Digital Pollution and Its Hidden Tax on Your Relationships, Revenue, and Reputation

Last Updated July 14th, 2021

Think through the digital interactions you come across every day. Do any of these situations sound familiar to you?

1. You receive a LinkedIn connection request from a legitimate-looking person you don’t know. You share four connections in common, so you accept the connection. Two minutes later, you have a three-paragraph, 500-word sales pitch with two links to learn more and a request for “just 15 minutes” of your time to explore how “mutually beneficial” it may be to work together.

How does that feel? If you’re like me, it doesn’t feel good. Though the signs of a potentially productive connection were there, that person now seems insincere and selfish. You feel like you’re treated more like a number than a person. You expect they’ve sent two dozen connections and messages just like this today, hoping to land one appointment.

One out of 24 is a 4% success rate. But it’s also a 96% failure rate. And the 23 people who didn’t “convert” (you and me in this example) will likely disconnect or even block that person. They don’t care. They move on. They keep sending requests and focus on the 4% “success.”

2. You’re included in an email sent to 18 people. The sender asks for a reply with one piece of information from you. You reply and provide that detail, but half of the other people “Reply All.” Now your inbox is full of new messages relevant only to one of the people receiving them.

And this doesn’t just happen in email. Think of group texts or LinkedIn or Facebook group messages. It happens all the time. That’s why “Tim has left the chat” or “MaryLou has left the conversation” is still a solid meme.

3. Your friend posts on a social network not to accept a new connection request from someone using their name and their profile picture, along with a request to report the account. This is a spoofed profile stolen and misused images and details — a personal violation.

Who’s doing it? And why? What if you’d missed your real friend’s post about it? What would happen if you accept or reply to the fake account’s direct message? How long will it take for the social network to respond to your friend and take down the account?

Better than your friend posting about a full-blown identity theft situation, you suppose. Because you’ve seen those posts, too. You’ve also noticed the ceaseless stream of posts and headlines about mass texts, robocalls, spam emails, phishing schemes, pop-up ads, behavioral tracking, privacy intrusions, data breaches, ransomware, cyber-attacks, and even geopolitical cyber warfare.

These are all examples of unwelcome digital distractions. And we experience them all the time.

They range from silly and amusing to confusing and annoying to dangerous and costly. They affect you and everyone you know — family and friends, customers and employees, strangers and acquaintances. That’s because we’re all spending more time in digital, virtual, and online environments. These frustrating and even frightening messages and experiences abound.

And they’re only growing.

This problem hasn’t really had a name, therefore it isn’t understood as well as it should be.

We call this phenomenon digital pollution. It’s a serious problem for individuals, businesses, and societies.

A noisy and polluted digital environment is the status quo right now. But it can change. We want to be part of that change and we’d love for you to join us. It starts with getting a basic understanding of digital pollution.

What you’ll learn here in this post:

What is Digital Pollution?
The Costs of Digital Pollution
Three Types of Digital Pollution
Three Ways to Reduce Digital Pollution


What is Digital Pollution?

Compared to the human experience overall, our experience as explorers and inhabitants of digital spaces is not yet even in its infancy. In this short time, digital pollution’s somehow become normalized. Though we all know it when we see it, we can’t describe well the collective effects on ourselves, our relationships, or our businesses. This needs to change.

Digital pollution includes messages and experiences that you decide are not worth your time or attention. It slows you down or trips you up. It’s unwanted, undesired, unsolicited, or irrelevant. It’s confusing, annoying, frustrating, or anxiety-inducing. It adds friction to our lives and our work.

In short: Digital pollution is any unwelcome digital distraction.

In this short description is one of its key elements: subjectivity. Pollution is defined by the recipient, not by the sender. As recipients, we’re making moment-by-moment and case-by-case judgments. Let’s say you and I encounter the exact same thing at the exact same time. I may find it interesting and helpful, while you find it annoying and irrelevant. If I’d received the message a month before, in a different channel or medium or from a different sender I may have found it annoying and irrelevant, too. It’s contextual and subjective.

Though spamming, spoofing, and hacking have been around as long as we’ve been online, digital pollution has primarily been understood on a message-by-message or channel-by-channel basis. We’ve identified and addressed specific, acute instances, but not much considered the holistic, chronic effects. Spam emails and phishing schemes are obviously inbox-related experiences. Social manipulation, mysterious connection requests, and confusing comments are obviously social-media-related experiences. But we tend not to roll them up altogether and consider the consequences.

digital pollution, digital communication

As you encounter something new, your discernment between relevant and irrelevant, useful and useless, or sincere and selfish affects how you feel and what you think. This process is informed by your past experiences with the context (sender, timing, channel, message, medium, etc.). The resulting feelings and thoughts guide you to engage with or to ignore this latest message or experience. That process, relative to your expectations, builds or erodes trust. This affects whether you’ll give your attention again in the future. And your behavior increasingly trains algorithms to better filter, sort, and hide that type of message or experience for you the next time it arrives.

