It’s had a good run; but the end has finally come. It has become an anachronism, an irrelevance…a form of ‘delegative absolution’ (or in vernacular terms, ‘passing the buck’). The ‘For Your Information’ (FYI) postscript became email’s most pervasive habit for evading responsibility. As if the simple revelation of situation were an equivalent for actual action; its publication an alternative for any form of genuine engagement or resolution.
FYI is synonymous with the emergence of email. In 1992, I don’t recall faxing anything to anyone ‘FYI’, or telephoning anyone with a similar expedient. Email coincided with the availability of unprecedented volumes of information; most of it accurate and verifiable. But accuracy is no substitute for relevance, and the latter itself is no equivalent for an actual proposition or call to action.
Over time, alas, suggestions, recommendations, proposals were gradually replaced by the default FYI; the all-purpose expedient.
I confess that I never understood what response was expected from such information. As if being told that by a friendly colleague your trousers were on fire was an end in itself! In the case of the latter, not only would I expect my colleague to have already called the fire brigade, but to have a bucket of water ready even before telling me!
And this is the duplicity at the heart of FYI. Much of this information sharing is not only irrelevant but counterproductive; colleagues, please note – in the event that my trousers do spontaneously combust, don’t waste time alerting me, just douse me with water!
During my visit to Europe last month, I was speaking to the global PR director of an enterprise software firm. He explained that the ubiquity of so much ‘dumb’ information within an organisation was not only irrelevant, but counterproductive. The era of dashboards and real-time data feeds has been surpassed by the requirement for more meaningful, actionable insights from data. In his words: clients don’t need to know whether a plant is overheating, they need to understand the risks associated with the same, the alternatives, and how best to reduce the heat at minimal expense and with maximum security. He called it the difference between information-based networks and ‘intelligent’ networks; the latter provide actionable data with which people can make decisions as quickly and accurately as possible. In human terms, this is the ‘net net’; just tell me what I need to know, and I’ll make a judgement based on the same.
The PR industry could take a slice of wisdom from the software sector in this respect. FYI serves no one except the author of the message; and only as a form of responsibility evasion. But we insist on sending reports, updates, reviews, recaps, minutes, depositions, all masquerading as insight. In reality, many are barely disguised FYIs, and neither intelligent nor actionable.
So let’s gather for the wake of email’s most pernicious side effect, the evasion of responsibility for simple expedience, the misrepresentation of information as intelligence, the semblance of intelligence for what is really the opposite.
Adieu, FYI. You’ll not be missed!