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<nettime> "The more you say, the more people tune out your message." (Ja
geert lovink on Tue, 12 Aug 2003 01:11:26 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> "The more you say, the more people tune out your message." (Jacob Nielsen)

(Finally, the word is out:  Jacob Nielsen is a reborn media ecologist. So,
you, attention thieves, shut up, and listen to Big Daddy Jacob... Ciao,

Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox for August 11 is now online at:


Excessive word count and worthless details are making it harder
for people to extract useful information. The more you say,
the more people tune out your message.

Saying less often communicates more. Our lives are littered with extraneous
details that smother salient information, as these examples from my recent
travels show.

a.. In the lobby of the Sheraton hotel near Kennedy Airport, an electronic
sign hangs above a monitor. The sign has two lines of 20 characters each,
and cycles through the following four messages:

    1.. For Your Information and Convenience
    2.. The Monitor Underneath Will
    3.. Indicate the Flight Schedules of All
    4.. Airlines at JFK Airport

Because the monitor's meaning is obvious to anyone who has ever been on an
airplane, the sign adds nothing. Worse, it wastes people's time as they
ponder the cycling text, assuming that it will eventually say something
important. If the goal is to attract attention to the monitor, the sign
could simply say:

  Schedules for All
  JFK Flights


c.. At San Jose Airport, when you board the shuttle bus from the terminal
to the parking lot you hear the message: "Welcome to San Jose International
Airport." Since you've just flown into San Jose, this information is hardly
enlightening. Better to say something like "Welcome. This bus goes to the
Orange long-term parking lot."

d.. FasTrak is a transponder-based system that lets you automatically pay
tolls on bridges that cross San Francisco bay. Assuming that your car has a
working transponder, when you pass a tollbooth a sign lights up that says
VALID ETC. The word "VALID" is nice: It indicates that the toll has been
deducted from your account and you can proceed. But "ETC"? Does it mean
"etcetera" or perhaps electronic toll collection? In any case, it's an
irrelevant nuisance and communicates nothing given the context of the sign.
Each little piece of useless chatter is relatively innocent, and only robs
us of a few seconds. The cumulative effect, however, is much worse: we
assume that most communication is equally useless and tune it out, thus
missing important information that's sometimes embedded in the mess.

Warning: Superfluous Warnings Are Hazardous

Information pollution is a worldwide scourge that afflicts not just
travelers but everyone. In the United States, for example, you can't buy a
lawnmower without a label saying that you're not supposed to mow your feet.
Most instruction manuals are littered with "important" warnings that caution
against obvious stupidities, burying actual dangers amid a mass of
irrelevancy. An out-of-control legal system has made a joke of the entire
warnings concept; products are now less safe because nobody bothers to read
warnings anymore.

In information foraging terms, information pollution is like packing the
forest with cardboard rabbits: frustrated wolves are bound to hunt

Internet Pollution

The Internet is the worst polluter of all. Spam isn't even pollution, it's
attention theft. But even legitimate email is typically copied to more
people than necessary and contaminated by excess verbiage and endless reply
loops. The Web is a procrastination apparatus: It can absorb as much time as
is required to ensure that you won't get any real work done. Sites overflow
with either low-value stream-of-consciousness postings or bland corporatese.
Studies of content usability typically find that removing half of a
website's words will double the amount of information that users actually

Let's clean up our information environment. Are you saying something that
benefits your customers, or simply spewing word count? If users don't need
it, don't write it. Stop polluting now.

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