We’re well-equipped to make these judgments when we’re in person and face to face. Humans have millennia of experience and evolution instantly and intuitively deciding what’s good, safe, and worth pursuing versus what’s bad, unsafe, and worth avoiding. In digital and virtual environments, our abilities are suppressed. Tone, intent, and meaning are less clear and obvious. We often can’t determine someone’s true identity — a transparent digital persona or an opaque digital facade. We’re often ill-equipped to verify someone’s identity and intent; these may be obscured by the medium or the channel itself or falsified by the sender.

So, our experience with digital pollution has an emotional and often subconscious component, but with very real motivations, behaviors, and memories that result.

As individuals operating in digital and virtual spaces, we’d ideally be presented with clear, identifiable, and verifiable opportunities, take the next step, and have our expectations met or exceeded. It’s a virtuous cycle or flywheel involving attention, evaluation, engagement, trust, reputation, (repeat) —cross time and across channels in a long-term relationship.

As business professionals, we’d ideally be presenting people with experiences like these. We’re reinforcing established trust, making decisions easier, and helping people solve problems and capitalize on opportunities.

Alas, the reality here is not ideal. Digital pollution abounds. Each of us creates some amount of it. And it creates friction for us all.

Let’s consider what’s at stake.


The Costs to Individuals, Businesses, and Societies

The costs of digital pollution are paid directly and indirectly. They’re paid by individuals, businesses, and societies. They’re paid by polluters and non-polluters alike. Here’s a quick rundown.

the cost of digital pollution


Costs to Individuals

As a recipient, you pay for digital pollution through lost attention, time, and energy. Your well-being suffers due to confusion, frustration, annoyance, and even fear. You pay taxes to support legislation and enforcement of illegal, digital malfeasance. You pay for anti-spam and antivirus software and services.

As a sender who pollutes, you pay through lower response rates, decreased engagement, increased unsubscribes and abuse complaints, lost trust, damaged reputation, negative reviews, and negative word of mouth.

As a sender who tends not to pollute but must operate in a noisy and polluted environment, you’re less likely to get the benefit of the doubt. This means less attention, more scrutiny, and less engagement.


Costs to Businesses

How much money? How many hours? How many full-time employees? Whether you’re a solopreneur or startup or you’re in a Fortune 500 company, it’s difficult to measure the costs of cybersecurity, training, and education, and other expenses related to keeping your IT infrastructure, employee data, customer data, and other critical aspects of your business safe. And like individuals, your company pays taxes that support legislation and enforcement of criminal digital behavior.

As an organization that tends not to pollute, you still need to operate in an environment with more noise and less trust. This takes more thought, care, and effort. You no longer get the benefit of the doubt. Your stakeholders make quick decisions and they most often do it subconsciously. You must constantly iterate on your systems and processes, your strategies, and your tactics. And you must take care to honor the attention and trust that your employees and customers give you; it’s far less expensive to earn it than it is to continue to beg, buy, or steal it.

As an organization that permits pollution, you suffer as individuals do. Loss of replies, responses, and engagement. Decreased trust. Diminished reputation. Negative word of mouth and negative reviews. Not only does this hurt your customer relationships, but it also reduces your ability to recruit and retain top talent.


Costs to Society

Some people say that attention is the currency of our economy — and perhaps of society. It is not. Trust is. Attention is a necessary precursor to trust, but trust is both grease and glue. It makes things happen faster. And it makes good people and situations stick.

A lack of trust in an acute situation can break a relationship. A lack of trust as a chronic, cultural dynamic tears at our social fabric and draws down our social capital. It means more of us put our guard up earlier and keep it up longer. This makes things more difficult. It slows us down. It reduces satisfaction. It’s exhausting.

And trust is down. Here’s a look via Our World In Data and here’s another via Pew Research Center. There are a variety of reasons for this, but spending more time in increasingly polluted digital environments must contribute.

As mentioned, we must devote collective resources to legislation and enforcement against especially malicious, dangerous, and costly digital pollution.


Three Types: Innocent, Consequential, and Intentional Pollution

This is a very basic, three-tiered taxonomy of digital pollution. The lines are drawn neither in the sand nor in stone. Something one person deems innocent may feel consequential to another person. Where any instance falls is a subjective judgment made by the recipient and it’s often made based on perceived intent.

types of digital pollution


Innocent Pollution

This is the chain email your cousin, aunt, or high school friend forwarded to you years ago. This is the “Reply All” situation described to open this post. This is the typo or autocorrection that changed the meaning of the message by changing a key word or phrase.

The person who created this message or experience had no ill intent. And that’s pretty clear — or become clear — to the recipient. At best, it seems silly or amusing. At worst, it’s confusing or annoying. But it’s never dangerous.


