In our quest to stay connected, we have embraced powerful new technology. Some of the best new products include the increasingly ubiquitous Blackberries and Treos, combining e-mail and telephone functionality.
In recent weeks, however, JSB and I have been exposed to the dark side of this new technology. JSB has even coined a name for it – he calls it ‘Berrybite”, merging Blackberry with soundbite.
We are all familiar with the pressure to condense messages into soundbites for broadcast media. Blackberries and Treos exert a similar pressure, both on the sender and the receiver. To preserve compact form factors, the keyboards on these devices are minimal at best. Anyone seeking to input a long message acquires first hand experience with a new syndrome – “thumb fatigue”. Similarly, anyone seeking to read a long message on one of these devices soon develops eye strain. On both sides, the pressure is on to keep it simple and keep it short.
Now, there’s clearly a lot of value in that. Learning how to be concise is something that could benefit many of us. It is a discipline that forces us to clarify in our own minds what we are really trying to say and zero in on the essence of the message.
On the other hand, these devices also can receive attachments to messages. This is where the danger occurs. We attach documents to e-mails expecting that they will be read on PC’s or printed out and then read.
Both JSB and I have had experiences where documents we sent were read by people on a Blackberry or Treo. They weren’t long documents – basically the equivalent of two or three pages of text. The recipients were initially highly critical of the material. But, when we pressed them to read the documents again, they came back after reading them more carefully on a PC or in print form and apologized for their initial reactions. They said the material was excellent and they didn’t really understand why they had such a negative initial reaction.
Well, we think we know why initial reactions were so negative. The Blackberry or Treo is not conducive to a careful read – it encourages skimming. It also encourages people to find a quick way to capture what is in the document and then move on to the next message. As a result, people tend to try to fit these documents into familiar categories based on some key words rather than thinking deeply about the topic and absorbing new perspectives. It also doesn’t help that documents on these devices are typically accessed in environments with lots of distractions – meeting rooms, airports, automobiles, etc. – making it difficult to concentrate on the message at hand.
Bottom line, if you send a document to someone and they don’t like it, ask them how they accessed and read it. If it was on a Blackberry or Treo, ask them to read it again in a different format. You (and they) might be surprised at how their reactions change.
If we don’t appreciate the differences in how we read material in different formats, we are likely to increase the pressure on everyone to condense all communication into “berrybites”. That would be a shame because then we would lose all sense of nuance and texture and that is usually where the greatest insight resides.