Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici

Heard of Information Pollution, anyone?

By Sorab Ghaswalla

Mumbai, November 15, 2012

In my sojourn on the Internet, I learnt of two new phrases last week – Internet Usability, or, Web Usability, and Information Pollution. 
In fact, ‘Usability’ in terms of definition is primarily linked to website design, a method that shows how well visitors can use a particular website. Good usability means the site is easily navigable, and is informative to visitors.
Of late, though, it has been receiving much attention, since it has now been universally recognised that a Usability test is a must for the success of a website or a web App or even a smartphone application. It is one of the many goals of web engineering research. Thus, usability evaluation is an extension of what used to pass off as ‘testing’ in the real world.
Like in any other science or trade, there are experts of Usability, too, who also have been around for a while.
What aroused my interest in Usability and Usability experts is this excellent story in The Fiscal Times, a digital news agency based in New York, USA. The report is all about attention deficit disorder and the distraction that technology offers to workforce, especially knowledge workers. I wish many more users of the Internet read this article. Apparently, and not many of us give this a thought to this anymore, every time a pop-up box (those irksome little squares that pop up when you visit a website) peeks out from your computer screen, it kind of interrupts what you are doing; whether you are checking your email or filling in those numbers in your Excel sheet.
Now, an Internet Usability specialist Jakob Nielsen says that a one minute interruption of this kind easily shaves off 15 minutes of a worker’s productivity time, much of it spent to re-establish mental context and to get back to what he/she was doing before his/her attention was grabbed by the pop-up. Multiply this 15 minutes with the total number of your
workforce and the wasted time number jumps up dramatically.
Which brings me to the second word that I picked up last week – Information Pollution. First, there was content explosion. This was followed by content pollution. Like real world pollution, this one is all about the contamination of our day-to-day information supply with irrelevant and low-value info. This kind of pollution can have a detrimental effect on human activity and productivity, a point which Nielsen alludes to in The Fiscal Times report.
One of the direct fallouts of Information Pollution on an individual worker is that it impairs his/her judgement-making capacity. Believe it or not, it may lead to information overload and even anxiety, stress and decision paralysis in an individual. Wow. So, before you click on the ‘Click Here’ tab on that innocuous pop-up or open a junk email, thinking it’s all fun and games, stop and ponder on where it could lead you and the organisation you work for, in the long run.
Apparently, email makes up for about 60 per cent of Information Pollution. There have been case studies of company bosses switching off the company’s intranet, forcing employees to get up from their work desks and walk across to a colleague’s desk to actually talk. It is by now common knowledge that email and the intranet have forced loneliness to creep up in our work places. 
Employees, sitting within one sq feet distance of each other, do not talk to one another but instead prefer to send out emails. At first, this was thought to be hilarious behavior, now it’s the accepted norm. Not only do unnecessary emails interrupt a worker’s routine, it hampers his/her style of working, impairs his/her decision-making effort and time, and could also affect his/her overall personality. Think of it, a mere email!
So, the question that begs an answer is – how much information is enough? Or right? In my books, the quality as well as the quantity of information have equal relevance. It would do well for all of us who use the Internet for information collection or exchange, for communication, for entertainment, or just for fun, to be clear about what we have to say, and limit ourselves in terms of number of words and images.
This is essentially what the algorithms of online Search Engines look for when they crawl a website and social network. This is what the emerging science of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is all about. Such is the amount of junk floating on the online information highway that even such computer programmes have still not been able to work out a precise match of relevant content to the search keywords.
Maybe it is time for us humans to show the way. For each and every one of us. Or else, the day is not far off when there shall be a complete meltdown of the digital world, as we know it, simply from information overheat. Perhaps leading to the 3rd round of digital world renaissance?

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