Video: Social media, politics & the future of think tanks

Last month I had the opportunity to be part of a terrific day-long discussion on the future of think tanks, hosted by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) as part of its 10th anniversary celebrations. I shared some of my thinking in a blog post about the future of think tanks, but CIGI also captured some of my comments in this video:

6 solutions to the sadness of social media

Is social media making us sad?

On the UK’s Channel 4 News website, Benjamin Cohen is concerned that social media is changing the nature of friendship, and has adjusted his use of social media in response:

I’ve stopped sharing as much, full stop….I’m not suggesting that everyone else should do the same, but I’m suggesting that quite a few people might, many have already. Mark Zuckerberg has always said the world would be a better place if it was more open. I’m suggesting that sometimes the world might be a better place if it was more private.

And on the Cunting Linguist, Steffani Cameron writes:

It’s funny, you know, how we kid ourselves about how much this online shit matters…There’s this delusion that the more followers you have, the more of a voice you have, or that you can be so much more yourself. The opposite is actually true….When people start actually reading your stuff, merely venting gets complicated.  I feel I’m less able to express myself on this blog now. I feel like I have to “watch” what I say. …Welcome to the digital paradox. You can be “yourself” to a bigger audience than ever before, but how true is it?

These two blog posts reflect a growing unease with social media, one that is most adeptly and thoroughly addressed in Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together. Like Turkle, they suggest that the volume, frequency and tenor of online interaction are negatively affecting our human capacity for meaningful connection and relationship. It’s a concern I come across frequently, no doubt in large part because I go looking for it via Google searches on terms like “information overload”.

But you don’t have to dig deeply into the blogosphere to discover that lots of us are suffering over the impact of social media on our daily lives. Even those of us who are unwilling to follow Cohen in pulling back our level of online sharing may have reservations about the way that sharing plays out. We carry our smartphones everywhere, but resent the sound that indicates a new email has arrived. We celebrate the steady growth of our Twitter followers or blog traffic, then agonize when it stalls or declines. We love the ability to access the Internet anytime or anywhere, but feel insulted if the person we’re with decides to go online instead of looking us in the eye.

These are the pains of transition, but a transition to what? The transition to a world in which we accept and even embrace the 24/7 distraction and overexposure of social media as the price of at-our-fingertips information and expression? Or to a world in which we succeed in containing our time online, and setting some limits on where, when and what we share through social media?

For those who would limit the corrosive effects of social media and perpetual connectivity, solutions seem to come in 6 flavours:

  1. Policies: Families, organizations or even governments could limit the amount of time we spend online. Families could set screen time limits; businesses could (and frequently do) block employees from using Facebook or YouTube. Governments could use privacy laws to protect citizens from their own rampant oversharing, or enact labor laws that insulate workers from the pressure to work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  2. Markets: Global recession, skyrocketing energy prices or the erosion of net neutrality could increase the costs of connectivity to the point at which people actually reduce usage. Conversely, an economic boom could produce a generation of affluence in which high-skill workers feel no anxiety about their economic prospects, and thus, no pressure to work online after hours.
  3. Technologies: Cell phone jammers could (and occasionally do) prevent individuals from using their phones in restaurants or other “inappropriate” public places. Timers could shut computers or Internet connections during designated hours. Better search and discovery tools could allow people to become more focused and productive in their time online, and reduce the amount of time they spend using the Internet.
  4. Services: Individuals could scan or scrub their online profiles with the help of Internet consultants, perhaps even going so far as to rename themselves to escape their online pasts. Constant Internet use or information overload could be treated with psychological counselling or a 12-step program that returns screen time to socially accepted levels.
  5. Norms: Widespread discomfort with social media and 24/7 Internet use could lead to social sanctions that inhibit public texting, computing or even phone use. Someone who takes out their computer at a coffee shop might suffer withering glares, or even be asked to leave. People who answer email after 6 pm will become social pariahs. Families who let their kids use the Internet will be regarded with the same contempt as those who feed their children a steady diet of sugar and Doritos.
  6. Choices: Individuals will realize that they are happier, more authentic and fulfilled in their offline lives, and reduce the amount of time they spend using social media.

