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Muslims Information Overload and the Internet

Muslims, Information Overload,

and the Internet



The tremendous growth in the Internet brings many new opportunities. Along with these opportunities come challenges. As Muslims, we have been given the precious gift of guidance in our way of life. This puts us in a unique position to grapple with the challenges technology presents to a life of taqwa.

These challenges reach well beyond the obvious -- increased access to pornography, misinformation, and hate-sites. They are challenges that face not only the Muslims, but all who seek to make use of this new technology. It is a truism to state that each of us is free to employ the technologies at hand in either beneficial or harmful ways. However, is it not just as obvious that the cultural momentum of our times is driving us to increasingly rapid deployment of new technologies, even while our comprehension and effectiveness in managing the social consequences of these technologies lags farther and farther behind?

In this paper, some of these consequences are recapitulated and implications for use of the internet by Muslims drawn. The potential for exploitation of these impacts and the new potentials brought to us by the rise of the Internet is outlined and tactical suggestions for Muslims engaged in using the Internet are made. back to top


The Present

It is in the present that Allah is worshipped. You may call this simply concentration in the various obligatory and supererogatory acts of 'ibada if you wish. To the extent that we are focussed in our worship we benefit. The Prophet, may Allah bless him and give him peace, said, "Truly a servant performs the prayer without a sixth of it being recorded for him or a tenth, but only as much as he comprehends.1" Now one may argue that technology has nothing to do with this. Indeed one often hears our brothers maintaining that technology is a neutral force. While it is true that a given tool is just a tool, each tool has an effect on our perception of the world around us. Holding a hammer, one searches for nails, with a knife, one ponders what to slice. As Neil Postman explains in his book Technopoly, each new tool comes to us with its own particular "embedded ideology." Postman writes, "Once a technology is admitted [into society] it plays out its own hand; it does what it is designed to do. Our task is to understand what that design is." As Marshal McLuhan put it "The Medium is the Message."

Consider these changes in the amount of information competing for our attention:2

  • In 1971 the average American was targeted by at least 560 daily advertising messages. Twenty years later, that number has risen sixfold, to 3,000 messages per day.
  • In the office an average of 60 percent of each person's time is now spent processing documents.
  • Paper consumption per capita in the United states tripled from 1940 to 1980 (from 200 to 600 pounds), and tripled again from 1980 to 1990 (to 18,00 pounds).
  • In the 1980s, third-class mail (used to send publications) grew thirteen faster than population growth.
  • Two-thirds of business managers surveyed report tension with colleagues, loss of job satisfaction, and strained personal relationships as a result of information overload.
  • More than 1,000 telemarketing companies employ 4 million Americans, and generate $650 billion in annual sales.

While one could go on with citation after citation, the point is pretty clear. There are plenty of distractions out there, and they are taking their toll on our attention span and ability to concentrate, and therefore on our deen. But the effects of data smog are not confined to simply dealing with information. back to top


Response to Stress

The situation is unlike to reverse itself anytime soon. Rather than simply bemoan these changes, let us explore various responses to them on both individual and organizational levels to see how best we may adapt. Stanley Milgram back in 1970 established a link between overload and responses to it. "City life, as we experience it," Milgram wrote, "constitutes a set of encounters with overload, and of resultant adaptations." Those six responses are:

  1. Allocation of less time to each input.
  2. Disregard of low-priority inputs.
  3. Boundaries are re-drawn in certain social transactions so that the overloaded system can shift the burden to the other party in the exchange.
  4. Reception is blocked off via unlisted telephone numbers, unfriendly facial expressions, etc.
  5. The intensity of inputs is diminished by filtering devices.
  6. Specialialized institutions are created to absorb inputs that would otherwise swamp the individual. Milgram's hypothesis that sensory overload was the critical factor behind urban distress was confirmed by a study in 1975. This validation of Milgram's theory makes his analysis of overload just as applicable to victims of information glut today as it was to urban residents in 1970. With the rise of the Internet, not only do we face the stresses of urban life, we are subjected to a rising tsunami of information piled on top of the ever-more-intense assault of the media. back to top


    Implications for Muslims

    These responses to stress have implications from whose consideration we may benefit. The first-allocating less time to each input, has far reaching consequences. The simple fact is that Muslim organizations, and even classes at the local Masjid, for that matter even teaching in the home…all must compete for attention with a myriad of other inputs. This competition is by no means ordered such that the most important inputs are the ones that gain attention. Some of the effects of this competition for attention are detailed in Neil Postman's excellent book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. The resources and effort expended by advertisers to gain our attention, and by the entertainment industry in general, have transformed public discourse, shortened our attention spans, and undermined our concentration. The likelihood of a child choosing to put in hours of study on deen is obviously decreased when that child has TV, Nintendo, and the home PC at his finger tips. Motivating adults to regularly attend functions at the Mosque is also made more difficult by these in-home media…to say nothing of all the other functions that compete for his time, all the other social ghosts in his head speaking with dissenting voices. Most Muslims will assert the primary and fundamental importance of their deen. Consider, however, how we expend our time. Remember that the power of our social ghosts, brought to us by the media and the many ways we have to communicate with others do not necessarily work in harmony with the values we claim to hold.

