Segmenting communication

I’ve been called old-fashioned when it comes to communication. Some people don’t understand why I like email so much. (I love email. It’s the best. Please email me.)

One reason is that it’s the only good way to send messages which are clearly non-urgent, and can be easily tracked. Why is this important? I think it saves everyone a lot of time and attention, by removing unnecessary interruptions.

Message urgency

Communications can be segmented in various ways, one of which is by urgency. Most people would agree that there’s a relatively clear one-dimensional spectrum of message urgency, from “I found a cool cat picture” to “I’m outside your door” to “My house is on fire”. Broadly we could refer to these as low-urgency (whenever), medium-urgency (as soon as convenient), and high-urgency (right now).

A hundred years ago, when our choices of communication were limited, things were pretty straightforward. Low urgency? Send a letter. Medium urgency? A telegram might do. High urgency? Phone call.

Twenty years ago, things were similar. You might send a letter or email for a low-urgency message. Medium urgency could be a text, or a message through an IM platform such as MSN, AIM, or IRC. High urgency would be a phone call, ideally to someone’s mobile if they had one.

Now we’re in a world where a significant amount of communication goes through platforms like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, WeChat, Snapchat, and Instagram, where messages occupy an usually large portion of the urgency spectrum. While there are other reasons these platforms may not be ideal, I think there’s a high productivity cost associated with the lack of urgency segmentation in messages sent through these platforms.

Cost of interruptions

There might be benefits to multi-tasking in some situations, but generally it’s considered bad for productivity. Taking this idea further, the concept of Deep Work – long periods of uninterrupted focus – has become popular in recent years, and associated with success in challenging fields.

The interruption cost is worth paying in the case of an urgent message. But because of the lack of segmentation, a large number of non-urgent messages also incur this cost. The average WhatsApp user receives around 50 messages per day. How many of those are urgent to the extent of needing to be seen within a few minutes? Almost certainly no more than a handful. Yet for most people those will all trigger a sound or vibration alert, distracting them from what they’re doing at the time.

Tools for dealing with this are fairly limited. Some options:

Two things I’d really like to see (please let me know if you know of a way to do this!):

  • Opt-in, rather than opt-out, to notifications: this should really be a standard feature on mobile operating systems. Currently whenever I install a new app I then have to go and disable notifications separately.
  • Prod: disable notifications by default for a messaging app, but give users the option to notify others of urgent messages on a per-message basis.

Productivity

It might seem a bit misguided to talk about social networking apps in terms of productivity, since productivity might not be something you particularly care about. However, increased productivity will tend to mean you spend less time doing things you don’t like and more time doing things you enjoy, so even if you’re not interested in increasing your output, you’ll probably gain from investing in increased productivity.

Equally, interruptions detract from experiences where productivity isn’t involved. Watching a film, going for a walk, or just having dinner with someone are all generally better without unnecessary notifications.

In certain areas productivity can be a final goal – such as at work. Now that IM (Skype, Slack, Bloomberg…) is a staple in the office, it’s a huge attention drain. I think in the vast majority of cases it probably does more harm than good, especially in a culture that overly values quick responses. Note that here, email is only a good solution if it’s used properly. As always, Cal Newport has some suggestions.

Snow Monkeys in Japan — Two Perspectives

I was recently in Nagano, Japan. When someone I met there told me about a place called Snow Monkey Park, which has both hot springs and monkeys, I was immediately sold.

I looked up some pictures of this place, and it looked incredible. People bathing in hot springs with monkeys!

After a short train ride and a bit of a hike I arrived at the park. As promised, it was teeming with incredibly cute wild Japanese macaques, as well as the expected camera-wielding tourists.

While walking around I noticed how I, just like everyone else, spent most of my time there trying to get a good shot of the monkeys.

People didn’t come because they liked it, they came here to take pictures that made it look like the kind of place you’d want to go.

And it looks just like that. But it’s not. The monkeys are wild, but their habitat is far from it. The rock pool filled with hot spring water? That was built especially for the monkeys. In fact, they were building an extension to it while I was there.

Few of the pictures of this place online include the workmen, or any of the pipes transporting water in and out of the pool. Because those don’t make it look like the kind of place you’d want to go.