If you think all of these scenarios sound far-fetched — or at least, unlikely to put a serious dent in our levels of Internet use — I’m with you. Pandora’s Big Box of Social Media is well and truly open, and we’re discovering a whole new repertoire of ailments the Ancient Greeks never imagined.

But don’t despair. Accepting the misery of 24/7 distraction isn’t the only alternative to limiting the growth of our time online. The transition to an always-on world may be unstoppable, but it’s a transition we’ve barely started: why assume it’s the transition to a dystopic future? We’ve only just begun experimenting with the policies, markets, technologies, services, norms and choices that focus not on stemming the transition, but harnessing it to the creation of a better world and happier lives. And most of us have lived far too long in the pre-Internet world to move immediately and fluidly into this new on/offline hybrid; we need time to adjust, to reinvent ourselves, and to let the population shift in favour of those who grew up online.

As we evolve into a society of digital natives and fluent digital immigrants, the suffering of social media will ease. We’ll become less painfully aware of its shortcomings, and more appreciative of its delights. And eventually, we’ll stop agonizing over the pain of life online, and recognize it simply as the pain of life.

5 steps to emptying your e-mail inbox

You could get to inbox zero the way you probably have countless times before, by working your way through that pile one message at a time. That can be very time-consuming, and it also misses the great opportunity that an overflowing inbox provides: the opportunity to identify the message sources and message types that lead to e-mail or information overload. Today, you’re going to begin the job of processing your inbox in a way that actually reduces the volume of messages that come to your inbox in the future.

Reducing the volume of e-mail that comes to your inbox is absolutely crucial to changing charge of your life and career. If you’re anything like me — or most people I know — your volume of e-mail goes way beyond what you can process on a daily basis. With all the focus on spam control, we’ve missed a larger challenge: many of us now receive more non-spam e-mail than we can (or should) handle. This leads to one of two possible problems:

  1. We stay on top of our incoming e-mail by spending so much time on e-mail processing that it displaces other higher value activities. Those other activities might include communications activities with a higher profile or reach (like blogging or tweeting), professional activities with a greater tangible impact (like meeting with colleagues in person, or reading the latest publications in your field) or personal activities that do more to recharge and reconnect you (like having dinner with a friend, or watching a movie with your kids).
  2. We limit our total time spent on e-mail in order to make room for other activities, but without making systematic decisions about which e-mails we will or won’t respond to. As a result, we handle less than 100% of our inbox every 24 hours (often much less), and high-priority e-mails fall between the cracks.

If you want to exercise a reasonable degree of intention in how you spend your personal and professional time, you have to set limits on how much e-mail to process. And you have to do it in a structured way that ensures your e-mail time goes to the messages that have the highest priority and value. In other words, by focussing on your un-missable e-mail.

What’s an un-missable e-mail? That is up to you to define. But here’s how I define it:

  • A message sent only to me from someone inside my organization (i.e. nobody else is in the “to” field)
  • A message sent to me from someone inside my organization, and marked urgent
  • A message sent to me (i.e. not cced) from someone outside of my organization
  • A message that is not an e-newsletter

The goal of your inbox processing this week is to not only catch up on the e-mail that has piled up in your inbox, but to do it in a way that reshapes your incoming e-mail flow so that from now on, your inbox only receives un-missable e-mails. Today you’ll get underway on that processing, and you’ll set up a workflow that will turn the ongoing job of e-mail processing into an activity that continually addresses not only the messages in your inbox but the ongoing and inevitable problem of eliminating extraneous e-mail. To that end, keep one question front and centre as you’re processing your e-mail:

Was this an e-mail I needed to see the day it arrived?

Every time you answer “no” to this question, you need to make an adjustment in your e-mail system to ensure that future messages like that one will not hit your inbox.

