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If everything is urgent, nothing is urgent

Recently, I noticed something odd about FedEx envelopes. Every single one of them says “Extremely Urgent.”


Of course, this is a branding play by FedEx (to remind you how fast they are), and it’s fine. But how can every item FedEx delivers be “extremely urgent”? If you pick up the packages at your office, and every one says “urgent,” how does that word help you prioritize anything?

Simply put, if everything is urgent, nothing is urgent. “Urgent.” Bury it—It’s a dead word.

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There’s more to this topic if we dig a little deeper. Urgent is a word that helps us prioritize. With so much information flowing around every day, prioritization is a mandatory skill. It’s also a hard skill, and getting much harder all the time.

Consider people who develop email software. For years, they’ve struggled to help us prioritize which messages are important. There are subject lines, little flags, colored type, !!!s, little yellow icons, and all sorts of gimmicks. And after all this time, do “urgent” emails get your attention? Probably not, since too many of them are urgent.

Twitter and Facebook face the same problem trying to identify which social message posts deserve prominent placement. Google does a pretty good job prioritizing search results, but still struggles to make sense of things like news headlines and social updates. Funny pictures posted by my friends are important—but Facebook doesn’t think they’re as important to me as a sponsored message about Bonobos pants.

* * * *

It’s an arms race. As soon as society identifies a reliable trigger to flag something as important, people abuse it and it loses its reliability.

On TV news, every story that’s moderately important is tagged “breaking news.”

On my Facebook wall, my politically minded friends label every rotten thing that happens as “shameful.”

On Buzzfeed (the site that probably has the most knowledge of which phrases trigger reader response), the most popular headlines dashboard almost always includes lists of “creepiest” things, “most awkward” events, things you’re “doing wrong,” and people who are “nailing it.” Those concepts are reliable winners—for now, until we all get tired of them.

During the holiday shopping season, look at how many promotions are branded “doorbusters.”

In fact, sales are so effective as triggers that when JCPenney recently tried to get rid of them, customers bought less stuff. With urgency, a shirt’s $19 price is critical information worth acting upon. Without urgency, it’s just a crappy shirt.

Society has some safeguards in place to punish people who lie about urgency. Think of The Boy who Cried Wolf, or the reckless person who falsely yells “fire.” But nobody shames a store for advertising a sale, or a friend for insisting we fill out an online petition immediately. After all, they’re not really lying. They’re sharing what’s important to their interests. And we’re connected in real time to more people and more brands than ever before.

* * * *

The way technology is heading, information will keep growing more urgent. And the art and science of discerning (and manipulating) urgency will grow more sophisticated.

How will we handle the pressure of so much information coming in, and an ever-diminishing well of trusted clues to help us filter what’s important and what isn’t?

We have to get good at independent evaluations. Whenever you feel something is urgent, that should be a warning sign. Slow down. Think it through. Is this thing really urgent? If I didn’t know it, or didn’t act upon the knowledge right away, what would the consequences be?

The sooner you adapt to this new way of thinking, the better. This problem is simply too urgent to ignore.

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under Language, Technology

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