Tuesday, March 5, 2024

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    Communications hygiene (and the demise of texting)

    Attention is scarce.

    Decisions are difficult.

    Searching takes effort.

    For thirty years, texting has been a powerful medium. It’s the thing that vibrates in our pocket. It promises something urgent, and a reply that’s demanded equally urgently.

    “I’m running ten minutes late,” is a fine text, and “okay” is a great response.

    Like all digital media that works, it’s sticky and has a powerful network effect. Once someone sends you a text, you need to send one back. Once your colleagues are texting, you need to text as well. It works better when you do it the way others are doing it.

    And, like all digital media that works, it gets corrupted. Sometimes by evil spammers that send texts pretending to know you, “want to play golf tomorrow?” or “your wife said you were selling your house…”. And sometimes by people who aren’t evil at all, but simply have a different sense of the medium than you do.

    And so here’s a text in which 15 people are cc’ed. You don’t know most of them, so all you see is their phone numbers. And it requires you to stop what you’re doing and open your calendar and calculate whether that day is free or not. And whether the people you hope to interact with are going or not. And of course, if anyone hits reply, everyone gets the reply. And of course, one of those people then decides to ‘get the word out’ and tell everyone else on the thread about their unrelated garage sale, coming up in just a few days…

    Pretty soon, your pocket vibrates enough with both kinds of texts often enough that you simply don’t prioritize checking, and then, the next time an urgent text comes along, well, it’s ignored.

    Texting is first come next served. There’s no nuance to it, no priority list, nothing but ‘I read it’ or ‘I didn’t.’

    The asymmetry of the dynamic here sows the seeds of the demise. It’s up to every single person you know to protect your attention, up to each of them to be generous and discreet and not waste your time. And the cost of them simply doing what everyone else is doing is so low that the whole thing begins to degrade.

    Add to that the ease with which telemarketers and spammers can now weaponize your initial contact (14 notes about one dinner reservation!) and you can see how the path only goes one way.

    The magic of widespread media like the telephone, email and texts is that it’s an open API. No one is actually in charge of the inputs, but this is also the problem.

    I’m hopeful that services like texts.com or even the folks in Cupertino will take a deep breath and create a protected tier for useful interactions that actually have permission. The structure of the interface determines the utility of the system. If it’s easy to cc 15 strangers, people will.

    In 1994, I led a team that invented games you could play by text. It almost turned into a killer idea, and maybe it’ll be back one day.

    And in 1999, I tried to coordinate the work around buying cheap stamps for email, so that the API might be slowed and focused a bit.

    Perhaps AI will start being an (imperfect) filter, but the problem is so hard to solve after the fact, I’m not optimistic.

    The rule is pretty simple: bad noise crowds out good signal in just about any useful communications medium. The opportunity is to design against bad noise and to be vigilant about maintaining the magic that made it useful in the first place.

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