Sanity during the flood of messaging apps

“Confessions” are interesting because the bigger picture is often more complicated than it seems.

Confession from LinkedIn.

These days, emails flood into inboxes but remain unread. Tweets, ads, and statuses clamor for attention. We constantly flip through the jungle of apps. The information overload is immense. We all feel stretched thin. There’s an underlying sense of responsibility to keep up with everything, as evidenced by this LinkedIn post.

The impact of messages gone wrong reveals itself in unexpected ways. Recently, a close contact of mine arrived at a business dinner that had already been cancelled by email at the last minute. Several other confused attendees also showed up to the empty venue, and countless hours were wasted. Was this the fault of the person who sent the cancellation email, the people who did not receive it, or some other unnamed party? The answer is not entirely clear.

How did we arrive at this point? Not long ago, messages were as simple as phones and papers. Since then, conversations have not changed much. However, the places where we communicate are different. Beneath the surface, an enormous reconfiguration is underway of the digital messaging platforms, tools, channels, and apps that we use. It feels like the rug is being pulled out from underneath us because that is exactly what is happening. Several factors make this disruption especially uncomfortable.

First, the digital messaging landscape is constantly changing. It’s difficult to understate the disorder. There are effectively an unlimited number of messaging tools. Check any app store. Even the largest tech behemoths host a hodgepodge of tools. Facebook has Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp (at minimum, for now). Google is reducing seven messaging apps to “only” five. The LinkedIn post doesn’t even mention Twitter, Telegram, or Snapchat. Philosophical debates about how messages relate to to-dos, projects, images, and documents give a blurrier picture. Common tools such as Asana, Trello, Microsoft Office, Google Docs, Wunderlist, Evernote, DropBox and others contain built-in messaging.

Second, we have limited control over our digital messaging tools. I’ve had it with the usual advice that “we should all be using [insert name of app] because [insert reason]”. If you work for any organization, then there are mandatory tools like Outlook, G Suite, Skype for Business, or Slack. Events appear on our calendars from WebEx, GoToMeeting, Zoom, and Uberconference. Our control is limited even outside of work. We get invitations to communicate using specific tools. Other people only need tacit consent to send an SMS, WhatsApp, iMessage, or call to your private number. Uber, Upwork, AirBnB, and other platform services often require proprietary messaging. Even social media and telecom leaders are clueless about how to tame the messaging zoo, as evident from the discussion below.

Conversation about messaging apps from LinkedIn.

Third, approaching messaging from a “boil the ocean” perspective is exhausting. Aren’t there already enough inbox aggregators? For example, try searching the app store for “friendly.” Even the biggest players can barely impact market segments. Slack presents itself as the “collaboration hub for work,” but it is the first problem mentioned in the top LinkedIn post. Companies have no incentive to solve the underlying causes because messages that leak outside platforms cede ground to competitors. Finally, “check Facebook 3x per day for 20 minutes” sounds cute in an annoyingly nerdy way, but who can do that consistently for every tool? Complexity is accelerating at a frustrating pace for everyone except trendsetters, and it’s debilitating to think about.

This unsettled messaging landscape results in confusion and overwhelm for everyone. Many underlying causes are beyond our control despite senses of responsibility and guilt about messages that slip through. While there is no clear market solution right now, awareness of this situation helps to mitigate the problem. Furthermore, avoid the urge to blame yourself for unintended side effects by keeping the bigger picture in perspective. Do your best, and don’t sweat the rest.