The difference between ReadWrite Pause and the rest of the op-eds about reconsidering our relationship with Web technology is that most of those op-eds are unbelievably stupid. They worry about the tech instead of the people. Computers are inanimate (so far). We are responsible for the way we use them.

The problem here at the dawn of the Information Age is not that we have too much technology. It’s that we’ve trained each other to use it badly. If we want better communication, the first thing we have to do is communicate better. Then the technology and technology vendors will have to adapt to us.

Un-Training Your Friends

There is one key feature of social Web technology that we need to beware of because it affects us on a basic, neurological level: the notification. The little, white number in the little, red bubble is where all the joy comes from. It means somebody loves us. And that’s why we constantly come back looking for for more.

Notifications add a sense of urgency to the interaction. And the more notifications that pile up, the more urgent they feel. It seems like the only way to manage the urgency is to respond.

This is our first mistake.

If you’re like me, and you have a close relationship with your smartphone, you’re probably pretty quick to respond to messages. It doesn’t matter what kind of message it is: If I see it, I feel compelled to respond. It’s the only way to clear it from my head. With a smartphone in my pocket, I always see it, and I respond right away. By being so responsive, I am training my friends and colleagues to think that I’m constantly available.

This is the problem.

This is where the overload comes from. By creating the expectation that we’re always available, the people in our networks learn to treat us as though we are. We get more messages with more urgency, and we get buried underneath them. We need to un-train our friends.

Manage Your Urgency

Un-training our friends and colleagues has to start by training ourselves. I don’t think ignoring messages is a good solution. That’s stressful. The right approach is to manage the levels of urgency of the messages we receive.

Only messages that we have to see immediately should send push notifications. Text messages are probably at the top of the urgency pile, and even those might be best managed with a VIP list, so only certain people’s texts come through right away. Twitter Direct Messages (DMs) are a good channel for urgent communication, since it’s easy to control who can send them to you.

We should arrange the rest of our communication channels so that we have to confront messages only when we check for them intentionally.

Back Off On Email

Frankly, I think people who get push notifications for email are crazy. I understand that some people might have no choice, but I think anyone who does have a choice should choose not to. What email message is so important that it has to be seen right away? We all know email overload leads to madness, but the problem is not email. The problem is people. Email is people. The only way to “fix email” is to re-train people to use it better.

Notfications for Twitter mentions? Facebook messages? Freaking LinkedIn messages? Forget them all. We need to create a culture where those kinds of communications are simply not treated as urgent. They’re casual by definition. One should never be expected to have seen something on Facebook. It’s unfair.

Fortunately, we actually have a great deal of control over the priorities of our messages. And the companies who provide these services, like Facebook and Twitter, have to build their products around the way we use them. They can push us to use them in certain ways — and they do with notifications — but we can resist. If we have a culture of good communicators, the tech will get better, too.

Photos by Jon Mitchell. Second photo is of a painting by David Polka.