Information Overload

Information overload is ubiquitous and you’re probably experiencing it right now. The Web has led to such a massive accumulation of information that it is becoming impossible to digest it all8. We have integrated so many different kinds of media into our lives – smartphones, blogging, television, social networking websites, et cetera – and we’re operating in an “always-on” media environment1. The definition of information overload is multi-tiered. On one level, we have the proliferation of many different media, always keeping us updated. On the other, we have the incessant flow of documents on the Web, more than we could ever hope to search through or read. While information overload is normally seen as a problem associated with digital technologies2, it has actually been around for a very long time. Once upon a time, books were very expensive and difficult to reproduce, so only the elite had libraries. However, once the printing press was invented, anyone could acquire books, and information overload was no longer a problem only experienced by the wealthy. Because some ancient texts had been lost, people were driven to accumulate and save texts as a way to prevent similar losses in the future2. Accumulation of texts has been the primary information system since the middle ages2. It is important to know what information is useful and valuable when confronted with an unfiltered source of data8.

via Ann Blair

Because information overload can refer to two somewhat different issues, there are two sets of problems associated with the term.

When it comes to our lives being saturated with all sorts of gadgets, social networking profiles, and infinite sources of news media, we risk (somewhat ironically) becoming disconnected from each other. The flow of information is addictive and our engagement with it frequently precludes face-to-face interaction with other real-life humans3. At least one study believes this kind of information overload is an overblown myth based on anecdotal evidence. Sure, we often hear about the North American family who all sit down at the dinner table together but with their eyes glued to their respective computer screens and smartphones3. However, most people manage to balance digital technology and real world responsibilities.  Sometimes we need a little help to achieve this. A recent proposition for smartphone-loving lunch-goers is the phone-stack. Everyone at the table must put their phone in a stack in the centre of the table and ignore it, no matter what. Any calls, text messages, or email notifications must be ignored. If someone really feels they must look at their phones, they may do so… on the condition they pay for lunch for the entire table.

As for the proliferation of documents on the Internet, new solutions are constantly being generated. The good thing about information overload is that it has increased “production and consumption of information in the digital age”2. While that’s certainly an accomplishment, it doesn’t mean that all the new information being produced and put in the hands of Internet users is of good quality. It’s both difficult and a waste of time to wade through the depths of the Web just to find what you’re looking for. Fortunately, saving information in such a quantity has bred tools for managing and retrieving that information2, and these tools only continue to evolve.

There is a solution on the horizon for the bombardment of documents on the Web. Web 3.0 (a component of the Semantic Web) will revolutionize the way we search for and store information. Pivot, a Microsoft application that was developed a few years ago but has not been released to the public yet, would allow users to see the Web as, well, a web. Instead of a series of individual, stand-alone documents, people would be able to see patterns and trends in information that are currently invisible4. The program would allow people to zoom into data to retrieve more details about a single subject, or zoom out to see how the information fits into a web of other related data. This way of thinking is what defines Web 3.0 – rather than hunting for a specific piece of information, that information would present itself to you. Gary Flake, lead designer of Pivot, says that the application would facilitate something in between browsing and searching. This is important especially because people are increasingly finding search engines unreliable and untrustworthy, but inescapable due to their necessity5.

In terms of having our eyes and ears almost constantly glued to various screens, it doesn’t seem as though relief from information overload will be coming anytime soon. With newer, better, more intrusive social networking websites emerging so often, it looks like people will have to rely on their own judgment to balance their online and offline lives. We seem to be experiencing a “fundamental shift in the interface between the media environment and the individual audience member, moving from the characteristic ‘push’ of a fixed broadcast schedule and daily news headlines to a ‘pull’ dynamic characterized by an online search”6. Between push and pull are collaborative filtering7, sharing, and recommending, “which could be characterized as the electronic equivalent of the classic two-step flow”6.

  1. Curry et al 161
  2. Ann Blair
  3. Curry et al 162
  4. Gary Flake
  5. Curry et al 170
  6. Curry et al 171
  7. Borchers et al 108
  8. Borchers et al 106
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