My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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sometimes I feel like a bitch

For the most part, I’m a fuzzy lovable energetic creature (or at least I like to think so). But new technologies combined with information overload sometimes bring out the inner bitch in me. And then I feel guilty.

I am drowning in information overload. I cannot read everything that I want to, engage in conversations with everyone I’d like to, let alone deal with high-bandwidith content like video. Over the last decade, I’ve developed a set of coping mechanisms for dealing with online conversations. Ways of keeping myself sane amidst the onslaught. The problem is that each new genre of communication and consumption brings new challenges and forces me to adjust. And just when I think that I’ve got a grip on what’s going on, the genre gains mainstream adoption and I’m forced to get all rigid on people. And I hate that.

Let me be a little more concrete. And self-involved. I get hundreds of emails per day that I have to directly respond to. (Hundreds more get filtered into the “will read one day” folders that get very little attention.) I do a huge amount of my responding offline (on airplanes, public transit, cafes, etc.). Thus, messages with links take much longer to get my attention than messages without links. But there’s something nice about turning an INBOX into something manageable before people have the chance to respond. The problem with Web2.0 technologies is that each one wants to replace the INBOX (or at least be an additional channel). For example, there are private messages and comments on social network sites, direct messages and @replies on Twitter. There are blog comments. And RSS feeds. And then there are all of the online communities and bulletin boards and chat spaces that have evolved from those developed in olden days. For me, it’s too much. Too much I tell you. And we haven’t even gotten to voicemail, text messages. Let alone all that’s coming.

The onslaught of places to check makes me want to crumple. And, for better or worse, it’s simply 100% not manageable if I want to keep up my research and stay sane. So I’ve developed my own quirky habits to cope and rather than be flexible for others, I’ve become demanding. I check voicemail sporadically (so please don’t leave a message – send a text). I refuse to even check the private messages on social network sites (so if you’ve sent something there, I’ve never seen it). Because of how @replies are overloaded with retweets and references, I’m simply incapable of keeping up with the stream of directed @replies with requests to respond. And I almost never check online communities or bulletin boards and have bowed out from all collaborative projects that require that kind of engagement.

It’s terrible you see. It’s not that I *like* email (cuz goddess knows it’s been a long time since “you’ve got mail” made me do anything other than cringe). But I know how to manage it. Too many years of Getting Things Done training has taught me to manage it as a glorious ToDo list that can get resolved. But I don’t know how to meaningfully manage streams of content. And I don’t have the structures in place to deal with content in the cloud that requires connectivity. And I don’t like having to deal with Yet Another Walled Garden’s attempt to replicate email. For my own sanity, I need one pile of ToDo. So at the end of the day, the only channel that actually works for me is email. And if you need me to respond to something, don’t message me elsewhere; send me an email.

This is exactly the kind of issue that Bernie Hogan deals with in his dissertation. The complexities of multiple channels and people’s individual preferences. And there are huge issues here – should someone be flexible to others’ preferences or demand that others work around them? And here’s where I feel like a bitch. I’m asking people to work around me. Because I can’t cope with the alternative. And that makes me feel guilty and selfish. And I don’t know what to do about this. Le sigh. So please forgive me.

This article has been translated. En francais. Thanks Ulysse!

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30 comments to sometimes I feel like a bitch

  • I certainly understand this set of issues. My response has always been to treat e-mail and phone as essential, and then treat everything else as extra or optional. I do this partially based on university policy — both e-mail and phone are considered “official” forms of communication. Everything past that is kind of extra, and I would argue, somewhat discretionary. I do try hard to respond to messages on Facebook, and on a couple private message boards I’m on. Past that? If people need to reach me, they can e-mail or phone me. It’s not like those contact details are that difficult to find (at least in my case).

  • I waited for the reference to Bernie the whole post.

    I was very puzzled that you can’t get linked information when reading your mail-I always avoid attached document, and use updatable Dropbox links, to avoid having my correspondants loose time on obsolete versions.

  • Alanna Baker

    I get the same thing. I manage by trying to divert all streams into my email. So, for instance, when I get a Facebook private message, the full text is delivered to my email, where I can read it and decide if it’s worth my time to go to Facebook to respond. Usually if that’s yes, it’s someone whose email address I have and I can just respond directly by email. Some sites/mail servers/mail clients are more helpful and organized with this than others. I use a combination of Gmail and my iPhone’s Mail. But I never begrudge more busy people (which is almost everyone) the right to say “THIS is how to contact me; any other way will get ignored.” I think most people are fairly understanding about that.

