April 24, 2018

Less Noise For More Signal | From the Bell Tower

Using social networks to share information that can benefit or even entertain colleagues is a widely accepted practice, but constant status updates—particularly those of questionable value—ultimately add to the noise and detract from the learning.

If we’re Facebook friends or you follow me on Twitter, you know I barely qualify as existing on these networks. I rarely update my status. It used to be different. At first I thought the goal was to update several times a day. I observed others making that their practice. Multiple posting throughout the day was something I never quite mastered. I suppose I could have, but at what cost? I derived little satisfaction in spewing out status updates of questionable interest to anyone else: where I was; my next action; what I just saw; my latest uninspiring thought. Everyone is accustomed to these types of updates and filters them in whatever way works best. My problem was feeling badly about contributing to a spiraling mass of content that no one really needs. And though updates take just a minute to type—thoughtful ones just a bit more—in aggregate it’s still time squandered, if the activity is mostly unproductive.

Sharing Too Much

The point of this column is not to analyze what qualities or motivating factors inspire some librarians to issue constant status updates on their social networking tools—or to critique it. For some it’s a writing outlet, for others it’s a way to exchange thoughts with friends, and for others it’s a time sink. Better writers and analysts have already explored this territory with mixed results. In his essay, “Thanks For Not Sharing” Roger Cohen does something many of us would like to do, but fear that expressing frustration with our “too much information” friends and followers would simply come off as an angry rant. Cohen frames it as “oversharing and status anxiety” and refers to both as “the two great scourges of the modern world.” He goes on to question what motivates people to share so much useless information in such a public way. He believes it has something to do with a new fear that’s replaced the primordial and primitive ones that no longer drive us to survive. Instead we fear lack of attention, lack of recognition or the ultimate fear—FOMO. As several commenters to Cohen’s essay pointed out, and I agree, the receiver can always choose to ignore, hide, or block the sender. Of course there was praise, but the majority suggested he should lighten up.

Cut Noise to Increase Signal

There’s no point in subjecting yourself to anyone whose noise-to-signal ratio is so high they’re simply annoying or flat out wasting what little time you have to capture useful information from your networks. None of us wants to be that person, and we probably think we are the ones keeping the network informed, entertained, or enlightened. But how is anyone supposed to know if he or she is spewing out too much noise and too little signal?

Perhaps the wise thing is for each of us to think more carefully about how much information, overall, we produce on our social networks. One study of communication between college administrators and students found that less noise equals more signal. As reported by Libby Nelson for Inside Higher Ed, a communications audit at Monroe Community College found that e-mails, letters, phone calls, and postcards about enrollment had totally overwhelmed the students. Between multiple departments and units, each student received 286 unique messages—just about enrollment. The result: too many students ignored the messages and failed to enroll on time, and that lead to unnecessary academic problems.

Be More Selective

When Monroe Community College started to coordinate and vastly reduce the messages in order to control the amount and timing of dissemination, the drop in noise significantly increased the signal. Timely enrollment shot up by 30 percent. The lesson here is that, if you want to have a greater impact on your audience, it may be best to stop clobbering them over the head with non-stop status updates. Instead, be more selective about what you share and how frequently you share news. It probably would help to think about what others would find useful to know and learn. If they are like me, they tend to pay more attention to those whose signal far exceeds the noise they produce. When it comes to keeping up with higher education developments, knowing who keeps me well informed without overwhelming me makes all the difference in my ability to stay alert to the latest news and reports I need to know. Those are the folks I want to follow.

Focus on Learning

The big flaw in Cohen’s piece is that telling people to simply stop over-sharing will do them little good. Advising them to deliver better information is probably not much more helpful. Suggestions for boosting one’s signal may be found on the Internet. For example, one site suggests that “You should have a minimum of one post per day, and ideally two posts per day, to maximize your account. Make sure you’re tweeting on a variety of subjects and not just your personal thoughts or what you’re doing at the moment.”

A limit of two status updates per day per person sounds good to me. Then each person would have to think carefully about how to make the most of their network activity. As far as what to share, if we all start by asking ourselves one simple question, “Is this going to help someone learn something new,” or at least offer that possibility, (“learning” about the banana that got crushed in your backpack and the resulting mess doesn’t count) that might make a real difference in lowering the noise to signal ratio. Academic librarians can still have fun, still stay connected with their pals, and still take the occasional break from their workday routines, but let’s keep it manageable. Once we learn how to improve the signal in our personal networks, then we can make it happen for our libraries, our institutions, and what we share with our communities.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. Great article Steven. I totally agree that social media has just become a bunch of noise. Most of the stuff that people post on Twitter are just regurgitated garbage that they copied and paste from another website. To be honest, I believe that social media is becoming a huge problem in our society. I see more kids glued to their smart phone than socializing and playing with other kids. Social media is suppose to connect us, but instead its making us more distance from each other. Its a crazy world.