Two books ordered from a local e-commerce portal started their journey from two different cities to my humble abode in Bengaluru. From the moment I placed the order to the delivery time, I received 28 emails, as many SMSs, if not more, and some WhatsApp messages. This over-communication is not counting the spam emails I will receive to push other products the portal sells. I was informed of every movement of the books until they were delivered, followed by delivery confirmation and finally a feedback request on the delivery process and then on the product.
Saga of Over-Communication
Email volume multiplies when the company that takes the order, the one that packs and ships it, and the one that delivers at your doorstep are different, leaving you confused about who is delivering which order and when.
This is a process with a normal delivery when no packages are lost, delivered at the wrong address, or a wrong product is delivered, leading to a whole new process of return and refund. Apart from a few big e-tailers, I, as a consumer, have no control over these messages. I can’t stop them or tell the e-commerce portal that I am ok with no messages till the date of delivery. I am a rare shopper online. Wonder how people manage when they place every order online almost daily.
It awakened me to the environmental hazards I am contributing to by making two books travel painstakingly toward me. I told myself these rare books, and the cost of traveling to these cities to buy these books is far more. I did resolve not to order something I could buy online closer to my home.
When I trade in the stock market, a similar flurry of messages flood from my Demat service provider, from associated banks, NSDL, and a few other agencies. I am lost in the flood of messages. For some banks, even logging into the account requires dealing with multiple OTP messages and then updating every movement online on every possible messaging system. Booking a flight is no different from the number of messages you have to deal with until you board the flight.
Too many messages confuse me. If something has gone wrong, am I missing something? For example, whenever an airline sends a message with Important written in bold letters, you wonder if the flight is canceled or rescheduled or if you are too late. It takes time to realize that these are default automated messages asking you to come three hours before the flight, making you question if the flight is indeed saving me time. Eventually, you learn to ignore. With time, we get used to these unnecessary messages. But we may miss the important message hidden somewhere between all these updates.
The same goes for advertisements on social media platforms, especially YouTube. An Ad forced too many times makes me repulsive towards the brand. Start-ups loaded with investor money love to be seen everywhere. They even keep pushing a product you have just bought to you for days together, wasting their resources and my attention.
The government of India is not far behind in spamming email folders with their updates. The concept of consent or voluntary subscription does not exist with them. Yes, I can unsubscribe most of the time, but they keep coming back in different forms and shapes. Add to it all the WhatsApp and Telegram forwards in family and friends groups. They can consume all your time and energy.
The situation becomes stressful when vulnerable senior citizens get alarmed by too much technology. In a way, these messages are also creating ample space for fraud and cheating. It is easy to slip in an innocent-looking message in the barrage of messages just by copying their formats. You can even design a message that aims to help you, and all you need to do is share some random numbers associated with your account or click a link that looks legit. Educating seniors is not simple as that generation trusts easily.
Is this a case of Over Communication? Is it because technology makes it easy? Then on the face of it, comes at a near-zero cost? Is this the optimal or exploitative use of automation, as every touch-point automatically triggers these messages? Technology has brought down the cost of sending messages. However, that is just the technology or communication cost. What about the opportunity and nuisance cost of those receiving the messages?
Then, are there environmental costs? Like those of servers creating, storing, and communicating these billions of messages? Yes, the power consumption and heat generated by the servers, and equipment to cool them. And additional hardware required for safe computing and storage cause as much environmental damage as traveling in a polluting vehicle. There is also the end-of-life disposal cost of electronic goods involved in this chain, from servers to clouds to our mobile phones.
Need to know
Does a customer need to know every move the mundane product is making? Is it helping me save time and effort? They were my first drivers to shop or bank from the comfort of my home. Are you losing my attention with too many messages and too much advertising?
The obvious answer to the problem of over-communication is another layer of technology that lets you control the level of messages you want to receive. Maybe, technology companies need to put a price tag on the number of messages. That is to discourage the mindless use they have to pay for. That may seem like an easy way to address the problem. But in reality, we need basic common sense. That in Sanskrit we call Vivek. Those at the sending end must be aware of the receiver’s world, their needs, psychology, and plight and respect their time.
First Published in The New Indian Express on 25th September 2022.