Consequential Pollution

This type of digital pollution is most like environmental pollution. The pollution of our air, water, and soil is never a specific goal of the polluter. It’s waste from a system or process designed to create or deliver value. But instead of taking responsibility for that waste and absorbing the cost of doing so, the polluter simply pushes the cost out onto the public. We pay with our health, well-being, and money. In this way, pollution is a negative externality.

Likewise, when we create consequential pollution, our goal isn’t to pollute. Instead, any negative feelings, thoughts, and experiences that result from our actions are consequences of the way we’re executing on a plan — the way we’re running a system or process. The goal is value creation or delivery.

Within our businesses, then, consequential pollution results when we don’t want to put in the time, effort, or investment to identify or avoid the negative consequences of our digital behavior. We’re too ignorant, myopic, or selfish to care about any confusion, frustration, or annoyance we’re creating when we refuse to clean up our data, segment our lists, refine our messages, or meet expectations.

Yes, I’ve been a consequential polluter — and so have my team members. We most often create it when we’re more focused on the ends than the means. When we operate through force and volume. When we’re more concerned about short-term results than long-term reputation. It’s challenging to be bifocal or even trifocal — balancing the present, the near term, and the far term. One key is to stay focused on the customer, who is the most important person, no matter the timeline or timeframe.

As recipients, consequential pollution occurs when a message or experience leaves us feeling more like a number than a person. It can be dehumanizing. We commonly experience this type of pollution as unsolicited, irrelevant, poorly targeted, or overly aggressive messages. For example, the LinkedIn pitch described at the top of the post. You’re left to wonder things like: Why did I get this? Who is this person or company? Why are they reaching out to me? Is this safe to open?

When we think about the costs of polluting, as described in the previous section, this is our best focus. Reducing consequential pollution improves our immediate results and our long-term reputation.


Intentional Pollution

Most people reading this post will experience intentional pollution but will not create it. This is malicious activity. This category includes phishing attempts, ransomware, cyberattacks, identity theft, data breaches, and all manner of digital experiences designed to scam, cheat, trick, or steal from individuals, businesses, and organizations.

More than any other, this type of digital pollution is what cybersecurity and legislation are designed to protect us from. Most of this activity is illegal, though the laws tend to trail our reality and enforcement tends to be underfunded.

Because this type of pollution can be automated and scaled such that a system or process can reap ill-gotten gains while the perpetrator sleeps, it will persist. Because success with intentional pollution has a high potential for high returns, the R&D investment in perpetuating it may keep it ahead of the guards and protections created in response.

In addition to the obvious problems this type of digital pollution creates (the costs of security and the costs of recovery), individuals and businesses lose time, energy, and productivity trying to manage the situation. It also reduces trust online in general, increases levels of online noise and danger, and leads our customers, prospects, employees, recruits, and other stakeholders not to give meaningful messages that matter the time and attention they deserve.


Three Ways to Reduce Digital Pollution

Our goal with this post is to create an ongoing conversation about digital pollution. We believe that with some thought and care, we can collectively improve communication, connection, and conversion in virtual environments. We can collectively add some humanity, personality, and safety to our digital experiences.

ways to reduce digital pollution

Here are a few things you can do to join us in this movement.


1. Look For, Identify, and Talk About Digital Pollution

Whether in a Google doc, sheet, or folder, a Slack channel, in your social feeds, and/or other places, collect, share, and talk about examples of digital pollution. Do it with your team members, friends, and/or your network. Take care not to shame individuals or companies — that’s not the point.

Instead, the point of this practice is to increase awareness, understanding, and conversation. Is a particular example innocent, consequential, or intentional? How did it make you feel? Where, why, or how did the experience fall short? How did it fit with past experience? How did you respond?

Do you know what happens when you narrow your car search down to a hybrid RAV4 and a hybrid CR-V? Or when you’re trying to decide whether a green car is the right color choice? You notice a lot more RAV4s, CR-Vs, and green cars on the road! This practice will create the same effect.


2. Assess Your Creation of Digital Pollution

Look at customer feedback. Talk with your customers and your employees. Which systems and processes are most effective? Which results in positive results, positive experiences, and positive feedback? Which are a bit dehumanizing?

Consider the tools and tech involved. But more importantly, consider how the tools and tech are being used. Marketing automation and sales engagement platforms aren’t inherently bad, but they’re often misused, creating consequential pollution. But they can also be used to create significant value and great outcomes.

Have you found a balance between the personal touch and the tech touch? How tightly are you segmenting lists to increase relevance? How easy are you making it for people to know who’s reaching out, what the opportunity is, and how to proceed? The more timely, relevant, and anticipated your messages and experiences, the better they’re received.

