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Last Updated: Monday, 13 October, 2003, 15:55 GMT 16:55 UK
Web guru fights info pollution
By Jo Twist
BBC News Online technology reporter

E-mail, the net, weblogs, instant messaging, text messaging, multi-media messaging... the list of ways to communicate electronically in the 21st Century is growing.

Frustrated woman on a computer
People need to prioritise and be more disciplined
To some, all these tools which are only a couple of clicks and screen flicks away have transformed the way they work and run their lives.

To web guru Jakob Nielsen, it is computers which are starting to control us, and it is time to "rule the computer and put it back in its place".

Known as the king of usability, Dr Nielsen has published and consulted extensively on how best to maximise the net and websites around what people want.

But he has recently turned his critical eye to what he says is a drastically worsening situation in electronic communication, something he has dubbed as "information pollution".

Daily pollutants

When the World Wide Web created a navigable web in the 1990s, e-mail and the net became a key way to communicate quickly and without much effort.

But even then there was much worried mooting about information overload.

"Information pollution is information overload taken to the extreme," Jakob Nielsen told BBC News Online while in London for the Nielson Norman Group User Experience Conference.

"It's where it stops being a burden and becomes an impediment to your ability to get your work done.

DR NIELSEN'S TOP TIPS
Dr Jakob Nielsen
Time manage and prioritise
Create more than one e-mail account
Shunt other e-mails to places you will look at later
Think hard who you send an e-mail to
Don't reply to all, just those who have to know
Get a decent spam filter
Don't be event driven: resist e-mail alerts

"The entire ideology of information technology for the last 50 years has been that more information is better, that mass producing information is better," he says.

But the net is now so much an machine with all the answers instantly, it has mutated into a "procrastination apparatus", which spews information without much prioritisation Dr Nielsen argues.

E-mail is worse he says, because it is a weird mix of personal and mass communication.

Last month the head of a chain of mobile phone stores banned staff from using e-mail in the office, claiming the phone is more efficient.

"You could ban the phone and meetings because they are all time wasters in a way. The proper approach is a more prudent use of these things," Dr Nielsen says.

It is not that all these tools at people's fingertips are bad. It is the accumulative effect of all the uncontrolled flow of information and communication which concerns Dr Nielsen.

Protection

He likens it to pollution in the physical environment.

"We don't really mind one polluting factory in the world, but we mind millions," he explains.

One e-mail is good, one fact on the web is good, one e-mail newsletter is good, but when you face 200 e-mails daily, that is when problems start and people feel strangled.

"My inbox is impossible to deal with, there are just hundreds," he says.

This may sound familiar to many for whom there is not enough time in the day to physically deal with every e-mail, particularly when spam drops into your inbox.

"If people don't develop really harsh counter-measures, it will basically destroy their ability to use the computer in any productive way and it becomes the ruler of your time," warns Dr Nielsen.

"You have to have anti-spam filters too, and I think maybe we have to have anti-spam legislation."

"We have to hold people accountable for how much they pollute", he says, just as in the physical environment.

"It is accepted that if you destroy part of the environment for everybody else, there should be some amount of penalty. The same should be true of spam."

Reigning it

The fix for information pollution is not complex, but is about taking back control your computer has over you.

Prioritising, self-discipline in what you read and what you send, filters and anti-spam software, all help.

Intelligent e-mail software will eventually play a part in cleaning up information pollution, and less critical information could be shunted to a place you might visit once a day, like intranets with blogs or message boards.

"Every time you send an e-mail, think about how much you are costing your company because of all your colleagues who have to read it," he says.

People need to stop and think if they really need a message to everyone, as often the answer is no, Dr Nielsen suggests.

"You need to respect the recipient's time and help them to prioritise."

That respect for the reader's time is an old idea, but one that has been missing, Dr Nielsen suggests. It is time to stop your computer deciding how your time is allocated.

"Ultimately, time is a non-renewable resource. Once that day is gone, it is never coming back."


Are you suffering from information pollution? Do you send and receive too many e-mails? What can we do to tackle this problem? Send us your views

People should treat e-mail more like real letters than a phone call. E-mail was not designed as an instant messaging system, and it should not be used as such. If you need an instant response, use the phone. Read e-mail and reply to it in a single block of time in your day, if at all possible. Spam needs to be controlled at the enterprise level; users should not have to run their own spam filters. Ultimately, the law will be required to tackle the problem, as they will too for tackling the deliberate pollution of Google and other search engines.
Tim Cutts, UK

My work involves dealing with colleagues across a wide range of time zones. In some cases it's almost impossible to call in working hours. As a result we rely on e-mail and mostly it works. People need to be sensible and disciplined in the way they use e-mail, just like any other technology. Yes, I get a lot of spam but it only takes a couple of seconds to delete it.
John, Switzerland

