The concept of communications overload and the sociology of mobile communications

30 Apr

I prepared this piece as a sketch of one of the arguments in my book Texture (MIT, 2011) and, since it is brief, I think it is worth sharing. Besides, a version of the following is to appear in the Sage journal ‘Mobile Media & Communication’, full citation to follow, and that journal may well be of interest too.


April 2012

Our lives are busy. All of us are busy. Too busy, we all complain. And then there is communication, so much of it indeed that, with everything else, we are overloaded. ‘Enough Already!’ one can hear us all exclaim. One can hardly list the numerous self-help books written to deal with this dilemma.

So what is it that is making us so busy? What one can say is that it is not work that makes us so frenzied and rushed. Historians show that we give less time to work than ever. Today, most of the time people have is given over to things other than work. Some of these things haven’t altered with the centuries. People have to sleep, for example, and this takes up more time than almost anything else (about 37% of a day, according to some measures). They also have to eat and clean (another 9%). These are body related things, biological needs one might say. There are also needs related to society, ones that one might imagine alter over time, but this is not always the case: people spend as much of their lives travelling to and from work as they did a hundred years ago (about 6%). And then there are the contemporary things that we do: fiddling with our Facebook status updates, reading Twitter; emailing. What is sure is that the time allocated for these sorts of things is increasing, though the figures that might enable us to judge by just how much and with what velocity of change are difficult to interpret. There are gross figures for communicating that suggest that 8% of the day is given to it but these don’t allow for multitasking. Apparently, these time-measuring statistics are based on the assumption that individuals don’t do more than one thing at a time – or rather they have to assume this since their data is somewhat rough: multitasking is invisible in it. It is no wonder, then, that when one adds up all the time consumed by such measures, the doings of the day take longer than 24 hours (for discussion of these numbers see Harper, 2011, p37-45).

One can readily understand the methodological difficulties in this area – who wants to count the seconds one spends texting while one is watching the TV? If one leaves these difficulties aside, however, and simply looks at the overall balance of time, one will see a paradox: one sees that, when all the things that have to be done are done, the sleeping, the eating, the cleaning, the going to work (even though we spend less time at work than we used to), there isn’t much time left in an ordinary day for anything. Those activities we complain about as especially onerous time consumers – as filling our days up – don’t actually consume much time for the simple reason that there isn’t much time for them to consume. Here I am thinking of communicating: are our complaints about it overloading us really only about 8% of the day?

So, while it seems a truism to say we are currently burdened by overload – who would disagree? – careful consideration might lead us to discover that we don’t, in fact, really give much time to communicating, not to mediated communicating, the expressions that require some kind of transport in their functioning. Indeed, we don’t seem to give much to anything at all, apart from the remarkable amount of time we give to things we don’t really have a chance to alter – to the need of our own bodies for rest, for their upkeep, and presentation (eating, washing and dressing). Yet it seems to me that, and I admit this seems contrary, this doesn’t mean we are wrong to complain about communications overload. Though it is certainly the case that we might muddle things up, confusing the burdens of communications with the burden of all of things we have to do, we do indeed worry about how much we put into communication and for good reason. But time measures are not the issue here. Or, rather, they are not a helpful way of approaching what the grounds for our complaints and concerns might be.

It seems to me that when the phrase communication overload is used, we should assume that what is being alluded to is simply a quantitative phenomenon. Quantitative measures are sometimes useful, but only occasionally and even then have to be treated with care. Certainly, the way we ordinarily talk about some kinds of communication does imply the consumption of time, and sometimes too much time: ‘They do go on’, one can hear people say about another’s conversation; ‘Their emails are so prolix’ in another instance. And sometimes the use of the phrase alludes to the exchange of stuff, such that the more there is (of the stuff) the better it is for us involved in the communicating but by the same token also implying that sometimes there might be too much exchanging. Gossip and gossiping comes to mind. Here quantification might help. But these are instances of the many and varied things that acts of communication constitute and there are many other acts where such metrics don’t help (or fit).

