The negative space in data: Why what's missing is as vital as what's there

4th Feb 2014

It seems easy to notice when something is, how often do you notice when something is not?

Recently, during my early morning routine, it occurred to me that the neighbors dog was not barking. Odd I thought, then I stopped to consider the last time the dog had ‘annoyed me’ awake. It had been a thorn in my side (ok, a slight annoyance really) on and off for a number of years. If memory serves, it went away for a bit then came back, hard to say really. Either it went away for a long time, or I stopped noticing it. A good thing, right? Was the dog ok? 

Streams of data are pelting us, but what are we missing because of it. The absence of data (signal) is becoming increasingly important, but few give this problem the required attention. Instead, we work to manipulate, filter and massage the data, doing the best we can do, to turn it into information. Sure, there are some entities that notice the last time we were not there, a store, the doctor, the gym.  But, on a personal level, there is too much…to notice what is missing.

Stated differently, lack of signal is actually a form of signal and in many cases is equally - dare I say more - important. Unfortunately, this kind of information does not get much ‘air-time'. Thinking about this closer to home, any parent will tell you a loud bang in the playroom can be somewhat concerning, silence for an extended period of time is downright alarming. 

No, this is not about desensitisation or dulling the senses, this is about understanding what I like to think of as the negative space in data. Over the next couple months, I will be exploring the absence of data, the space between. When is the lack of signal actually a stronger signal? How do we place this into a business context? I have Nikhil Hasija, founder at Azuqua to thank for sending me down this road, and we will explore the topic together to start things off.

Where is the best place to begin this journey?

Maybe a quick review of the number of competitors for our attention, just within the digital space is a good place to start:

  • An average of 60 text messages received per day
  • 247 Advertising messages (view images) received
  • 65 legitimate business emails received
  • 300 connections on Facebook (Facebook)
  • 500+ connections on Linkedin (Hyperbole, but close)
  • …Twitter, nah, not even going to go there...

Just consider that the average Facebook user shares about four content items per day (averaging some averages, so data could be off) and the average user has 300 friends and we all spend about 20 minutes on FB per day, the bombardment of messages starts to get mind-numbing (Did I forget Linkedin, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram…?) Who (or what) controls what is in your stream of information?

The number of messages and attempts to grab our attention is rising exponentially. This is not about work/life balance either, messaging is coming in from both directions, all at once. This is not an age / generational independent phenomena either, from all the services mentioned above, plus Television, Video Streaming, Radio and Internet Music communications (or attempts at such) are coming at us at a blistering pace. 

In-person events; from business conferences to holiday parties, school plays and sporting events and family gatherings we are talking to and communicating with lots and lots of people. With all of the information, data overload, or over stimulation, what have you missed? As I began thinking about this topic, I began to consider people who I had been participating to, suddenly, drop from the conversation.

Through all of these signals, can you think about someone who, upon reflection, you should be seeing more of, physically or virtually?

The smaller the circle, the easier it is to notice someone or something missing. In a family of five, an empty spot at the dinner table is a large void to fill and easy to notice, quickly. Moving from the family dinner table to the family gathering, celebration or holiday, when an uncle, cousin, niece or nephew is missing, it will take some time, but eventually people notice and ask questions. This is the way it has been for hundreds of years, so nothing new here. From our days in elementary school, we remember learning pattern recognition; what object does not belong, what is missing from the picture. However, unless you study some of the fine arts; the concepts of negative space stop in elementary school - sad really. If your data where like the picture here, what would it be telling you?

Why is it sad? Well, we can fast forward to larger datasets, like your extended network, whether that is Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter or Instagram. Some you have noticed my decreased number of blogs (thanks for noticing). Some may not have realised it, until now, and looking back might say…'humph, now that you mention it…'. With so much energy focused on the explicit signals, where is the energy focused on the implicit signals? Is enough time and effort being giving to those that are missing? Sure, there are hints of it, you know the emails that say "hey, where have you been, come back". But, we need more, specifically, at the personal level. Whether you are monitoring at an aggregate level, or for personal use, how do you discover who is missing from the conversation? 

There are many places to go with this topic, I look forward to exploring with Nikhil soonest!

Mitch Lieberman is a customer experience strategist at DRI

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