Executive summaries are just as vital in emails as in other documents. A concise summary of the remainder of the email is normally sufficient; if the reader feels the executive summary triggers further reading, then so be it. I am Cc'd on SO many emails, where one or two lines are applicable to me, but I feel obliged to read the whole email 'just in case'...
Sam Pemberton, USA

Having an always-on connection with Outlook permanently open in the background with a notification system was ultimately my biggest mistake - couple that with Instant Messaging and my productivity went through the floor... Now I have got rid of the notifications, don't have IM on during working hours and check my mails on average about three times during the day. Coupled with having created a complicated list of filters and a closed exemption list, I only have to react to spam once a day - usually last thing before I turn my computer off rather than getting notified every 5-10 mins throughout the day...
Mike Bailey, Austria

Only idiots send CC mail and forwards of those oh-so amusing emails that everyone and their dog gets a copy of, repeatedly. I've had 1 virus in nearly 10 years of PCs, (1995) caught from a infected floppy, how many have you had in the past year? Plain text is my friend, why isn't it yours?
A Mead, UK

When I go on holiday, I switch my telephone answer-phone off so that I don't come back to loads of messages to be dealt with. What would be great would be if I could switch email off, so that when I come back, my inbox isn't clogged up with hundred of spam messages or messages from people who couldn't get through on the 'phone! We ought to be able to turn email on and off just like a phone.
David Mair, UK

Pick up the phone or walk to the office of nearby contacts I have often got e-mail from 2 desks away arranging lunch get real people and learn how to communicate ie talk to each other.
Joe, Ireland

It's the spam and the invasive advertising windows that are irritating. I'm a translator, writer, researcher and have friends and relatives worldwide; I live in a country where there is very little hard news about the rest of the world in the local media, and the Internet is indispensable. The cons are comparatively insignificant. When one lacks a real life or is momentarily in a bardo one can get overly sucked into one's computer, but when you've got real people and activities to get involved in, it's fantastic how easily you can do without email and your PC. So bravo for internet, the world cannot do without it anymore, until we are all enabled for communicating telepathically.
Liz Medina, Chile

Solve the problem with itself. Technology got us into this and technology can get us out of it. We need people, hackers, whatever to work on getting spam under control, just like phone solicitation or junk mail. If that was taken care of, I would only receive 2-5 emails a day at home as apposed to 35. That's way more manageable and for all the other new digital ways to overload, I say scale it down to your bear minimum, personally. Don't purchase or use anything you don't really need to make your life work easier. Then if you complicate something, you must simplify something else, that way you never get out of balance.
A L James, US

I have a hotmail address. I use that whenever I have to register with an email address. I never check the mail on it. As for my ordinary address, I have taken time to create email filters. When I receive mail it sorts itself into the appropriate boxes. If anything is not recognised it stays in the Inbox and gets deleted without me giving it a second glance. Works a charm!
Christine, UK

Responsible management of this problem lies with the sender. Keep it short, consider the alternatives, use the correct netiquette. This requires effort! It's here to stay, the solution lies with defining your fields, and their limits, of interest. The responsibility then lies with the sender to know what you are interested in receiving.
Dom, Wales

I currently have six email addresses and it takes ages to check them all. A way of making things easier would be to have sub addresses. For example all work related stuff would go to me@place.com/work. Alternatively email could be phased out and to contact someone you would fill in a form on a specific contact website which could prioritise.
Matthew Snape, UK

The internet needs sorting out too. You wouldn't put a pile of books in a room and call it a library, but that is what we do with the net. A library has books filed in order, under useful headings, plus a catalogue that describes the items, and links them to author names and subject headings. Search engines help, but shouldn't all sites come with keyword tags based on an agreed vocabulary, which is translated automatically into different languages?
David Johnson, UK

It's easy, EDIT, SELECT ALL, 'DELETE'. If it is that important they'll phone!
Bob Biggart, UK

At work I deal with email in the following way:
1. Can I answer this now with an immediate reply
2. Can I pass it on to someone else to deal with
3. If neither 1 or 2 and I'm dubious about the need to spend time on it then I ignore it. If it really was important the person will get back to me.
4. Anything that's left goes in the to-do box and I work through them as part of my daily workload.
Ian, UK

The view expressed by AC, that people don't need e-mail because life went on before its existence, is that of a luddite. Life went on before telephones, postal mail, indoor plumbing, electricity, the wheel, and fire, too. Surely AC wouldn't advocate humanity's giving up those technologies?
Peter, Switzerland

How about a limit on an individual mail size which would force senders to get their message into say 20 lines. No attachments allowed. It would force them to be concise, and allow fast reading. More detail could be acquired by meeting face to face or by phone. If you need to send documents it would have to be sent by an alternative, less convenient method like ftp - (to avoid that replacing e-mail).
Jeremy Edwards, Belgium