    The conclusion to draw from this is not that we must raise the quality and production values of our own publications and media products, though this must be done. Rather we must face squarely the challenge of learning to control our information flow. On a technical level, the answer is that we must become adept are repackaging our efforts to gain knowledge into units that are short and to the point. For example, the author knows of a halaqa that tapes the lectures of its teacher. The lectures are parsed as a strings of 10 to 15 minute segments, each internally complete, each part of a series that comprises an entire lecture, each lecture a part of a larger exploration of a theme. The lectures are captured on high quality DAT tapes, then edited and burned onto CD's and cassettes. The editing involves painstaking work removing extraneous noise. The end result is a high-quality product whose listeners may digest sophisticated material in manageable segments. On the Internet, one sees, for example, hadith-a-day services. These, however may be less effective as email,where they are lost in the press of daily mail, than they would be as a feature of homepage, where they could link to commentary to provide context.

    The second response to stress mentioned above is the disregard of low priority inputs. This is obvious-just think of all the junk mail that goes directly to recycling without more than a glance. Here again, however, there are serious implications for Muslims. These implications spring from the manner by which priorities are determined. This is a complex subject, not dealt with here. It is clear, however, that we continue with Sunday school classes that are boring and khutbas with no relevance at our peril. One often hears Muslims bemoaning a generalized lack of Iman on the part of the Muslims. However, it is not belief that the Muslims lack, we just have trouble practicing our deen. This lack of practice is a consequence of a lack of motivation, which springs from the assignation of too low a priority to the Deen in our lives. The effects of overload confuse the process of assigning priorities. Unless the Deen is seen as immediately relevant to our day-to-day life, its practice may well be diminished.

    The third response to stress is that boundaries are redrawn in certain social transactions to shift the burden to the other party. A good example is the University. As class sizes grow, the Professor spends less time in interaction with the students, shifting more of the burden of comprehension of the subject matter onto the student. In the case of the Internet, this shifting of boundaries is in some ways more subtle. For example, a student researching a subject in his University Library works hard to locate resources. The burden is on the student to locate the materials, and to absorb and make use of them. But on the internet, the location of resources is not difficult. The student may quickly find an avalanche of sites with information. The burden on the student here has shifted, for instead of dealing with a scarcity, the student deals with abundance. However, significant portions of this material may be misleading, incomplete, out of context, or downright false. There are many negative sites about islam put up by its enemies. Yet the content, even of many Islamic sites, tends to emphasize what Muslims think the general public needs to know about Islam, rather than addressing the issues and ideas of most concern and interest to the non-Muslim. In so doing, we shift more of the burden of successful communication onto the visitor to the site. In an information environment where a single click can relieve us of making sense of a particular site, Muslims must pay close attention to the needs of site visitors.

    The fourth response to overload is to block reception. For the individual in a city, this may take the form of an unlisted telephone number, or an unfriendly facial expression when out on the street. On the Internet, the situation is different. As technology speeds up, our expectations for speed up as well. It's not hard to remember when 14.4K baud modem was fast. With ever-rising expectations for speed, a page that loads very slowly is like an unfriendly face, and will quickly have the result sending a visitor elsewhere. Our Islamic tradition is full of beautiful calligraphy, complex arabesques and geometric patterns. But these kinds of images tend to be very slow loading. The effect is to present an unfriendly face, to block the transmission of our message. This point applies also to other aspects of page design, be they a hierarchical structure that puts important information too deep in the hierarchy, unexplained terms transliterated from Arabic, or the clutter of distracting design elements like type face, color, or graphics improperly deployed. The flip side of making our own content more user-friendly is the necessity of blocking some of the barrage of information that assaults us. It is imperative that we control our information flow if we are to have any chance at all of retaining the concentration and focus required to fulfill the obligations of our deen in more than a cursory fashion. Though still a controversial proposal to many, the most obvious place to start is with the television. As Dr. Susan R. Johnson points out with documented supporting evidence, "Maybe the most critical argument against watching television is that it affects the three characteristics that distinguish us as human beings. In the first 3 years of life, a child learns to walk, to talk, and to think. Television keeps us sitting, leaves little room for meaningful conversations and seriously impairs our ability to think.4"

