Data pollution, dead email addresses, and a mild existential crisis

Hannah O'Rourke

06 July 2022

Is anyone else stressed about the sheer volume of content that’s constantly being created? I am. I keep thinking about all those data centres with their cooling systems and security access and energy requirements scattered throughout the world, and wondering when we’re going to run out of space and power.

My anxiety was possibly triggered by an isolation period spent re-watching Ron’s Gone Wrong with a small child, and having too much time on my hands to think about its depiction of a near-future data dystopia… But nevertheless, taking some responsibility for keeping the cloud slightly-less-full-if-at-all-possible can only be a good thing.

Climate change is terrifying. And at Don’t be Shy, it’s got us thinking about ways to reduce our carbon footprint by changing our behaviours in the digital space – where we spend more of our lives than we’d like to admit.

Many of us are more staunchly protective of ancient Facebook albums than our planet. But, while there might not be a one-stop data pollution solution, there’s plenty of easy things we can all do.

Data pollution

Data pollution – or information pollution – is ‘the contamination of information supply with irrelevant, redundant, unsolicited, hampering and low-value information.’ Hat tip, Wikipedia. And there’s A Lot Of It.

If I reflect on my own data pollution, I can already identify a number of places where I could do my tiny, weeny bit to reduce, reuse, recycle (mainly reduce tbh – nobody needs a revamped version of any of these things):

  • My MySpace page. Oh Christ, yes, that still exists somewhere out in the ether.
  • My Facebook page. Holding onto this for sentimentality about pictures from Thailand 2011, which I haven’t looked at since 2012.
  • Dead email accounts. Uni email address, Hotmail address. Psycho-stalker-fake email address rage created around 2009. 
  • Active email accounts. Need an unsubscribe purge. Quite badly. I do maintain inbox zero though 💅

 

Bury your dead (websites)

Organisations have an obligation to monitor and manage the amount of data pollution they’re pumping out. As we continue hurtling towards the knowledge economy, and individual citizens increasingly become content producers (don’t get me started), the sheer and overwhelming size of the information that’s out there needs to be brought under control. 

Legislation around data pollution needs to be created in the same way it exists for air and water quality or waste management. Of course, under GDPR we have the right to erasure, and similar laws around personal data exist around the world, but what about curbing the exponential rise of data in the form of content?

Until such regulations exist in any enforced or enforceable format, it's down to the likes of you and me to have a good sort out. How many times have you Googled something and found links to dead pages? A graveyard of coding corpses and URLs on their way to the underworld. Instead of saying sorry – or rather 'Sorry, this page is no longer available' – we need to get better at keeping alive the sites taking up space, and deleting our deadwood.

It's not just an overflow of 404s. It's also pages that are so outdated, they're as good as dead. Instead of always making new pages, we should look to update or repurpose existing content. An old blog upcycled into a nice bit of vintage wear. But if in doubt, don’t be afraid to hit the bulldozer button.

Here are some quick and easy tactics we employ at Don’t be Shy to keep our content fresh and reduce our data pollution in the process.

 

The website audit

Do you need all those pages? Is all that content really working as hard as it should be? It could be overcomplicating your UX, as well as clogging up the world’s servers. Question their relevance and value to your user, find out what's getting the most traction, and see to the stragglers.

Your audience will appreciate an audit, too, as they'll find what they're after faster. So whether it's optimising a blog or a landing page with some more up-to-date information, or deleting some less-than-perfect gated content pages, take stock and get rid of what no longer sparks joy. Less waste, improved SEO and a streamlined UX. A quick win for you, your readers and the planet.

 

Inbox zero for net zero

Do you let your hallway flood with mail? Probably not. But there's a fair chance you're far less fussy about keeping on top of emails. Well, they build up just as badly. OVO Energy's research shows 16,433 tonnes could be cut from the UK's yearly carbon output by each adult sending just one less unnecessary email a day.

So really consider your comms, don't hit send for the sake of it, and don't cling onto offers and discounts on the off-chance you'll use them. You know you never will. The same applies to a marketing campaign, which can lessen its environmental impact, without the same impact on your success, by being more targeted and concentrated in your email sends.

 

Don't repeat yourself

We keep communications DRY. The DRY principle is a well established coding methodology, defined in The Pragmatic Programmer thusly: "Every piece of knowledge must have a single, unambiguous, authoritative representation within a system."

We use Slack, Trello and Google Workplace as our office suite, and each serves a very specific purpose. 

  • Trello: single source of truth and history of every task.
  • Slack: chat about tasks on a day-to-day basis. Any decisions that need recording or communicating to the client, take it to Trello. 
  • Google Workspace: does what it says on the tin, but we like it for the fact it eliminates the need for version control and tracks that all important single source of truth by its very nature!

 

Many of us are more staunchly protective of ancient Facebook albums than our planet. But, while there might not be a one-stop data pollution solution, there’s plenty of easy things we can all do. Things that benefit productivity in the process. 

Right. Where’s that MySpace page?

Hannah O'Rourke

Hannah is Head of Content. Extra-curricular activities include caring for a small child, the occasional short jog, and an unhealthy obsession with Bo Burnham’s Inside.

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