We all need to be responsible. I send email to as few people as I can and when I receive mail that is not relevant I tell the sender. Subject lines must be appropriate to the mail. It also helps to telephone the sender of email avoiding all that mailing back and forth. Spam, of course, gets deleted.
Russell, UK

I work on a PC all day long and whilst information via e-mail is useful, and necessary to my job, I must say that I find it so crass when a colleague next to me would rather send me an e-mail than communicate verbally. This is a classic case of IT overload and if not checked, will bring about a generation of people that lack confidence in themselves and in communicating directly with others.
Jon, England

You simply don't need email. Do you think life never existed before it? Or that people couldn't communicate without text messages? Simply e-mail all of your contacts today saying you will no longer be checking your email. If people want to get in touch they can use the telephone.
A. C., UK

After using the internet for the last six years I am now considering doing away with email, I receive about 60 emails on average a day, amongst these there is normally one or two valid email. Reading emails has become a daily routine of pressing the delete key.
Steve Higgins, Somerset

I switched off my Instant Messenger a few months ago. I was getting bogged down "Hi, any news?" distracting me every half hour and IM conversations lasting 20 minutes where the same information in a "real" chat would have taken 2 minutes. Now people email me and I can reply when I have time. What's more, I can give better attention too. The only problem is the thing keeps re-installing itself - it's like a weed that won't go away!
Alistair, Ireland

I think the key to making controlling information is to integrate it - as mobile phones, PCs, PDAs, the Internet, digital TV and so on all become easier to use together and control from one place, it makes controlling information and organising things much easier. You can, for instance, add an appointment to one calendar and have it update automatically on all the others - worrying about synchronising all your different pieces of technology is no longer so difficult or such a worry.
Guy, Scotland

I asked to be banned from my favourite online newsgroup as it was instrumental in helping me procrastinate far, far too much throughout the day. I fear that one of the only ways we'll be able to control this sort of information overload is through personal discipline, but how many people really have that? Admittedly I don't, hence my voluntary exile.
Michael Howarth, England

E-mail is driving me mad! It seems that people "cc" everybody to cover their own backs. To reduce the number of emails that I receive I automatically delete an email where I am "cc'd". It sounds drastic but it works quite well.
Gareth Edwards, UK

If e-mail senders were charged/taxed (say) 5p per message, this ONLY BEING APPLIED if the sender exceeds (say) 200 emails between Sunday1200 to sunday1200 when the entire amount would be billed. This would mean that the personal user would never pay but the spammers who send out millions at random would have to start thinking about their targets. However this system MUST NEVER involve government in any way or they will see it as an easy revenue. The ISP could perhaps direct it to charity as in Lotto
Lou Moore, England

An important part of the problem is that emails are in one long list and unless subject lines are uniform it's hard to sort them - you end up just going through them chronologically or else missing important ones that have misleading subject lines. If we had a different email address for each area of our work - and a separate one for personal - then it would be easier to sort things out - maybe? But of course we'd have x times as many spams too.
Liz Kilbey, UK

I have a boss who only recently discovered email. He has now taken this method of communication to the extreme in my view - Working in the field I am regularly in contact with my customers via email, unfortunately, I also have to contend with multiple emails from my boss who forwards notes on emails already received - 2 or 3 times. This means in an average day, 2 hours are wasted trawling through data that has already been noted/actioned/binned. Various comments have fallen on deaf ears, so now, very reluctantly, I send back (only to him) as many as he sends me with small comments - thanks, appreciated, etc. Hopefully he will get the message!
Andrew, UK

Simply deal with you emails as you would physical post. If you don't know who it's from skim it if it's not of interest bin (delete) it. I also have two addresses, when filling in on-line forms which may generate junk-emails I always give my 'Trash' address which I look over every now and again but mainly ignore leaving my main mail-box clear.
Nick, UK

A problem in the workplace is the unstoppable flow of huge documents being e-mailed. Before electronic communication, an author had to think about the time (HIS/HER time) involved in printing, copying and distributing a tome. With e-mail, a multi megabyte document packed with colour graphics can be sent to huge numbers of disinterested colleagues. Like most, I can't read a big document on screen so I print it at a cost to my employer. If I am sent something, I feel duty-bound to read it and my day is dominated by e-mails and the desktop PC. Oh for the days when I could think!
Tony Rayner, UK

Personal email - accept it. Spam - buy virus software and read the register and hope that somebody will bring in universal legislation to control it. People CCing wildly in corporate systems - need education and a knowledge base, not a 2 mile CC list.
Gavin Davenport, UK

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SEE ALSO:
Anti-spam laws 'lack bite'
23 Sep 03  |  Technology
Mobile boss bans e-mails
18 Sep 03  |  Business
Net struggles with data overload
16 Sep 03  |  Technology
Clearing that e-mail backlog
27 Aug 03  |  Magazine
Junk e-mail 'stresses workers'
22 May 03  |  Technology
Parenting suffers in e-mail overload
20 May 02  |  Science/Nature


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