Information Distribution

February 21, 2022

College is full of people who have information that they think is very important to you. And usually, it comes in the form of an email.

For Tufts Residential Life, this information is a description of how the housing selection process for next year works. I’d gotten a lottery number a month ago, and had a vague idea of how suites and rooms work for sophomores, but I didn’t really understand the process.

Then, I got an email from Residential Life telling us about four live Zoom webinars they were running in order to explain the process and answer questions.

I went to one, and when the hour was up, my roommate came back. He asked if there was anything he should know from the webinar, and explaining it to him took a minute or two.

Really? Information that could’ve been boiled down to a couple minutes took an hour to disseminate live. Someone had to sit there and click through a presentation for an hour to get this to me.

There’s got to be more efficient ways of distributing information to a large population.

As an experiment, let me try to explain to you everything you need to know about Tufts’ housing process:

There’s a couple days at the end of March where you form your group. Each day is for forming a different-sized group: the first is ten-person groups, then singles, etc. At the end of each day, they tell you based on your lottery number whether your group will work. So if there’s 40 ten-person suites available and 45 groups try to form, the 5 groups with the worst lottery numbers will be told to try a different configuration in the coming days. The dates for group formation are on a website, I’m sure you can find them by searching.

So by the end of those days, you know what type of housing you’re getting, just not which exact room. Then you’re given a date and time to select the exact room or suite that you want, and your “group leader” picks that at the designated time.

It really isn’t that much information. And I’m sure I could’ve condensed this better, but I’m lazy and not willing to put that much effort into this thought experiment.

So why’d that take an hour?

Don’t tell people more than they need

They spent a ton of time going over the exact dates for sophomores, juniors, and seniors. I have retained nothing except for that the dates for sophomores were March 20-something?

So don’t tell me these things. I’m not gonna retain the exact details. Instead, tell me how to find them. It’s all on the internet!

And for the love of god please don’t put a URL on the slide. I can barely remember the names of my professors from last semester. I’m never gonna remember your (ugly-looking) URL.

Instead, just tell me to google it. I’ll probably be able to find it. Problem solved.

Not condensing information is inconsiderate

I think that often these presentations come out of not wanting to boil down information so far that it even feels like it’s too little. You’re intentionally leaving things out!

But that’s okay. That’s what you have the website for. That’s why people can contact you with questions.

By going in the information-stuffing direction, and throwing in every single detail that you possibly can, you’re being inconsiderate.

If people come, you’re wasting a month of combined human time on this single webinar, because you couldn’t condense the information such that it’d be reasonable.

But more likely, people just aren’t gonna show up. The housing webinar I attended, the first of four, had less than 30 people in attendance. Since they’re forcing people to digest this information in a one-hour live session, people just aren’t getting the information at all. And that’s counter-productive to what they’re trying to do (I hope?).

What about the Q&A?

Perhaps another argument for a live webinar is that people can ask questions that they have. Which is fair! People always have questions about a complicated process like this.

But a good FAQ on a website will do just as well, and you can have people email if they have further questions. And if someone emails a question you forgot about, you can add it to the FAQ!

Even better, you’ll be able to have a library of questions and answers to carry from year to year. You don’t have to rely on someone asking every good question during every webinar.

Nothing’s forcing it to be good

The reason why information distribution is usually bad is that there’s nothing forcing it to be good. Nothing bad really happens if you present housing information badly. There’s a bunch of confused people, but they’ll figure it out eventually. Or they won’t. Either way, Residential Life isn’t really impacted.

So in all likelihood, these kinds of things will continue to be mediocre. But it’s fun to dream about how they could be better, and complain from the outside without actually having to do the work of making it better.