  • You are not selfish, you are just an individual exposed to the huge invisible audience. And in this scenario it is natural that you “ask people to work around you”.
    I have the same problem here, information overload and to give a feedback to all people who ask something, comment or send me @.
    Due to my hyperactive and short attention span, I (re)direct them to my email. I have hundreds of unread Facebook messages I cannot cope with, Twitter replies I send via DM or re-direct to my email where is easier for me to control the information flow. Then, I’ve created filters and folders in my inbox so there is email that is not urgent and can wait.
    Before this I felt huge information overload stress. Nowadays is kind of better, but still I find myself multitasking between several networked playgrounds. If I’m not using my laptop, then it’s my smartphone, and the concern not to miss something.

    Today I was justifying (again) myself to a person via email why am I not following them on Twitter, it’s nothing personal, just cannot give undivided attention to all at the same time. Once, I’ve stated on a blog post about keeping up with parallel tasks, and in my case many people are patient and have understanding.

    And don’t forget there is the difference between feeling like a bitch and being le bitch;)

  • Sounds like your life has an attribute of extraordinarily high information flux; other people don’t have that attribute, and so you require them to accomodate you in the same way someone whose attribute was “weak knee” or “ill parents” or “memory loss” would require others to accomodate them.

    I would suspect that if you ran into other people with the same attribute, you would be more willing to accomodate them at times than with the general public.

    The trick of course is that you don’t actually know who’s who. I think doing what you’ve done and laying out the rules for how to get in touch with you is a perfectly reasonable level of access: You certainly live somewhere, but I wouldn’t think to show up at your door on Saturday afternoon with tickets to something good; just because you have a Twitter feed doesn’t mean that I should expect responses even if I have something (presumably) of value for you.

  • I love living in the future we see around us today, but yeah, what an enormous flood of information we have to deal with. Saying “this is the best way to get in touch if you need a reply” is not bitchy IMO, it’s letting people know what to expect from you.

    There’s a type of time/task management called Getting Things Done, which says that having just one list of things to check is very important – it makes things really simple.

  • James Lawson

    Oddly enough, when I go to the Atlanta Linux Fest next weekend, I had planned on having business cards on hand with my e-mail, Facebook, and twitter info on it. Now, I am not so sure.

  • Listen, it’s all about trade-offs. If you DIDN’T get so many e-mails, @replies, comments, whatever, you could afford to be flexible. But with so many things competing for your attention you don’t have any choice BUT to be picky.

    Look at it this way: it costs all of the individuals that send you a message (via some web medium) nearly nothing to send it. But the cumulative effect imposes huge costs on you; it makes simple communication with the people you would talk to normally more difficult, and it increases the challenge of filtering through your messages to find the ones you value enough to respond to.

    A lot of bloggers who attain a certain level of popularity simply shut down their comments, as they would get too many to respond to anyway. Others leave the comments open, but don’t bother to engage in them.

    It’s not bitchy at all. It is completely understandable. You can’t let large numbers of enthusiastic folks run your life.

  • epc

    The thing is, email is asynchronous – you can deal with it on your terms at your pace (and generally independent of connectivity). All of these new channels of communications not only emit more data at us, they demand that we go to this site or that site, authenticate, navigate, and all for what, to respond to a quick message?

    I used to be the target of 300-400 emails per day, not spam, real mail, and I eventually realized that no one could reasonably be expected to handle that volume *and* actually do the job I was supposed to be doing. I had the luxury of having a couple people work for me, and since most of the mail was stuff I’d end up forwarding on anyway, I turned over my inbox to my staff. I told everyone who regularly emailed me that if they wanted to reach me, and only me, they had to encrypt the mail with my public key, otherwise everyone in my department would read the message. There were minor glitches, but the system worked for the most part and held back the flood for awhile.

    My advice? Pick an email app which lets you do filtering of some kind (gmail, mail.app, etc) and segregate your mail into piles from people you want to hear from or whom you know it’s critical to respond to (this is your default inbox), people you regularly interact with (a smart mailbox or gmail label), and the rest of the world.
    I’d change the public address you advertise on the contact page to something like public @ danah dot org or contact, and use that as another filtering mechanism.

    I got the idea of filtering based on urgency & importance to me (not to the correspondent) from Covey’s 7 Habits book.

    It sounds harsh, but no one outside your immediate family & friends and employer has a “right” to your time.

    Another suggestion: log where you are spending your time, for like a week. Slice it by 10 or 15 minute segments. At the end of the week look at the results: where did you spend most of your time per hour? day-part? day? Was it worth it to you? If it wasn’t, look to eliminate it from your routine or shift it to a much lower priority.

  • Dear Dana,

    In all honesty, I like every bit of your post except the words bitch and guilty. Even though I am facing the overload ghost and ranting about it too.