Here’s how to process your e-mail so that it sets you up for a manageable inbox:

Step 1. Set your daily processing target.

We’ve got five days left to reach inboz zero, so write down the number of e-mails currently in your inbox, and divide by 5. The result (x) it is the number of e-mails you would have to process each day so that your inbox is empty in 5 days — if you literally don’t get a single new e-mail. But even with your auto-responder, you’ll probably get a handful of e-mails to process each day. So take a moment to write down your targets now (I’ll show you mine):

  • Day 1: Current number of e-mails – x = 239-48 =5
  • Day 2: Current number of e-mails – 2x = 143
  • Day 3: Current number of e-mails – 3x = 95
  • Day 4: Current number of e-mails – 4x = 47
  • Day 5: Current number of e-mails – 5x = 0

Write down your target number you should reach by the end of each of the next 5 days so that you can hit your target each day.

Step 2. Set up your “system needed” folders.

It takes time and thought to set up the folders, rules and systems that keep missable messages from hitting your inbox and that gets actionable items into your task list as quickly as possible. Rather than slow down the job of processing your e-mail, we will set aside any e-mail that calls for a longer-term solution by setting up three folders where you will put any message that fails the test of “Was this an e-mail I needed to see the day it arrived?”

  1. Unsubscribe needed: You’ll use this folder for any message you receive that comes from an e-mail list or marketer you don’t want to hear from. Look for an “unsubscribe” link in any newsletter you don’t want to receive, and try to unsubscribe as you’re doing your initial e-mail cull; but if the unsubscribe link is hard to find or doesn’t work, stick the unwanted newsletter in this folder for now.
  2. Filters needed: You’ll use this folder for any message that didn’t need to hit your inbox, but which you’d still want to file. Tomorrow’s post will talk about how to set up folders/labels and filters (rules) that keep these messages from going to your inbox, but still keep them available.
  3. Workflow needed: You’ll use this folder for messages you need to see, but which you think you could process in a more efficient way (for example, by sending them straight to your to-do list) or which you don’t need to process on a same-day basis. I’ll write another post that looks at alternative workflows so that you can find a better (i.e. non-inbox-cluttering) way of handling task assignments or application notifications.

Once you’ve got your e-mail management system set up, you can hang onto these folders and use them whenever you’re rushing through the job of e-mail processing; however it’s best to create your filters and rules as you go. If you keep using these folders, be sure to set a regular time (once a week or once a month) to go through these “system needed” folders and put new rules in place.

Step 3. Set up your project, archive and reference folders.

SIM folder contains multiple=

These are the folders where you file any e-mail you want to keep for future reference in an organized place. In my case, I keep all my sent mail — and my sent mail quotes any incoming e-mail it responds to — so I only need to manually file e-mails that have an attachment I want to hang onto, contain important information I need to find in a specific place (like a project update) or which I haven’t replied to but want to keep for future reference.

You may already have a system for filing e-mail, but here’s a quick summary of how my e-mail filing is set up:

  • SIM: A folder for all my work related to the SIM Centre, with subfolders set up for specific internal and external projects, as well as a couple of folders set up to track correspondence with specific colleagues.
  • Clients and Projects: A folder for all my writing, Social Signal and personal projects. Each client or project has its own subfolder, and I also have an “Archive” subfolder where I file folders for projects that are no longer active.
  • Reference: A few subfolders for e-mails that aren’t related to any specific client or project, but which I want to hang onto. I have just three subfolders: “Testimonials”, “Personal” and “Research”.

At a minimum, I recommend setting up:

  • A folder for active projects, with subfolders for each current project. If you have a couple of different jobs or wear a few different hats, you may want a separate Projects folder for each of these gigs/roles.
  • An archive folder with subfolders for older projects or other archived material.
  • A reference folder for e-mails you won’t want to delete but don’t belong to a project.

You’ll set up some additional folders once we get to setting up filters, but these should get you started.

Step 4: Sort your inbox by sender.