How do you and your team talk about customers? Are they numbers? Or are they people with problems and opportunities you can help them with? The mindset we have and the language we use guides our actions; people can feel our motivations and intentions in the way we execute.

When you’re using bots and automation is that clear to the customer? Are you representing yourself fairly and accurately? Are you setting reasonable expectations and meeting or exceeding them? Because pollution is subjective and defined by your customer, any gap in representation or expectation may be to our detriment.

These are simply guiding questions and suggestions. We’re not moralizing. And we’re imperfect. We’re currently assessing our own feelings, thoughts, and behaviors team by team here at BombBomb. We’re confident that making honest assessments on a regular basis will improve employee experience, customer experience, short-term results, and long-term reputation.


3. Add a Human Touch to Your Digital Communication

We’re challenged with sifting through the digital noise to find what matters. So are our team members, prospects, customers, and everyone else in our business ecosystem.

If you’re like me, some things are immediately ignored or deleted. Other things are immediately prioritized and preserved for future response or engagement. Then there’s the rest. The big middle. The might-be-useful-or-important-but-I-can’t-really-tell pile.

How do we decide what to do with these as recipients? And how do we break through to generate attention, engagement, and trust as senders? Here are two ideas.

First, we must find opportunities not just to personalize messages and experiences, but also to make them truly personal.

Much of the digital pollution we create as senders and experience as recipients or participants results from a failure to be timely, relevant, and anticipated. Those are the basics — the barriers to entry. Beyond that, many individuals and organizations try to personalize the digital messages and experiences they provide people. We often enlist automation and even artificial intelligence to help; this is great. But we must also create and deliver human-to-human moments.

Time and attention are gifts. When we give them to our prospects, customers, employees, or recruits, they’re made to feel worthy of our time and attention. A personal touch breaks through and connects.

Second, we must find opportunities to be more visual, emotional, and human by using video.

Most of our decisions are made subconsciously. We’re emotional decision-makers who justify the decisions we’ve made rationally. Because there’s so much noise and pollution, we’re making instant decisions about the opportunities presented to us in virtual and digital environments. When what we’re presented with has identity, verification, intent, tone, and meaning obscured or even removed, we tend not to proceed or engage. We don’t have time or attention for that.

Intentional pollution often obscures or falsifies these things. Consequential and innocent pollution often overlook them — and they also tend to overlook the limitations of digital communication. Relying on faceless, typed-out text makes it harder to provide and reinforce these meaningful elements.

Most of us are doing live, synchronous video calls more regularly today than we were a year or two ago. And most of us are turning our cameras on. It restores many of the missing, human qualities we need to connect and communicate effectively. And it safely and instantly overcomes any gap in physical distance.

An opportunity many people are still missing is asynchronous, recorded video messages. They are used in place of typed-out emails, Slack messages, LinkedIn messages, and messages in other channels. They are used in place of having to schedule a 15-minute meeting. Video messages overcome both time and distance while infusing our messages with all of the rich, nonverbal cues that enhance our meaning and intent. When we send ourselves, we’re providing identity and verification. When we make it truly personal, we make people feel seen, heard, understood, and appreciated.

The medium of video isn’t the key, though. People pollute our online experiences with video all of the time — mass blasting, deepfakes, clickbait, etc. You are the key. The sincerity, intention, thought, and care that you put into the message are what break through, create engagement, build trust, and enhance reputation.


The Choice is Ours

We have a choice. We have it at the philosophic and strategic level. And we have it on a moment-by-moment, case-by-case basis.

We can rehumanize or dehumanize people. We can treat people like people or treat them like numbers. We can work toward long-term relationships and reputation or settle for short-term results. We can give or we can take.

No, it’s not as simple or clear-cut as this. But we tend to default toward what’s easiest and best for us rather than what’s easiest and best for those on whom our success depends. The result is that we pollute — and in doing so, slowly diminish our reputation and results. This is a call to be more aware, intentional, and thoughtful. It’s the only viable way forward.

When we poison our environment, we poison ourselves. If we don’t raise the conversation and raise our expectations, pollution doesn’t just persist. It grows. And the costs are paid by you, your business, and our society.

Go Deeper Into Digital Pollution and Its Solution

Click here to learn more about our book Human-Centered Communication: A Business Case Against Digital Pollution.

Human-Centered Communication, A Business Case Against Digital Pollution, Fast Company Press, BombBomb, Ethan Beute, Stephen Pacinelli, new book, business book, nonfiction book, visual communication, video communication, virtual communication, digital communication


Ethan Beute | About The Author

Chief Evangelist at BombBomb, host of The Customer Experience Podcast, and Wall Street Journal bestselling co-author of Human-Centered Communication and Rehumanize Your Business, Ethan Beute collects and tells stories of clearer communication, human connection, and higher conversion through simple, personal video messages. BA: University of Michigan. MBA: University of Colorado-Colorado Springs.

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