The Fallacy of Information Overload

Some of you know me through my work in studying how social media and disruptive technology impact business and culture. Others have worked with me in translating insights into action and change within the enterprise.  Every now and then, I share another side of myself that evokes the aspiring social scientist in me as I explore how all of this is affecting us as individuals and human beings.

Not a day goes by when I’m not asked about whether or not the social media bubble will finally burst. Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Foursquare, Pinterest, this all has to be too much right? More often than not, I’m expected to assume the role of psychologist to either validate their digital existence or help individuals understand, and in some cases cope, with what is most often diagnosed as information overload.

This isn’t a new phenomenon by any means. The sensation of being overwhelmed by information has been linked to every media revolution. With every new innovation and the mass adoption of disruptive technology, the volume of information available to us grows exponentially. With media now so pervasive and portable, information, of any focus, is available, on demand, and more importantly, resides in our hands to create and consume at will. We are, for better or for worse, always on. And this is both part of the problem and part of the solution for how we evolve as individuals and as an information society.

Social media has gifted us a new democracy. And with it, the ability to connect to people around the world and create, share, and devour knowledge, entertainment, and irrelevant information at will. It’s as intimidating as it is beautiful. We have passed the Attention Rubicon and there is no turning back. The towers of social media will not come crumbling down upon the foundation of a former reality when we or the generations before us led a much simpler life. The key for us now is forged in self-control or some form of aspirational governance that focuses our connects and interactions.

Indeed, there is a very real human cost of social connectivity. But, the symptoms of information overload are only a reflection of our inability or lack of desire to bring order to our chaos. See, we are the engineers of the media levees that prevent overflow.

The challenge lies not in the realization that we are empowered to curate our social streams and relationships, but in the consciousness of what is and what could be. Meaning, that we must first understand that how we’re connecting, consuming, and creating today is either part of the problem or part of the solution. We, and only we, are in control of information overload and everything begins with acceptance.

Where do we fall in the contrast of where we are and where we want to be? For these dichotomous positions are separated only by our vision and actions. But even still, with the glut of information and the overwhelming sense of responsibility to duly engage, we succumb to fatigue.

Like in anything, there’s a dark side to all of this. One of the quiet perils of living in an always-on society is the need to stay connected. In part, we’re driven by relevance or the fear of irrelevance. If we are always part of the conversation, we remain top of mind. Additionally, we’re driven by a sense of vanity. We need to see what, if anything, people are saying about us, how they’re reacting to our engagement, and who others are talking about or to whom they’re connecting.

There’s a perpetual sense of “missing out,” which is I think at varying levels, true for all digital denizens. These networks after all are homes to very emotional exchanges. We laugh, love, fight, cry, but most of all, we live…and for some of us, we live online differently than we live in real life. The difference is, to what extent are we compelled to plug in and participate, how often, for what duration, and at what emotional depth. The answer either defines our digital lifestyle or our digital lifestyle defines us.

In 2010, Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg University of Science and Technology introduced a week-long ban of social media in an effort to curb the media diets of students. What was the inspiration for the ban? According to Harrisburg University provost Eric Darr, stress and potential addiction played strong roles in the cold turkey experiment.

Darr shared his concerns in an interview with Fast Company, “I’m sure that we have some students who are clinically close to addiction…that aside, it’s clearly the case that this set of technologies has the possibility of taking over our lives.”

Following the ban, the university conducted surveys that revealed some disturbing realities. One such result was the level of duress students were under in checking status updates on a variety of social media sites. Sound familiar? Roughly 15% of students admitted to spending between 11 to 20 hours on social media sites such as Facebook every day. This reminds me of the science fiction novel by Philip K. Dick, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.”

Our digital lives will only become far more challenging to manage. With smart phones, tablets, in-car technology, wifi in public spots in addition to planes, trains, and automobiles, the temptation to connect is pervading. And it doesn’t just stop there. Social networks are investing technology and marketing in expanding your online relationships. Through recommendation engines, they lure you to link outside of your social graph, those you know to now form an interest graph, those with whom you share common interests.

Information overload is a real phenomenon, but it is I believe, by design. It either works for us or against us and it is our choice as to which way the stream flows. To be clear, information overload is a symptom of over consumption and the inability to refine online experiences based on interest and importance.

Early in 2012, I hosted a poll across Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ to get their perspectives on information overload.  I asked a simple question, “Do you suffer from information overload because of social media?” The answers were revealing…You can see the detailed results here (comments are worth reading too).

Just over 800 people in 41 countries responded and the results while scattered, told a compelling story. If we look at a simple take on yes or no, only 14% say that they feel overwhelmed with 21% affirming that they are in control of their online experience. Another 57% however feel that they are sometimes overwhelmed with social media, but they do believe it’s in their hands to manage. Interestingly, when you combine Yes, Sometimes, and “I’m addicted,” you can get a better idea of the pervasiveness of information overload, or aspects of it.

 

In his new book, “Too Big to Know,” good friend David Weinberger shares why Information overload is our new golden age. Weinberger believes that facts have been replaced by “networked facts,” which are the result of a collective repository of shared experiences and exchanges in any digital network. In his book, Weinberger makes the case that technology can now easily feed our endless curiosity. And, as a result, how we learn, connect, interact, and work is forever changed…for the better.

Access to information and people is intoxicating. Creating an online portrait of who we are or who we want others to see is equally alluring.  But without direction, governance, and discipline, we are at risk of giving ourselves to the very networks we value rather than managing the platforms to our advantage. Our participation must be inspired by purpose and parameters. No, we are not obligated to connect with everyone who connects with us. We are obligated to maintain balance in who we are, what we value, and equally the value we invest in the communities in which we participate.

As Clay Shirky once observed, “There’s no such thing as information overload — only filter failure.”

My take? “Information overload is a symptom of our desire to not focus on what’s important.” It’s a choice.

Perhaps said another way, information overload is a symptom of our inability to focus on what’s truly important or relevant to who we are as individuals, professionals, and as human beings. But then again, maybe that’s the problem.

The reality is that we are learning how to use these networks and what to expect in return. We’re learning what’s possible. However, we learn as we go. We discover where the proverbial line is only after we’ve crossed it or are witnesses to those who do. Our teachers, parents, role models and peers, they too are just coming to grips with the evolution of social media and digital culture as it affects online and offline behavior along with us. Therefore, this is a time when we are all students.

But at some point, we must also become teachers

Brian Solis

 

Connect with me: Twitter | LinkedIn | Facebook | Google+

 

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