It’s much easier to identify recurring patterns if you’ve got your e-mail sorted by sender. You can’t do this in Gmail itself, so you’ll need to use your local e-mail client (Mail.app, Outlook, Thunderbird etc.)

Step 5: Scan and file until you reach today’s target.

Here’s what to look for, and how to handle them:

  1. Messages you’ve replied to that you can quickly delete. Before you delete any of them, ask yourself: Was this an e-mail I needed to see the day it arrived?
    • If the answer was no, file the message in “filters needed”.
    • If the answer was yes, but it was a notification or task assignment from a web application (e.g . a Basecamp notification or a blog comment notification), place it in “workflow needed”.
    • If the answer was yes, and that message is JUST the kind of thing you want to see, then feel free to delete it (or file it in one of your project, archive or reference folders).
  2. Blocks of recurring messages (e.g. blog comment notifications, e-newsletters, Basecamp notifications). Aim to file any recurring message type in one of your three “system needed” folders: unsubscribe, filters or workflow. For example, I discovered that all my blog comment notifications are coming to my inbox, and while I don’t want to leave a comment unapproved, I think I can come up with a more efficient system for managing my comment queue, so I’ve put these in “workflow needed”.

    E-mail inbox contains a backlog of comment notifications from Disqus.

    This backlog of notifications from Disqus, which I use to manage my blog's comment queue, just screams for a better workflow.

  3. People or organizations you never want to hear from. These should go in unsubscribe (if the message is from a list) or “filters needed”.  If you’re not sure whether to file something in “unsubscribe”, “filters” or “workflow”, don’t worry about it — just stick it in “filters” for now.

If your scan-and-file is going quickly, you can overshoot today’s target. You’ll be glad to be a bit ahead of the game when you get back to work tomorrow and start setting up your e-mail filters.

How Twitter lists can keep you connected to the relationships that matter most

Social media is all about being connected, we are often told. But who are you connecting with? Answering that question is crucial to using Twitter — or any social web tool — in a way that that supports your career, enriches your relationships and expands your perspective on the world around you.

It’s easy to lose sight of real connection when you’re first confronted with the firehose that is Twitter. For one thing, a lot of people initially use Twitter to follow celebrities, which offers only a very illusory (and fleeting) sense of connection. Others hit follow follow follow follow, or reciprocally follow everyone who follows them, and quickly drown in a sea of tweets that go by faster than they can track them. Lost in the tide are the tweets you actually care about…the tweets from your dearest friend or most valued colleague.

Twitter lists offer a way of solving that problem. You could follow someone else’s pre-fab Twitter list. You can find a list of must-follow tweeters on just about any topic under the sun: Crafters. Indigenous people’s rights. New York City food trucks. And following lists like these offers an easy way of quickly getting a taste of a whole bunch of different people, and finding out who you’re really interested in, without making a big commitment: unlike following people one by one (which can make it tough to prune the number of people you follow when it grows too big) you can follow and unfollow everyone on a single Twitter list with just a single click.

But the real power of Twitter lists comes from creating your own. I’m not talking, for the moment, about creating public Twitter lists: the lists you carefully compile and curate to build your own reputation, brand and empire…you know, the usual social media drill.

What I’m talking about are lists that you create just for you: private lists that help you pay attention to different people at different times of the day, or even in different moods. 18 months ago, I created; over time, I’ve pared them down to the following crucial lists:

