On information overload

by Shane Perris on Saturday, 26 July, 2008

in opinions

Over the last few months I have witnessed a steadily growing stream of writers declaring news feed, blogging and/or social media bankruptcy, citing such things as information overload, hobbies becoming ‘work’ or even the fact that so many people on the internet can be jerks about such small things.  Maybe you’re like Sarah Perez who wrote “Taking a breather from social media? Maybe we’re doing it wrong?”  Perhaps you’re more like Robert Scoble, who wrote in “Has/how/why tech blogging has failed you” that the joy of geeking out on tech walked out at around the same time everyone got obsessed by the business side of things.  Or, you might have sympathy for the views of Jason Calacanis who tired of the haters and ‘officially’ retired from blogging (Jason’s scheming something, I’m sure of it).

Who is suffering here?

The question to my mind is, just who is actually suffering here?  Too much information sounds like your classic First World problem – a bunch of hyper-connected individuals who have found that ‘Life 2.0′ has left their brains crammed with more information than they can process, leaving them anxious, jaded, or worn out (or all of the above).  I understand their pain and share some of it, too.  I do not have too much sympathy however.  So much of it seems to be a self-generated problem.

What is the real problem?

Where does the problem lie?  Consuming large amounts of media is actually pretty easy.  You can see a video from 2007 by 4 hour work week guru Tim Ferriss of Robert Scoble outlining how he reads 600+ news feeds every day as just one example of how to do it (although I don’t know if Scoble still consumes media in quite this way).  The difficulty is in absorbing the information, filtering it and synthesising and sharing it.  Normal people don’t have this problem. I’m sure that most people who consume massive amounts of data do it for fun and personal interest and don’t have the inner need to process it to a level that writers and other web professionals do.

The people experiencing the most difficulty are the amateurs writing, digging, twittering, friending, stumbling and otherwise staying connected for the fun of it.  These are people who have a full time job and often families of their own where reading and processing information is done in their spare time, time that could be spent de-compressing, socialising, unwinding and experiencing.  Be aware that I’m not passing judgement on how people choose to spend their spare time (I’m one of these people described above after all), but it explains to me why this malaise seems to have become the echo-meme du jour.

Strategies for dealing with the data flood

If there is one geeks aren’t short of, it’s solutions.

(jeff)isageek writes on LouisGray.com “Trimming the fat on RSS Feeds” that a combination of shared items (whether through Google Reader shared items or services like Readburner and RSSmeme), Friendfeed aggregation and Twitter is the way to go.  This does run the risk of feeding into the echo chamber and, as Duncan Riley shared in the comments of that post, “if we all followed it, there would be no shared items to follow :)”.  Other commenters noted that if you have interests outside of tech (apparently some people do, but I’m not convinced) than the narrow field of early adopters aren’t likely to sate these needs.

Matt Wood shared on 43 Folders back in November 2007 that it is all in how you group your information (in this case, also RSS feeds) and it is okay to not have read every single feed that comes into your reader.

And then there is Marshall Kirkpatrick, one time lead writer on TechCrunch and now lead writer at ReadWriteWeb (as well as being a market intelligence, product usability and promotions consultant).  If you want a way to consume a lot of media, look no further than “How I use RSS to track thousands of news sources easily“.

The answer?

Obviously there is no one answer.  Everyone needs to find their own solution.  Duh, I guess.

If anyone has been wondering where I have been the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to find my own solution.  I’m not there yet, but at least I know where I’m heading.

Photo credits: Information overload: layout debugging by corra24 and Thinking on the wall: last spots left by Alex Osterwalder