There is a bigger issue afoot, however: we are starting from the wrong place. Instead of thinking of the phrase communication overload as merely empirical, and strictly arithmetical at that, we need to think of it as first and foremost a concept, as a tool used by people, a mechanism that lets them understand their world through describing it. Treating it this way will lead us to look at all its uses, and stop us confining our interest to just one such use (one that implies counting say). It will let us to unpack the many properties the concept has, the things implied when it is used, the things assumed in that use, the links it has to other concepts. It will let us come to understand what it helps people do, how it describes, how it organises their affairs. The view I am taking is Peter Winch’s interpretation (1958) of Wittgenstein rather than the approach offered by Strawson’s (1992) analytic philosophy; it is to show a concern for the forms of life that concept are related to and not merely their logical form.

One of the first properties one might want to highlight from this point of view is that the concept ‘communications overload’ is not very accurate or specific. It labels lots of things. When people complain of communications overload they are using a catch-all concept. I have already listed some examples of the things it labels. Here are some more: when people ‘communicate’ to other people they are showing, for example, a sensibility for family life. Sensibility seems some way from communication so what am I getting at? I am alluding to the fact that one of the things one does in families is listen, listen to one another irrespective of whether one has any interest in the topic at hand. Family life is about chatting, amongst other things. In another instance, people communicate because they are delighting in friendship: words might be exchanged, ideas remarked upon, but it is being with another that is at issue: that is what friendship can sometimes entail. In a third, when someone posts an update on an SNS, they are seeking ways of characterising themselves.

So, when people say ‘I am overloaded’ just what is it that they are saying? Do they mean to confine their remarks to the specific acts of communication, or to the point of a communication? Is about family life they are whinging, or are they thinking of friendship, or are they thinking about how little time they have to paint a portrait of themselves on their Facebook account? In other words, empirical referent is one concern that has to be treated carefully when one considers the concept.

This is not the only property of the concept that is important. Another has to do with the fact that when the term is used it refers to uniquely human affairs – this sounds tautological, since all the examples above are of human activities. What I mean is that the concept is used in a way that turns on the assumption that it is the particular and peculiar properties of human affairs that are at issue. These can be summed up by the term morally implicative. Human communication is always about what consequences individual acts of communication have for the relations between people, the character of those relations and their nature.

I cannot overemphasise the importance of this nor the delicate complexity of this fact. Consider some examples from my research. I have looked why old folks think communications acts say something about them and their relations, for example. They treat such acts as sets of doings that are judged and oriented to in particular ways. I have found that old folks condemn broadcast messaging (such as posting on Facebook) because it shows little deference for the individual recipient of a message, for the singularity of friendship. They prefer longer letters or emails. Thus the moral implications of acts of communication are central to how such acts are understood, selected, avoided, counted, ignored.

One example might seem insufficient to prove of my claim. Let me elaborate on another example which shows how delicate, complex but nevertheless moral are the consequences of communications. (All these are taken from my book Texture, 2011). I have mentioned above the sensibility that family life requires. In my studies of technologies like Whereabouts Clocks I have found that people use that technology to finesse their acts of family tenderness and affection – using the clock to know when to make tea just before someone comes home or to let them be more aware of where partners have been and thus better able to make small talk with those partners when they come home and need to unwind. The richness of communication acts are, then, great indeed; but this richness points towards the richness of social relations, their properties, their patterning through time: in commentaries and analyses we tend to sterilise them or at least offer descriptions that seem to lose the tendernesses they entail, the thoughtfulness they enable.

And here is the rub. If this is so and if this moral implicativeness is so delicate and complex, so rich and so vital to human affairs, so easy to misrepresent, so hard to characterise, what is the research agenda that is appropriate for this space? Or is it simple care that is demanded? Care is obviously requisite. But we still have much to learn. Despite many years of effort in mobile communications and media research, we are confronted by a number of difficulties.

They ensue when we rush too quickly to explanation before we have uncovered what the acts in question are essentially about or properly understood the concept used in relation to them. The examples above have been selected to show how there is an obvious link between the concept of overload and counting but how, at the same time, when people use the phrase overload, they might in fact be pointing towards the moral aspect of messaging. It’s not the counting of the messages that might be at issue, it might be friendship, or it might be family affection. If so, then the word overload might be a synonym for guilty indifference – in both contexts this would apply though the resonance in each would be different. A marriage partner is not the same as a friend, after all.

How does one examine this topic (or topics)? Can one count these forms of guilt? To be sure we can if we treat it in certain ways, asking people to give a number to their feelings, for example, surveying a population to see how many of them ‘feel guilt’. But doing so can obscure important properties of that emotion – especially when the concept is used, as in this illustration, in relation to friendship and –or family life. Take friendship: is it to be conceived of in terms of scale? Frequency of contact? Or its reverse: infrequency? Such a model seems calculative. One would not savour a friend who counted in this fashion. One wants them to feel – to feel for us: that is what friendship ought to be. All the more so in family life,  one might say.