  1. Love: People I love and want to have more of in my life; or feel I could love, if we had more connection. It even includes a handful of loveable people I know entirely online. This group would make sense to nobody except me: it’s pure, gut-level filing. There’s no “it would be useful to follow this person closely”, or “I shouldn’t file a client here”. If I get a happy warm glow from thinking about this person, they’re in. If I get an anxiety twinge, they’re out.
  2. Inspire: Feeds that feed me. Some of these are people who say things that inspire me, and some are “official” feeds that inspire me.
  3. Meet: People in Vancouver. Following locals is a good way of using Twitter to drive me to see people and participate in events in real life. For now, I’m putting every Vancouver-based feed in here, but over time I may triage so that it only has feeds from people who Twitter events and meetups. However part of what I like about having everyone is that it will prompt me to set up my own dates, too — or to notice if someone is hanging out near where I am at the moment. The key is to let the group name — “meet” — remind me of my intention with these folks.
  4. Learn: People I don’t know personally, but learn from watching.
  5. Apply: This is a group for feeds from software applications I use regularly in my work. These are feeds that contain tips I can apply in my work.
  6. Help: This is for feeds that belong to people and organizations I’m trying to help.
  7. Engage: These are people I’ve gotten to know, or know better, through Twitter. They are people who use Twitter to reach out to me, to share what I’m writing or tweeting about, or to share resources they think I’ll be interested in. They are people I want to focus a lot of attention on because they are people who it’s really, really satisfying to connect with on Twitter.
  8. Normal people: These are Twitter users who don’t work in social media. So many of my colleagues and friends — especially those who tweet a lot — are people who (like me) work in social media or communications, and so they tweet in a way that is quite different from regular folks or non-communications professionals who use Twitter, rather than tweeting about Twitter. Keeping an eye on how these folks tweet is a way of keeping my finger on the pulse of how Twitter is evolving and being adopted out there, in the real world.

By setting each of these up as lists, I can zero in on the people I want to pay attention to at any given moment. Better yet, I can set up my preferred Twitter client — these days, it’s HootSuite — so that my most crucial lists get the lion’s share of my attention.

If I’m going to look at Twitter ten times a day, I want to spend that time on the Hootsuite tab that gives me access to the Twitter pals who are most rewarding, along with the people I love, the people who inspire me, and the people I want to connect with. Yes, I dip into my “all friends” feed from time to time — I got shamed back into it after shocking an audience at Northern Voice with the news that I’d sworn off “all friends” altogether — but I find that I’m happiest, most focused and most productive when I lavish my Twitter minutes on the lists that I’ve carefully groomed to focus on key people and key goals.

You’ll notice that almost all of these lists are private: in other words, I’m the only person who can see who is on them. For these lists to work effectively, I have to be brutally honest, putting people on my love list only if I really and truly adore them, taking them off my inspire list if they get cloying, adding them to my meet list only if I actually want to meet up with them from time to time.

But the real trick to this system lies not in how carefully you build or curate your lists, or which Twitter client you use to view them. It lies in letting yourself off the hook for your dozens, hundreds or even thousands of Twitter follows; in admitting that nobody truly keeps up with the tweets of that many people. When you check your all friends feed, you’re letting an accident of timing determine who gets your attention: your attention will go to the twenty or thirty people who happen to have tweeted shortly before you dropped in.

Focus instead on your lists, and you take charge of your attention. You put your Twitter time into the relationships that matter to you, into the people you care about and most want to learn from. You’ll turn Twitter into an engine of real connection, and you’ll never again wonder just who you are trying to connect with.

On Managing Information Overload and Extremely Lame Superpowers

This blog post originally appeared on the site of the Harvard Business Review site.

We all struggle with information overload. If somebody would just push a button and turn off the Internet for a year, maybe, maybe, we’d catch up on our work, organize our contacts, and restore our sanity.

But instead of turning off the Internet, many of us, perversely, turn to it, the very thing that’s creating the pain, in hopes of relieving it.

My version of this: I use a tool called Evernote, a desktop, mobile, and web application that collates all your notes, links, and even snapshots and then uses built-in character recognition to make it all full-text searchable. For example, I could snap photos of business cards with my iPhone. Later, when I want to contact someone, I could search in Evernote on the company name in the picture of the card, and I would find the photo along with text of what’s contained in it.

The value here is the behind-the-scenes process of making any information I collect in any format text searchable. It could also match notes to location and provide context. If I got a business card from a friend who recommended a restaurant, I’d know when I search on that friend, or that restaurant, about that connection. This would free me from having to sit down after returning from a conference and type new contacts into a contact manager, for example, and it empowers me to maintain context that’s otherwise lost.