    The fifth response to overload stress is to diminish the intensity of inputs by using filtering devices. A simple example is the evening television news, which, as Muslims know all to well, filters the large body of current events down to a very select and easily digestible subset every evening. Another example is the screening of calls to filter which are accepted by a busy executive. One example from the Internet is the use of multiple e-mail accounts to protect privacy, and the use of email filters within our email software to filter incoming mail. Portals on the Internet serve as filtering devices not only for news, but for the purposes of consumption as well. The significance of this for the Muslim is obvious, and Muslim Portals are gaining support. However, these portals seem to be cut off completely from the larger society. A young Muslim internet user may well want to be informed of events in the Muslim world, but it is unlikely that this is all he or she is interested in. In the design of portals to serve Muslims, we must take this into consideration, not in the interests of compromise, but in the interest of client retention.

    The sixth response to overload stress is institutional. Specialized institutions are created to absorb some of the overload that would otherwise swamp individuals. Welfare institutions are an example of a specialized institution created to absorb what might otherwise be large numbers of poor people accosting constantly the people in a city. On the Internet we have browsers to help us find our way through the information jungle, content filters, encryption to protect sensitive data. We already have a Muslim search engine, Musalman, as well as our own servers like Muslimsonline. There is certainly scope for further development in this area. back to top


    The Corporate Response: R-Technologies

    Communications professionals are well aware of the information explosion, and working hard to find ways to have their messages get through in the fierce competition for an individual's attention. The rise of the Internet has brought exciting new possibilities to these professionals, and they are busy exploiting them. The changes brought by the Internet are bringing to communications professionals an entirely new mission that reaches far beyond a given sale. They are seeking customers for life, and to do it exploiting R-technologies in order to help build communities of interest.

    Relationship-Technologies, or R-Technologies is a term used to emphasize the importance of the technology for relationships. "We need to turn away from the notion of technology managing information and toward the idea of technology as a medium of relationships," says Michael Schrage, Codirector of the MIT Media Lab's eMarkets Initiative. The need for this new perspective arises out changes taking place in the notion of what it is that a company provides to its clients.

    "One of the first to point out the significance of a shift from the production to the marketing prospective was Peter Drucker, father of modern business management practice. In The Practice of Management in 1954, he wrote: 'The customer is he foundation of a business and keeps it in existence. Because it is its purpose to create a customer, has two - and only these two - basic functions: marketing and innovation.'"5

    This led to a focus on market share. By 1960 it had become clear to the keenest of analysts that there was a problem with this focus. Professor Emeritus at the Harvard Business School, Theodore Levitt wrote in his landmark article "Marketing Myopia" appearing in the Harvard Business Review, that companies were still too concerned with the products they produce and not enough concerned with their customers. It is his argument that businesses should write the business plans backward from the customer rather than forward from production, and further, that the real goal of business is to capture customers, not simply produce goods and services."6

    The ability to capture customers has been greatly enhanced by increasingly sophisticated marketing research tools, and the Internet provides dizzying additional possibilities. With the increased emphasis on marketing and the new and improving tools at their disposal, marketers are extending their reach. It is no longer enough to sell the customer a new car, new computer, new vacation package, new financial service. The new idea is to capture the customer for life. "Marketing specialists use the phrase 'Lifetime Value,' or LTV, to emphasize the advantages of shifting from a product-oriented to an access-oriented environment in which negotiating discrete market transactions is less important than securing and commodifying lifetime relationships with clients.'

    "Automobile dealers estimate, for example, that each new customer that comes through the door of a Cadillac dealership represents a potential LTV of more than $322,000. The figure is a projection of the number of automobiles the customer is likely to purchase over his or her lifetime, as well as the services those automobiles will require over their lifetime. The key is to find the appropriate mechanism to hold on the the customer for life.'

    "To calculate the LTV of a customer, a firm projects the present value of all future purchases against the marketing and customer-service costs of securing and maintaining a long-term relationship. Credit card companies and magazines, which rely on subscriptions and memberships, have long used LTV cost-accounting projections. Now the rest of the economy is beginning to follow suit."7

    Since the commercial potential of capturing a share of the customer varies with the consumer lifetime, it is in the company's interest to capture customers early in their lives.

    The significance of the shift in emphasis towards management of relationships becomes clear in the light of all this. No longer is it a matter of simply making a good product. No longer is it adequate to make a product that fits the client's requirements. Every aspect of the client's experience of your firm is significant. If one is to capture customers for life, your relationship with your client becomes paramount. Nor does this importance confine itself to the actual process of making and executing a buying decision. The image of your firm is certainly vital. But even beyond that, marketers and management experts are coming to realize that establishing so-called communities of interest is the most effective way to capture and hold customer attention and create lifetime relationships.