    Guilt is an invented superficial feeling. A distraction from the core issue. Let me guess, is that triggered when you have to ignore messages from someone with a lot of web presence in their own preferred channel? I guess it will not happen with people who embrace the value of having a wide open distributed presence. Not only that, but getting the amount of answers you get. If so, they must already be making similar inevitable decisions.

    I would focus this rant into the quality of your decision making process only. Successful communication in online media is facing you with hard choices. A problem a lot of people wish to have, though.

    I notice I am becoming inbox-centric. I sense a paradox there, maybe not practicing what I preach. So far, it works for me. But then again I do not get so much email to put my decision to the test. Hope you keep us posted on your results. I wonder what adjustments all that incoming mail will require.

    I know I am abusing the hospitality of the host with such a long comment. Hope I am excused. Just one last thing. There is a difference between being selfish and thinking about yourself.

    To me you get it. No apologies required. Please keep sane and blogging. ;=)

    @fceblog

  • Ruth

    I understand the feeling, especially with the new school year starting up and I have to make a bookmarks folder for all my course websites. Which, you know, don’t have RSS feeds for me to congregate them that way, and the Blackboard utility they’ve recently switched over to from WebCT is as retro as a BBS board and incredibly clunky. I can only check so many websites of a morning, and so if something doesn’t go into my email account (example: replies to this comment) or my RSS feeds or my twitter feed (I have a private one with a short group of friends so its manageable) I don’t see it. I only visit Facebook when it sends me an email notification, which I only have turned on for very few things. Even IM can be overwhelming, because Adium is unreliable so I have to have at least one client open and if I get into more than one conversation I’m overwhelmed and suddenly talking on IM is all I’m doing. So I guess what I’m tl;dring here to say is that email is definitely the manageable medium for me, as much as I realize it’s, what, twenty or thirty years old? It does make me feel bad that I’m not good at making myself available outside of this niche, it certainly sometimes makes me feel like I’m outside of my friends lives, because so much of them are lived on IM or the telephone (I have your typical introvert’s aversion to them). But I can’t live any other way, I’ve tried them all and very few have lasted in that rotation of things I check of a morning. So I treat it as I do my mental illness – do what you have to do to preserve yourself. It might not be nice, but it’s necessary.

  • An interesting take on the fact that email is the hub of our online existence was articulated by Alistair Croll, who shares a vision for the future email client: one that would receive all the email reflections of other channels (e.g. emailed copies of Twitter DMs, LinekdIn messages, listserv digests, etc) and sort them out to allow us to manage our life more easily.

    Quote: “We need an inbox that embraces its new role as the universal record of our online lives.”

    Worth a read! http://gigaom.com/2009/04/24/why-email-clients-need-to-change/

  • We have *a lot* to learn from the intelligence community in that sense. Anyone whose dealt with signal-intelligence will say that the most important part of dealing with overload is following a prioritized list of “interests”. When you’re given a certain topic to research, its much easier to extract the relevant and most important information about the topic. But as we all know, real life is much more complicated, and makes it much harder to decide whats most important at this moment even if we do have a prioritized list of to-do’s (gotta love deadlines tho!)…

    Anyways, an interesting problem to solve, as we realize that many more people will be dealing with this overload in the upcoming years.

  • We have *a lot* to learn from the intelligence community in that sense. Anyone whose dealt with signal-intelligence will say that the most important part of dealing with overload is following a prioritized list of “interests”. When you’re given a certain topic to research, its much easier to extract the relevant and most important information about the topic. But as we all know, real life is much more complicated, and makes it much harder to decide whats most important at this moment even if we do have a prioritized list of to-do’s (gotta love deadlines tho!)…

    Anyways, an interesting problem to solve, as we realize that many more people will be dealing with this overload in the upcoming years.

  • It seems as though one has to relinquish the need or desire to know everything, and take a zen like approach e.g. if it is important enough we will find out.

  • Bob Calder

    I was wondering the last couple of days how it would shake out with you.

    It took me two weeks to catch up when I came back from Korea last month. (All I did was play tourist and play WOW with my kids when I was there.) Awesome infrastructure tho. PC Bang(s) are cool/odd.

    What you need is a virtual observatory. Abe Lederman is the man for that. I would definitely pay for a subscription with you. Howard would freak. Still, using the web Twitter interface is lame – you gotta admit it. ;-)

  • If you can’t handle it, sell me your website :-)

  • Boundaries are necessary. Especially as part of the price of earned fame.

    Twitter has taught me not to follow everyone back, and to delete any annoying followerees, and that I don’t have to read everybody all the time, or even much of the time.

    If it’s important, it will get to me. By email, of course.

  • rjh

    Your problem is an increasingly common problem. Even modest public visibility is enough to release the deluge.

