains), I’ve become even less chatty and much more of a writer. When I talk on the phone, it’s a quick hello, brief conversation, and goodbye. Also, my ears ache pressed too long to a phone. So, my personal peeve is people who want to talk on the phone all day.

    The combination of email and portable communications devices has created the 'instant messaging' phenomenon; and with it a sometimes unreasonable expectation of constant, immediate attention grabbing. This is especially pronounced at work where everyone feels their input vital to the success of the enterprise, but also spills over into the personal and alters relationships in ways we never quite anticipate. Many have commented that the leash has grown short and tight. Would that we could turn off that expectation at the end of the day, or even during the day, as family pile on making equal or greater demands of our time and energies. Friends are a little more forebearing; but not always and in inverse ratio to closeness. Before pagers and cell-phones, we could pretend a bit we were away from our desk and let the answering machine field our calls (one feature I miss is hearing the caller, allowing me to pick up or ignore as appropriate). We could then prioritize and respond in a manner that was efficient, fair, and gratifying; without creating an impression of aloofness among the very people to whom we mean to be most accessible.

    Many of us are accused of becoming workaholics or 'hiding out at work', and to some extent that is true; and truer the longer we’re in a relationship. However, some of it is definitely due to the technology. All relations change, strained and broken marriages are nothing new. Yet, there has clearly been an increase in strain traceable to greater availability. You may think that is counter-intuitive, that to have good relationships means you are always available to those ‘significant others’; but it’s just not true. Even in loving relationships, we must have boundaries. In fact, I suspect the most successful relations are those in which boundaries are scrupulously respected and mutually prized. Bosses and coworkers can be demanding, but we appeal to their professionalism to meet us part way. Not so with loved-ones, to whom access is expected and ‘deferred’ or ‘ignored’ means ‘you no longer love me’.

    Thirty years ago, I'd go to work and have little daytime interaction with my wife. Today, she and my son have so much access it seriously interferes with work. Both of us (back then) accepted that ‘at work’ generally meant unavailable; and if she needed to communicate with me it was a) important, b) would wait unless life-threatening, and c) was subject to priorities. Now, often as not, I am bombarded while sitting in meetings, deeply mired in solving problems, or thirty feet in the air with one leg suspended that I might listen to the latest opportunity, anecdote, gossip, news, sharing, anxiety, quarrel or rant. This is not because my wife and son are deliberately or particularly pestiferous, they are simply creatures of culture, technology, and habit; who think cell-phones were invented just so they might communicate (our phone bill reveals wife/me 6:1, son/me 25:1). Technology has broken down an important boundary and we have yet to adapt appropriately to the change. Time to lay down the law?

    Comment by Bob Stapler | August 7, 2008

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