Why Maybe You Don’t Have to Worry About ‘Information Overload’ After All


9.20.12 | Researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Michigan published a study earlier this month that found the infamous “information overload” to be less of a reality than previously imagined.

“Contrary to many experts’ warnings that the ‘always-on’ media environment has ‘overwhelmed’ audiences and [is] creating a society of antisocial Facebook-addicts more interested in hashtags than hugs, the study found that participants said they felt ‘empowered’ and ‘enthusiastic’ about the volume of information at their fingertips, not overloaded,” wrote the Huffington Post’s Bianca Bosker.

Researchers surveyed 77 adults in seven focus groups around the United States to better gauge the perceptions of information overload. The study, published in “The Information Society: An International Journal,” identified three primary themes:

  • Most people felt excited and enabled by the amount of accessibly information – not “overloaded.”
  • Social networking has allowed for a continuation of the two-step flow of communication, a theory that states that ideas stem from mass media and carry on to “opinion leaders” before reaching the general population.
  • While those surveyed were critical of biased pundits, they did not report siloing themselves with like-minded people or avoiding disagreeable sources.

Interestingly, researchers found that social networking sites were viewed more critically by interviewees, who said that they were disenchanted more with the quality of information, not the quantity.

“Social media garnered little love among the interviewees, who ranged from twenty-somethings to people over 60,” wrote Bosker. The study’s authors also found that this “distaste” for social media suggests that people may be “annoyed by what they perceive as the minutia of people’s lives fed to them through Facebook and Twitter.”

These interviewees aren’t exactly alone, either. Earlier this month, Intel released its annual survey on mobile etiquette and digital sharing. Nearly half of all teens and adults surveyed said they are overloaded by the amount of information people share online. The online poll included responses from 7,087 adults and 1,787 teens from eight different countries.

Technology expert Clay Johnson says that “information overload” should be viewed more like “information obesity.” In other words, the issue is with the types of media we’re consuming, not the amount.

Johnson penned “The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption,” published earlier this year, and recently appeared in a BigThink video encouraging online users to take more responsibility for the quality of what they consume.

“We have to have a conscious level of consumption when it comes to our information intake,” said Johnson. “Your information diet is an ethical choice.”

Johnson likens the production of information to America’s system of industrialized agriculture, and he states that users need to recognize their role in the push-pull dichotomy of supply vs. demand when it comes to the kind of information news organizations are choosing to provide. This is an integral point, and one not often made, because the idea that we, as the consumers, dictate what information news providers will publish renders us somewhat helpless to what Johnson refers to as “the tyranny of the majority.”

However, according to the Northwestern/University of Michigan study at least, the majority of new media adopters surveyed reported a “near-unanimous enthusiasm” for the amount of information currently at their fingertips. While this latest finding may be surprising, Bosker points out a few caveats worth noting—the first being that the research is based on interviews conducted in 2009.  As Bosker notes, three years is “eons ago, in tech-world,” and before the launch of major players like Pinterest, Google+ and Instagram.

“While information overload might not have weighed on users’ minds in 2009, news consumers might give a very different answer if asked the same question today,” she wrote.

Also, 11 of the 77 people surveyed did report feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information accessible online.  However, Northwestern University sociologist Eszter Hargittai, lead author on the study, said that this sentiment was most common in those who had “low Internet skills” and had not yet mastered navigating search engines and social networking sites.

Thus, their findings reinforce the role of skill level when it comes to attitudes toward new digital media platforms.

Plus, Read more about Hargittai’s work on young adult’s digital literacy skills and how they evaluate web content. She has found that students often have difficulty determining the credibility of search results when assigned information-seeking tasks. In one study, students most often said that they had chosen a website because—and only because—it was the first search result atop Google’s results page.

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