    I suspect that your selection of email as the primary communications mode is the result of travel and connectivity issues. None of the alternative choices work well when you lack network connectivity. Travel causes many hours to be spent without adequate network connectivity. Bad weather, work restrictions, etc. can also interfere with connectivity.

    Email can still be functional and effective when you are not connected. The difference between connected and disconnected is minor. This includes the multiple platform issues for those with multiple desktop and laptop systems. Email software deals with all those issues reasonably well. The case for email becomes stronger when you consider that the others that you deal with also face connectivity issues.

    When the various alternative web systems address the issue of disconnected operation and provide nearly full function while disconnected, email will face serious competition.

  • jon

    No guilt, danah. View information overload as a condition that you need to protect yourself from. In a situation like this, it’s not unreasonable to ask people who want to communicate with you to do so on your terms.

    The situation with email is really a paradox. There are a lot of ways email makes overloading worse. And yet at the same time there’s nothing that replaces it in terms of a “common denominator” and its online/offline mix. It’s frustrating …

    Personally I’ve tried to move as much of my communications as possible out of email, while continuing to use it as a notification (and offline-reading) mechanism. It’s not an ideal solution but it does lead to my spending time in multiple different environments rather than being email-centric, which in turn reduces my stress significantly.

    jon

  • There are various companies trying to solve this problem right now–your post is in the context of a larger concern by lots of people. Two that come to mind are http://www.gist.com (Web interface) and http://www.postbox-inc.com (Mac and PC desktop program).

    Products from both these companies are trying to knit into an e-mail interface Facebook and Twitter streams so that these can be treated in essentially the same way as e-mail. Both are also trying to organize message streams by context and by contact.

  • Mike Pooposterous

    I completely understand. And I am reasonably sure you haven’t read this comment, and I’m ok with that.

  • A few fixes for you…

    I’m very public with my email and phone number, but filter everything down into email.

    - Stop answering the phone, use Phonetag.com to transcribe your voicemail and send it to you in email. Google Voice will do the same thing for free, but you have to click through to the site to get your transcriptions. Phonetag.com sends them to you in email. Respond FAST and people will forgive you for not answering your phone. (This does not include your friends of course, just for business)

    - Kill IM. Use gmail like IM. IM is great for group chat meetings, but will ultimately kill your focus. Basecamp’s Campfire is great for group chat / meetings.

    - To save time organising meetings, try Tungle.com. Works great with Google Calendar. (I just started working for Meebee.com and they should also be worth a lookin soon)

    - Meet online. Adobe Connect is the best solution I’ve found. It even allows everyone to use their webcam so you can see all the people you’re meeting with. Dimdim is a free alternative.

    Hope this helps.

  • gregrebel

    ((bows)) Aversion is unhealthy, but I so much like the feeling, I am willing to pay for aversion of cretain communications.

    If it wasn’t for spam, email would be wonderful.

    Maybe this story will help:
    Boy meets girl. Girl says hi to all of Boy’s friends. Boy isolates himself from his friends. Boy splits-up with Girl. Girl’s friends say hi to Boy. Boy finds several new guy-friends. Repeat ad infinitum.
    What can be said about Boy? Is he a bad-boy?
    Depending on what attributes you apply to each character, you may infer a different morality upon each character. Personal bias is important in developing cultural norms. Okay. Now go replace “boy” and “girl” with your favorite Web2.0 technologies. Bad-boy technology can thrive in spite of moral back-lash.

    I apologize if any certain Web2.0 stakeholders feel alienated by my comment. Check your (customer’s) morals, then, give ‘em what they are willing to pay for. But for G’s sake, no more spam!

  • Revert to being a Gen Y/Z – ditch email (it’s so 20th century) – only communicate in short bursts via SMS/MMS text and Twitter – LOL

    *~*

    PS pls note I often find myself in a hypnotic email state – open, respond, file; open, respond, file – and wonder ….. is there’s life after email :?

  • Although I didn’t used it yet, I’m pretty sure that’s why Google decided build Wave and more so, why they decided to make it an open technology that can be adopted by everyone (!= walled garden). And syndicating information in one place – like you do it with email – is obviously very helpful. Wave is, in a sense, just email for the modern state of communication.

  • Someone mentioned Google Voice above, and I thought of that, too, as something that could at least help a little bit. But I wanted to clarify a misconception stated above: In actuality, GV can send all your incoming SMS and voicemail to your e-mail inbox, and in fact you can even reply to those SMS directly from your e-mail.

    Disclaimer: I work for Google, but don’t have anything to do with GV except as a happy user.

  • [...] me about "keeping up". I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers.  Even highly connected and media savvy folks struggle. I struggle with it too, but I have developed a few beliefs, principles that have been helpful to [...]

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