So everyone who goes there goes to great lengths to get nice shots which don’t feature the workmen or the pipes. These shots then make other people want to go.

When those people get there they secretly feel a bit cheated, but are forced to keep up the illusion because OH MY GOD IS THAT A MONKEY SPA?! So cute!

The Japanese macaque traditionally builds its nest in the slightly warmer areas surrounding generators

It’s not that big a deal, but it’s kind of stupid how we get trapped in this cycle. And it’s a shame, because there’s so much natural beauty in the surrounding area. In fact, I enjoyed the walk to the park a lot more than the park itself.

But somehow an endless stream of people will pay to hang out around other people just so they can take pictures that make it look like they had a great time.

I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here. Something about Instagram maybe, or the unfortunate incentives in a world in which social media takes centre stage, making it more important to look like you’re having a good time than to actually have a good time?

Anyway, Japan is great. And deep-fried snow monkey breast is delicious!

Ok, not really. Well it might be, but I didn’t eat any.

If you do ever go to the snow monkey park, try the noodle place next to the station. The tempura soba is great 🙂

Getting the Most out of Facebook

And Letting It Get Less out of You

Facebook is incredible. Even just 10 years ago it would have been hard to think that there would be one go-to online identity service.

That instead of giving someone your number when you meet them, just exchanging names could be enough to stay in touch with them for years.

That you don’t lose touch with people when they move. That you could keep up with the lives of people living anywhere in the world. That you could share pictures with all your friends at the click of a button.

But all these benefits come at a cost. Since Facebook is a for-profit company and not a public service, their main goal is to make money. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s worth keeping in mind how it affects Facebook’s interaction with us, its users.

“If you’re not paying then you’re not the customer; you are the product being sold”

Setting aside issues of privacy and Facebook gathering and selling your information, Facebook makes money by literally charging advertisers for a piece of your attention. One of the main ways in which it does this is through the News Feed.

There are entire teams dedicated to optimising the News Feed to keep you scrolling. The more you scroll, the more adverts you see. The more adverts you see, the more money Facebook makes.

I recently read the book Deep Work by Cal Newport, in which he advocates deliberate use of social media. In fact, he goes so far as to recommend quitting social media altogether. While I think that’s overkill, his book led me to re-examine how I used Facebook and to come up with a few easy ways to get the most out of it.


Making Facebook your own

Keep what you like, get rid of the rest

By changing the way you access Facebook, you can make it what you want it to be.

Thinking about how I use Facebook, these are the things I value:

  • One platform to message any of my friends
  • Being invited to events and inviting others to events
  • Seeing significant updates for certain close friends

These are the things I catch myself doing which I want to avoid:

  • Mindlessly opening Facebook on my phone and scrolling through the News Feed any time I go a second without stimulation
  • Seeing just the good bits of other people’s lives and wondering why I’m not on holiday, why I’m not running a marathon, or why I’m not moving in to a new house
  • “Oh wow! That girl I met in Thailand in 2012 just dyed her hair! ”

To serve Facebook’s advertising goals, the above are addictive by design and so the best way to avoid them is probably to avoid the News Feed altogether.

It turns out that this isn’t too hard to do. I’m using a combination of tools I found through recommendations from friends (thanks Ed Moyse!), Google, and Quora:

Facebook Messenger

A dedicated app, only for messaging (iOS/Android). No distractions. For a desktop version, go to Messenger.com.

Kill News Feed for Chrome

This extension gives you Facebook, minus the News Feed. Once installed, you can go to facebook.com and do absolutely anything you like — look up friends, message people, check your notifications, sign up to events. Except for scrolling through the News Feed.

Facebook.com/notifications

Bookmark this on your phone. This shows just your notifications, for those times when you’re thinking “I wonder if anything has happened that I should know about” but don’t want to get dragged into anything irrelevant. I use this, together with Messenger, instead of the Facebook app on my phone.


While this might not work for everyone, I’ve found it to be really useful so far. However you feel about this exact solution, you might like to think about what‘s right for you rather than leaving it up to Facebook to decide. And if you come to any interesting conclusions, I’d love to hear about them!


Thanks for reading! If you love the News Feed and this all seems a bit odd to you, you might like this article on a few not-so-well-known ways to customise the News Feed.

If you liked what you read here, I’d highly recommend reading Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work.

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