    "The key to creating communities of interest is to plan events, gatherings and other activities that bring customers together to share their common interest in your company's brand. Backroads is an upscale tourist company that organizes bicycle and walking tours to some of the most scenic areas of the world. The company provides tents, prepares food and shuttles guests to the various sites by van.

    The value of the Backroads service, say authors Larry Downes and Chunka Mui in their book Unleasing the Killer App, lies in "the quality of its network of customers, who pay, in part, for the opportunity to interact and be entertained by each other."8 back to top


    Customer Bonding and Islamic Work

    Given the necessity for Islamic ideas and practices to compete for attention and time in the lives of both Muslims and non-Muslims today, it is constructive to consider the techniques used by those with whom we are in competition. The study of marketing and related fields not only shows which techniques have been successful in winning the attention of people in our time, these fields also may be surveyed for insights we may make use of in our own attempts convey our message. Da'wa is not marketing. Yet all but the most intellectually rigid can grasp the similarities. Our intention here is to survey one of the lastest shifts in emphasis in marketing, a shift aided mightily by the Internet. This is the process of building lasting customer loyalty. This process, according to Richard Cross and Janet Smith, may be divided into five steps:9

    1. Awareness Bonding
    2. Identity Bonding
    3. Relationship Bonding
    4. Community Bonding
    5. Advocacy Bonding

    Each of these is summarized below. This process of creating lasting customer loyalty is instructive for Muslims working to bolster the identity of American Muslims. Its particular significance to Muslims making use of the Internet for Islamic work is that the process of customer bonding is based heavily on the creation and use of an information core, that is to say a client database, an area in which Muslim Organizations are historically very weak.

    Awareness bonding is the first of the five levels of customer bonding. It is at this level that customers become aware of your cause and form impressions about it. It is at this level that you first capture a "share of mind." During awareness bonding existing impressions of your organization or site may be reinforced or changed. Awareness bonding can provide a critical platform upon which to build higher levels of loyalty. But it takes a lot of work to create, maintain, or repair, is quite fragile, and not easy to achieve. The critical factors in the achievement of awareness bonding are the repetition, reach, and creative content of the communication. Organizationally, Muslims have had a certain success at this level, at least in terms of creating awareness on the part of other Muslims of their work. However, the ongoing difficulties in fund-raising experienced by many of our organizations are an indication that we are not succeeding in the fierce competition for attention, and that our donors have not moved sufficiently along the path of customer bonding.

    The second level of customer bonding is identity bonding. These bonds are formed when clients admire and identify with the values, attitudes, or life-style preferences that they associate with your site or organization. Clients may form an emotional attachment based on their perception of those shared values. They may even want to wear or display your logo as an outward sign of their affinity. At this stage, the client is usually actively participating in the organization or using the website. As with awareness bonding, identity bonding does not require two-way communication. To maintain such a bond, however, it is necessary to appeal to values and emotions, and to ensure that the consumer's experience of your organization, site, or product is excellent. Some Muslim Organizations have achieved this level of customer bonding. Critical to this level of bonding is a genuine basis for the identity position one is trying to establish. Many Muslim Organizations have not matured beyond the desire to try to be all things for all people, often beginning new programs based more on what they think donors will support than upon the mission statement of their organization. This "mission creep" leads to confusion of identity and lack of consistency in product or service. Lack of consistently high quality in programs or content will erode this bonding over time. While this is somewhat less of a problem in the online world, there is still an important role for sites with differentiated identities to play.

    Relationship Bonding is the third level of customer bonding. At this level there is a true dialogue between client and marketer. It is built around a direct exchange of benefits which may reach far beyond basic transactions. The communicator may provide both intangible benefits like recognition and information, and tangible rewards like extra service or information, credits towards purchases, or discounts. The client provides a stream of information about his or her interests and requirements as well as repeat business. It is clear that our Organizations and websites measure up much more poorly at this level. For to achieve this level of bonding, a database and a media to communicate one-to-one with the client is required. On the internet, this means far greater usage of guest-books, feed-back email, comments on information provided on the site posted for all to see, even chat rooms. Enticing Muslims to provide information about their interests and requirements can only hope to be successful if there is a clear benefit to be derived. If a strong level of identity bonding has not already been achieved, the prospects for this are small. In general, it is this level of customer bonding to which most Muslims working on the Internet must presently devote themselves.