Evernote has helped me attenuate — not cure — my information overload problem. I turned to Evernote CEO Phil Libin to learn more on managing information overload. He talked about what we overwhelmed users can expect is coming to help us, why much of social media is merely entertainment, and his “extremely lame superpower.”

AS: Do you think we are suffering from information overload?

Libin: If you compare me to my 10,000-year-old caveman ancestor, pretty much every part of my body and what it can do has been magnified and amplified by technology: how much stuff I can haul around, how fast I can move, how many people I can talk to.

My ancestor had a couple of hundred facts in his head he could remember and recall easily — which berries were good to eat, which people in his tribe were trustworthy — and I’ve got the same thing. There are a couple of hundred facts I can keep in my head except instead of berries, it’s Simpsons quotes. For him the facts were the sum total of all info he was exposed to. For me, it’s a small fraction. We are exposed to far more than we can comfortably keep in our meat brains.

But how can tools like Evernote, which come from the very source of our overload, actually help? You don’t put out fires with fire?

A big part of information overload is the anxiety about information overload. For me personally, the feeling I was forgetting things was contributing to the problem. Then I started using our tool, and whenever I had something to keep track of, I would throw it in Evernote and allow myself to feel confident I’d captured it. That contributed to making me feel comfortable about all the information I was processing in my life.

Are you a GTD adherent?

I’m not. I figure five to 10 percent of the population has the “organized” gene. These are the lucky people who will be able to follow any program, GTD or anything else. The rest of us aren’t going to do it. We’re not particularly well organized or we’re lazy.

You think organizational tools like yours can actually improve your quality of life?

When I moved to California three years ago I decided to learn about wine. I’d go to a restaurant and have a bottle of wine and I wouldn’t bother writing it down because I knew that I’d never find it when I needed it.

Now I just take a picture of the wine bottle in Evernote, and I know I can find it by words in the wine label or by geotagging, meaning it will show up when I come back to the same restaurant. Or, I’ll remember I had that bottle with a certain colleague, and then when I search Evernote for his business card, the photo of the wine label will be the note next to it.

It makes me feel like I have this extremely lame superpower: the ability to remember bottles of wine.

What other techniques and solutions do you personally rely on?

Ignoring things. I used to try to keep up on Facebook and Twitter. I just completely stopped doing that. If someone tweets at me they shouldn’t expect me to see it. You have to stop caring about the random stuff on social media and treat it as entertainment, which is what it is.

What has shaped your company’s approach to the overload problem?

One of our big influences is The Long Now, a project dedicated to long-term thinking — 10,000-year long-term. We say the memories you put in Evernote will be around the rest of your life, and for your grandchildren.

What’s in your Evernote notebook that you want your grandchildren to have?

I do a lot of cooking and all my recipes are in there, plus the stuff I’m eating. I took photos of every thing I ate during my last stay in Japan and everything is geotagged. I don’t think about what I want my grandchildren to see but what I would have wanted to see of my grandfather’s. I would love to see photos of everything my grandfather ate in a given week 80 years ago.

Can we expect any technical leaps forward that will help us manage the volume of information?

The other two big influences on Evernote are Gordon Bell and Ray Kurzweil. If you want to know where this is really going, you’ve got to read Gordon Bell’s Total Recall. He recorded everything for twenty years and then wrote a book about what life like this was like. What he’s doing only one in a thousand people would do. We’re taking his ideas and dialing down to what lots of people can do.

Ray Kurzweil talks about how two hundred years ago, nobody was exposed to any technology, but right now it’s everywhere all around you. It’s never more than a few inches away from a phone, computer, pad, et cetera. The next step is on the inside, to get to things by thinking of them. But that’s still maybe 20 years away.

Would you get the Evernote brain chip?

Oh absolutely. I’d be first in line. But our marketing department doesn’t like me to talk about that.