During my years as a freelancer, I prided myself on my ability to keep an inbox at zero. Every email I received was handled with care and digested with relative ease.
Then I got a full-time job, and I could finally understand how someone could have hundreds if not thousands of unread messages. Now I’m managing six email accounts across my personal and work lives, along with four Slack accounts (though I get notifications for seven) that come with their own channels and direct message threads.
The constant stream of emails, notifications, and pings have led to this feeling of being on a life boat that’s sprung a leak, with a colander as my only savior. The sheer volume makes it hard to know what I should pay attention to and has made my kid-gloves approach impossible.
My inbox has gone from a space that held all the answers (What’s on my to-do list? What needs to be added to my calendar?) to one that begs a lot of questions. Does this email have anything to do with me? Do I need to be notified every time there’s an update on this collaboration platform? Can this email go straight to trash or is it vital to a project I didn’t realize I was a part of because I missed an earlier email? Sometimes it feels easier to just go down with the ship.
What I’m describing isn’t unique. But there’s something about our shift to remote work that has made this feel a lot more anxiety-inducing.
Our collapsing worlds
We don’t have to look too far to get an understanding of why our work inboxes can feel so overwhelming. A lot of the apps, streaming services, and platforms we use every day have become a habit—or compulsion depending on who you ask—by design. They’re textbook examples of what the Center for Humane Technology calls “persuasive technology,” that is, tech created specifically to keep us glued to various platforms. It “hacks our brains”—and we’ve been using them, one way or another, for years.
“Because our attention is a limited resource, at any given moment our brains need to determine what is important,” the Center reports. “The ‘salience network’ of the brain, which includes the anterior insula and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, helps us do that.”
But the rise of social media co-opted our salience network, “effectively fooling us that something new but trivial is urgent.” It’s why we refresh our notifications or doomscroll to see if we missed anything across our various newsfeeds. But the way information is displayed on social media has also affected the way we process information and determine what’s important, leading to something social anthropologists refer to as “content collapse.”
The rise of social media co-opted our salience network, “effectively fooling us that something new but trivial is urgent.”
Content collapse is a sort of a corollary to “context collapse,” an idea that began to take shape in the early 2000s, thanks in part to researcher danah boyd. Her work helped define the experience of managing our identities in different contexts. It has since become shorthand for multiple audiences interacting in one space via social media—and the cognitive dissonance that can occur because of it. (E.g. How your aunt, former colleague from two jobs ago, and the couple you met on vacation five years ago all liked the same photo of your pandemic sourdough starter on Facebook.)
Context was the first domino to fall. With the invention and implementation of infinity scroll and newsfeeds, content was next in line.
Content collapse, as defined by author Nicholas Carr, refers to social media’s “homogenizing” effect on information. Seeing that your aunt is trying her hand at sourdough, that an old colleague got a pandemic puppy, and word of the latest local, national, and international tragedy in quick succession makes each one feel equally important in our hacked minds.
Now we’re seeing this same type of content collapse on the job.
“A lot of remote workers are being constantly bombarded with messages at all hours of the day, many of which don’t even relate to their role within the company or their personal workload,” says Teresha Aird, co-founder of office space aggregator Offices.net. “This constant stream of messages can lead to a situation where employees become desensitized to the task at hand and messages being communicated by colleagues or superiors.”
With so many messages coming at us from just as many platforms and stakeholders, it’s hard to know what does and doesn’t require our attention. But while we can be passive participants in the content overload on social media, we can’t bow out of work—especially remote work, where there’s already so much tension around perceived productivity. Remote collaborative and messaging tools are the primary way we communicate and get work done these days, but our hijacked minds make every ping, notification, and email a crisis to be triaged or ignored.
It’s an unsustainable dynamic. But we can take clues on what a course correction could look like by looking at how people are responding to the collapse happening on social media.
Gen Z’s exodus to Snapchat, finstas (a second, private and more true-to-life Instagram account), and TikTok could be seen as kids chasing new fads. But it’s actually a very pointed dismissal of older generation’s context and content collapse in favor of “context restoration,” the next wave in social media, according to Carr.
“When people start backing away from broadcasting intimate details about themselves, it’s a sign that they’re looking to reestablish some boundaries in their social lives, to mend the walls that social media has broken,” he writes.
Choosing the ephemerality of Snapchat or saving the good stuff for your Instagram Close Friends restores structure to the information we’re sharing. Yes, we’re still using the master’s tools, but we’re pushing back against the expectations of how we use them, connecting with who we want to in ways that don’t drain or desensitize us. In a time when the expectation is to Always Be Performing and the technology to do so is readily available, context restoration is a balm for our collapse-addled minds.
So what would it look like to restore context at work? It could be as simple as “using different channels for different types of communication” and codifying those differences across the company, says Devon Fata, CEO of human-centric web design firm Pixoul. While Gen Z didn’t announce their shift, context restoration can’t happen in an office without communicating our intentions. We have to set expectations to make sure context-rebuilding boundaries are respected.
We have to set expectations to make sure context-rebuilding boundaries are respected.
Changing the channels we use—and setting the context in which we use them—makes it easier for our minds to determine what is important. And the idea of what’s considered “important” gets to be re-examined through context restoration by inviting us to think about our audience. Whereas collapse encourages a one-size-fits-all approach to communication, restoration relies on audience clarity—tailoring messages for specific audiences, announcing the messages importance based on how and where it’s being shared.
Context restoration in this way offers a kind of filter for the messages you receive, says Kimberlee Morrison, director of content marketing at digital publishing company Leverage Creative Group.
Between the project management tool and Slack, “I hardly ever get emails unless they're push notifications from one tool or another, including calendar invites, new tasks, comments on tasks I'm managing, etc.” Morrison says. “I still receive a few emails here and there, but nothing that needs my immediate attention, so I only check my email twice a day: Once at the beginning of the day, and once at the end.”
These tactics let us rebuild our relationship to work messages by tamping the fire hose—though it would be nice if technology would also help us restore that lost context, too. A 2020 Economist study sponsored by Dropbox found that 76% of participants agreed “that the onus for focus falls on the individual,” but as we now understand, our ability to do so is largely dependent on the tools we use. It’s hard to focus when almost everything we use to get work done can just as easily become a distraction.
What could that solution look like? For instance, right now, my inbox is a hodgepodge of notifications from different platforms, listserv emails, and emails directed just to me. Something that could act like a pneumatic tube system would be great: collecting all those notifications and emails, and organizing and filtering them into separate buckets, where like goes with like, providing context to the content we’re receiving and sending to one another.
A tech solution that addresses collapse would save many of us from that on-a-sinking-boat-with-a-colander feeling. In the meantime, by reintroducing some much needed context, we can start to experience these channels as tools of communication and connection rather than distraction and anxiety. There’s enough of that going around these days.