    Community bonding, the fourth level of customer bonding involves a high degree of client loyalty, and is therefore a valuable asset to the site or organization that can create it. At this level, your clients are bonding not only with the services you provide, but also with each other. Lifestyle-related activities and events are critical success factors for this level of bonding. Relationships at this level are highly interactive. This level of bonding is vital to achieving clients who remain loyal over long periods of time. The Internet provides unprecedented opportunities to find others that share one's interests. Muslim Organizations and sites ought not to be afraid to allow themselves to become differentiated on the basis of their specific mission. While beyond the scope of this paper to explore, the very nature of the Internet as a network has implications about our organizational structures and relations among organizations. It is on the basis of such differentiation that true communities of interest may be built. Lacking differentiation, our sites and organizations will continue to struggle even to achieve identity bonding with their supporters, which in the end will threaten organizational survival.

    The fifth level of customer bonding is advocacy bonding. At this level, the client has become an agent working on behalf of the organization or site to encourage others to participate. This desirable state leads to organizational self-sufficiency. An organization or site that can successfully entice clients to recruit others is tapping into a powerful vein of loyalty. Clients must be treated with sensitivity and care, and feel empowered to call others to your organization or site. At this point in the development of Muslim organizations and Internet presence, advocacy bonding is best left to develop on its own. Since sites or organizations that have successfully nurtured communities of interest will find their clients engaging in advocacy naturally, formalizing the encouragement of advocacy bonding is less important that systematizing and making more robust the process of bonding at other levels. Success in Islamic work does not necessarily directly affect the ability of the individual servant to worship Allah with concentration and intention. Islamic work can, however, succeed in reducing the extent of the discord among the social ghosts with voices in our identity and choices. It can help us to control our information flow and reduce the effects of some of the stressors that make attentive worship difficult. back to top



    The rapid escalation in messages and other stimuli to which Muslims living in America are exposed affects our ability to worship Allah with concentration. The effects of this information overload stem not only from the specific content and form of the messages themselves, but from the character of these messages as forms of mediated social transactions.

    Characteristic responses to overload stress have implications relevant to Muslims engaged in working with the Internet. Muslim educators and content providers must take account of shortened attention spans and the decreased allocation of time to a given input by becoming adept and repackaging units of knowledge in short, manageable, linked fashion. Our Internet sites must be based on a clear understanding of user requirements, and be user-friendly in design and performance. Muslim portals must serve not merely to provide access to information about Islam, but to other information relevant to the user, enabling the user to make use of the portal as an effective filter for information.

    Consistent with current trends in thinking about communications and computer technology, Muslims must grasp the implications of viewing these technologies as mediums of relationship. This done, our online and organizational strategies can benefit from insights into the process of lasting customer bonding. The difficulties of some Muslim organizations may be traced to inattention to the requirements for awareness and identity bonding on the part of their potential supporters. Both Muslim-run websites and Islamic Organizations must be conscious that they must compete for the attention and support with a host of other messages reaching Muslims in America daily. Organizations and websites must avoid "mission creep" and develop clearly articulated and differentiated missions in order to secure identity bonding. The next step in achieving lasting relationships is known as relationship bonding. It is at this point that communication between the website or organization and the client must become two-way. One of the principal powers unleashed by the Internet is the power for greatly increased interactivity. Yet our Muslim sites by and large need to devote far more attention to making use of interactive tools. Part of the challenge here is that in order for interactivity to function, clients must be willing to share information. Unless strong identity bonding has already been achieved, this is unlikely to take place. The fourth level of customer bonding is the known as community bonding. Success in this depends on success at earlier levels. Without a clearly differentiated identity to which clients have bonded and become comfortable sharing information with, the formation of true communities of interests becomes impossible. Electronic media present us with unprecedented opportunities to create such communities of interest. In the current situation of Muslims in America, where so much needs doing, the blossoming of a swarm of these specialized communities of interest linked in networks is an optimal strategy for the development of Islam in America.

    To the extent that Muslims on the Internet are successful in creating virtual spaces that achieve these ends, we may ameliorate some of the devastating effects of information overload and self-fragmentation. These are not exhaustive remedies, but may be serviceable life-jackets as the tsunami of information and relationships overwhelm us. Working in the directions sketched above may help to keep us afloat as we struggle to understand the imbedded ideology of new communications technologies. This in turn may assist us in clarifying the optimal course of action in controlling our own information flow and in maintaining at least some consistency in our sense of self. All of this is ultimately significant to the extent it bears on our ability to attend to the purpose for which we were created, worship of Allah. back to top

- By R. Anas Coburn

Source: http://www.islamamerica.org/articles.cfm?article_id=47

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