So, does that mean that feeling is really the issue, the one that should be researched when people complain of overload? No,  of course not. I think the real task of research is to show how topics like this are linked to and made visible by talk about communication. The problem is to preserve that complexity, its delicate form, despite our desire to simplify, theorise, and distil – even the words we use can handicap us. Consider, I used the word essential: this implies that something is at the core of something, when all I meant was that one concern is more important that others, more salient perhaps, more at the heart of things and it is that which we are after, not platonic essentials.

Take another example of how easily our research can lack finesse. One thing obviously associated with the word communication is time, but not simply clock time. The counting of time hardly does justice to human experience. The full prism of social connection is manifest in how social connections are at once prospective and retrospective, in the here and now and sensed as things to be done and things that were done. Individual acts of communication need to be understood in terms of the topography of connection through time. But how does one research that? It might seem easy, merely a question of empirical traces. Let me return now to the question of guilt. Traces might not be the issue. An interest in communication, with acts of communication, can lead one to ignore those social relations that don’t appear to entail any act. If it is the case, as I mention above, that one can sometimes feel guilty about not responding to a communication, or acting appropriately as a result of one, there are some instances, some occasions, where the absence of such acts – of any kind – doesn’t foster guilt. Quite the reverse: the absence of contact is viewed as good behaviour. As Simmel noted in his essay, How is Society Possible? Part of the good grace that is required in modernity is the capacity on the part of every individual to ignore strangers they come to share space with as part of the contingencies and necessities of life. One sits next to strangers on the bus or the metro; one queue’s besides anonymous others in the shops; one laughs in the theatre along with people one doesn’t know; one gracefully looks away from the unidentifiable man making a mobile phone call in earshot. In our focus on the physical acts of communication, or in seeking traces of acts in the past and planned for ones in the future, we must avoid neglecting these silences and gentle looking aways, those moments when people chose as it were not to speak, to not communicate at all, even to glance, now, or indeed ever. Their choice to not act expresses in itself an alertness to the fact that they have no right to communicate to, for example, the present other. They choose not to communicate as a way of showing respect.

When we choose to communicate and when we chose not to, in other words, we are making many distinctions. Thus, when it comes to communications overload, we need to be clear about the distinction that pertains. When we assert ‘Enough Already!’ is it enough communication with those who have rights to communicate to us that we are thinking of? Is it their rights to demand of us a response to every act they make that irks us? Or are we thinking of the burdens we place on others, some of which might have been mistakes, when we sought communication with those we do not know and hitherto had no right to chat to, to call, to email, to text and thus found, by default as it were, that we had opened up a system of communication: first this, then that in an never ending circle? Are we guilty for the burden we have placed on others, one that can last for the eternity of our lives: ‘I introduced myself, I can hardly ignore him now’.

The distinctions I am drawing here are, of course, curiously one way: one cannot undo the rights to communicate, even to those one has fallen out with. For if we choose to ignore their messages, they know, as our mutual friends do, that our doing so is an act of enmity. We speak volumes by not answering. But thus it is that we need to be careful about who we allow to become part of our social world, who we allow in, for in the future their demands for a communication might burden us down.

In sum, when the phrase communication overload is used, so many things are meant, so many possibilities implied. It would be wrong to say that analysts of the age of communication should avoid the term themselves, seeking perhaps to come up with their own labels and measures. I do not think that the everyday use of the term is poor, or inadequate or confused. I do not think it needs replacing by something better. My point is that its use is incredible complex and subtle and adroit. We would do well to investigate those complexities with similar adroitness: it’s what people do with the term that matters, they why of it, the how of it, the texture that results. This is the business of the human act of communication. It should be ours, too, as analysts of that business.


R. Harper (2011) Texture: Human expression in the age of communications overload. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press (book).

G. Simmel (1971) ‘How is Society Possible?’ in On individuality and social forms, Chicago: Chicago University Press (book).

P.F. Strawson (1992) Analysis and Metaphysics, Oxford: Oxford University Press (book).

P. Winch (1958) The idea of a Social Science and its relation to Philosophy, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul (book).


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