Theodore Roosevelt wrote more than 150,000 missives throughout his life.
At first blush, it’s humbling; quite the accomplishment. But, in thinking about the differences between Roosevelt and me (because in idle moments I compare myself to great historical figures) what really struck me wasn’t the magnitude of his writing. Rather, it was the magnitude of communication channels that I use daily and the complexities between them.
When he wasn’t giving a speech, serving on a committee, or generally entertaining guests, Roosevelt’s communications were mostly on physical paper: mailed, delivered, published, and purchased. It seemed pretty straightforward, so I made a list:
- Synchronous Direct Communication (talking)
- Overheard Conversations, Rumor, Messenger, and Hearsay (eavesdropping)
- Written One-to-one correspondence
- Telegrams (direct messages delivered on paper, for you whippersnappers)
- One-to-many written works
- One-to-many live media (broadcast)
- Radio (later in his life)
Then I started writing a list of the communication avenues I had available to me. It turned out considerably longer:
- Synchronous Direct Communication (“talking” – please note the air quotes)
- Voice + Video
- Apple Facetime
- Google Hangout
- Textual* (intended to be synchronous, but in reality, it’s not)
- SMS/MMS “texting”
- IMs (IMer, GTalk, etc)
- Social Network Conduits (Facebook, Twitter, IRC etc. DMs)
- In person
- Copied/forwarded personal content
- Over-the-shoulder eavesdropping
- Written One-to-one correspondence
- Textual (SMSs that aren’t responded to, IMs sent while offline, etc.)
- Postal Letters
- Social Messages (Facebook, Twitter, LiveJournal, PHP forums, etc.)
- One-to-many written works (with or without rich media like photos, videos, etc.)
- Group Texting (SMS, Groupme, etc.)
- Status Updates – Twitter (micro, instant)
- Social Posts (Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram: mixed length, mixed timing)
- Wall Posts (written to one person, but intended for semi-public consumption)
- Many-to-many written works
- Community News/Link Sharing (Reddit, Fark, off-topic forums)
- Newspaper (NYTimes, etc.) online discussions
- Blog comments (like this here site)
- One-to-many live media (Broadcast)
- One-to-many recorded media
- Spotify, Rdio, MP3
- YouTube, Vimeo, etc.
- One-to-few recorded media
- Ephemeral works
- Facebook Poke
I’ve omitted some channels due to time and general laziness, but you get the idea.
This long (albeit abbreviated) summary suggests a lurking problem: we have increasingly divergent channels each competing for our attention. The more distracted we are, the less we produce. It’s basic entropy.
Each channel aims to optimize some combination of synchronous/asynchronous, short/long-form, ephemeral/persistent, and private/public for our benefit. But ironically, while the channels themselves might be precise, attempting to manage them all becomes clumsy and cluttered.
During a recent 2-hour flight delay, I attempted to graph this lunacy (fighting off the urge to read incoming e-mails as I command-tabbed between my word processor and drawing software). Here are two plots that summarize the differences between the timeliness of communicative information with respect to audience size.
Note: these plots represent the intended purpose of each mode of communication, not necessarily its reality. For instance, communications that were meant to be asynchronous (like e-mails, tweets, and blog posts) frequently alert readers to their existence in real time.
I then sorted each channel into a separate “inbox”. Roosevelt had it easy:
- Someone told him directly / he overheard something
- Someone handed him something to read
- It arrived on his desk
- It arrived in the mail
- It was put on his bookshelf, nightstand, or coffee table.
Moreover, each unit of information had only one physical copy, therefore only one way to read it.
With digital information, information becomes infinitely more complex. For example, my smartphone came with four discrete instant messaging applications: SMS, Google Voice, Google+, and Google Talk. I download two more, Skype and Twitter, because I use them regularly while on the go.* Then, including the passive social applications (Instagram, Foursquare, Fitocracy, Goodreads, and Github), I count eleven separate inboxes where you can pester me, instantly.
Admittedly, almost all of these inboxes integrate with the operating system’s notification panel. However, I need to go through each individual application (which has different messaging mechanics) in order to read, respond, and flag for followup up. For all intents and purposes, these are discrete inboxes you cannot consolidate.
Now, if we include the six e-mail accounts (spread across Android’s wonderful GMail application, its castrated IMAP client, and webmail through Chrome) as well as the ancillary functions of some of those aforementioned social networks (Twitter’s tweets, Skype’s Phone calls, etc.) there are no less than 20 different channels on my phone alone.
I’ll find no solace in shunting these channels into e-mail, either: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Flickr, Tumblr, etc. all include their own messaging services that thrust themselves into my inbox at the slightest bit of activity from users I’ve connected with. Foursquare and Twitter send me “places my friends have been and things my friends have said”. Facebook reminds me that I have 92 unanswered friend requests (sorry) and that I’ve been tagged in a 12 photos. LinkedIn sends me “updates from connected Thought Leaders”. (Really, guys?) Even YouTube has started sending me “video digests” from what my friends have been watching, and on Google+.
Let’s just say, “it’s complicated”.
All of this aside, I began this quest to benchmark my written output with Roosevelt’s. Instead, I’m now considering whether our modern information explosion prohibits fair comparison. I’ll leave that exercise to a postdoc.
But, just for kicks, we’ll do a simple comparison between Roosevelt and me using letters and e-mail, respectively. Yes, this is reductionist, but I have more important things to worry about.
Not including social posts, corporate e-mail, direct messages, IMs, SMSs, and notes I’ve passed during class, I have sent over 30,000 messages in 8 years. Roosevelt lived to be a little over 60, putting him at 3,750 letters a year (if you ignore his first twenty years). On e-mail alone I, too, clock in at 3,750 letters a year.
Given our scores amidst excessive channel noise, I declare victory, pyrrhic though it might be.
*Facebook is conspicuously missing here because the application demands full read/write access to every bit of data of my phone. No thanks, Zuck.