Is There Such a Thing as Information Overload?

by Ken Mueller on April 25, 2012 · 38 comments

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I recently had a conversation with a friend about the brain and the psychology of social media. It was a completely invigorating conversation, and left me thinking about a lot of different things. I love when other people make me think, particularly when it’s related to our shared passions.

For some, the conversation would have seemed like information overload, and their heads would have been spinning, but for me, it was just perfect. I loved the conversation and am ready for it to continue. But part of the discussion briefly focused on the topic of information overload.

Every day we are confronted with thousands of media messages: advertising, entertainment, information and news. And it comes at us from both on- and off-line sources. People are talking to us (or at us) via the Internet, traditional media, in real life, cell phones, and more.

Admittedly, it’s a lot to process. And for some, it can actually become paralyzing. They don’t know where to turn, so rather than dealing with this so-called “information overload”, they just shut down. Some folks, even professionals in the social media realm, will often take what they call a “social media hiatus” or an “Internet break” in order to recharge and shut down for awhile.

There are people who are studying this sort of thing and the impact it has on our brain and behavior. And I’m hoping that my friend will offer some posts that touch on this down the line, but that’s not the point of this particular post.

I’m here to tell you that perhaps you don’t need to shut down completely. Perhaps there really is no such thing as information overload. Perhaps it’s a matter of semantics, perspective, or interpretation. But there are a few simple things you can do, and keep in mind, as you try to deal with all the information that is out there:

1) There has been always been “too much” information out there – Information exists. It always has. What hasn’t existed is our access to that information. Now, with the Internet, we seemingly have access to everything. In many ways we are no longer bound by the confines of geography, or even time. And yes, there is more information out there than before, but there has always been more than our brains could handle.

2) You are not required to consume everything – No one says you have to read every blog, every tweet, every Facebook status update. If you’re one of my friends on Twitter or Facebook, or a blogger, please don’t take this personally, but I don’t consume your every thought and word. I probably don’t read 90% of your tweets. I can’t consume it all so I don’t even try. For instance, I find a lot of great indie music online. And each time I find a new artist or band that I like, it makes me realize that there must be so much more great music out there that I haven’t discovered yet. But I can’t possibly find or consume it all. So why bother trying? You do NOT need to consume everything that crosses your path.

3) Use filters – We all have built in filters that we use to filter out the “noise”, whether we know it or not. There is a stat that we throw around a lot that says that the average American is confronted with upwards of 3,000 ad impressions each day. Really? Then why don’t we remember them, or act on them? Because we have learned to filter them out. We don’t even notice them. Over time we learn how to create our own built-in brain filters. Use them! And of course there are the active filters we use, such as pop up blockers, spam filters, RSS feeds, Twitter columns and lists, etc. Learn how to filter so that you get the most important information, and the stuff that you don’t care about doesn’t even come your way.

4) You control the pace – Seriously, you do. If an entire river of information is coming your way, you can control the flow. Build a dam, and open and close the sluices until you get a flow that is comfortable for you. No matter how much water is on the other side, a 2-inch pipe will only allow a 2-inch flow of water through. Want more? Increase the size of the pipe. Want less? Make it smaller.

5) There’s nothing wrong with “missing out” on something – This ties back to number 2. If you miss an episode of a television show, it’s really not the end of the world. For the most part, there is very little information out there that is crucial for us to have. Don’t sweat it.

6) You WILL adapt and adjust – The advent of every new technology has brought on these feelings of information overload. Movable type and the printing press spurred on literacy and publishing. A rapid influx of reading material brought on these concerns, as did the invention of both radio and television. But we do OK with those, don’t we? We are amazingly adaptive. We have pretty rapid learning curves. Trust me, you’ll be fine.

Live your life and consume what you want, and don’t worry about missing out on something. I confess that in my early days of my Twitter residency, I wanted to be attached at all times. I didn’t want to miss anything. That’s not realistic. That will wear you down far faster than any sort of information overload.

How do you deal with all of the information that crosses your path? What sorts of filters do you have in place?

 Is There Such a Thing as Information Overload?
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35 comments
ShellyKramer
ShellyKramer

I use filters. All the time. And am always surprised when people don't. One analogy I use often: you don't walk into a crowded room and stress out because you don't know every word of every conversation that happened before you arrived. But you pick up and interact and engage where you came in. And when the party gets too noisy, or uninteresting  ... or whatever, you check out. Like Erin says, this isn't a new problem ... it's just different!

Erin F.
Erin F.

The funny thing is that information overload or whatever you want to call it isn't a new problem. People worried about it with the advent of the printing press. The solution then - as now - is the same. Choose when and what you want to consume. I guess we're back to personal responsibility again...

Latest blog post: Six Things Readers Need: Facts

BestRoofer
BestRoofer

Finding enough work to keep everyone busy is more important.  Think we got another nice church roof to do.  YEAH!!!  But obviously reading your blog is more important than most other things in my life.

BestRoofer
BestRoofer

I started reading this early this morning.  Came back to finish it at my afternoon break.  There are ways to deal with the flood of info. as you said.

AnthonySGuyer
AnthonySGuyer

Great Post. I have been thinking about this for a while. I just finished recording an album that turned out really well for a client. In my excitement I wanted to pass the word to a few friends that are music lovers and might enjoy it. So I sent out a quick email to a few folks and before long got a return email from a friend in Nashville "thanking" me for the spam. I felt terrible. That was not my intention. The point was he was experiencing Information overload. One more person trying to get him to listen to their music that they think is so great. I feel the same way some times I can't get to all the information that I would like to get to. I am working through this strange phenomena. 

3HatsComm
3HatsComm

I could sit and read and share things on the Internets all day, every day until it was time for the next vacation; alas that's not an option. Music (same, discover 'new to me' stuff all the time, long for more); I'll never try all the wines out there, but it is fun to try. ;-) If not ODing on info, certainly there are too many choices. See also, the TV w/ nothing and everything on, all at the same time. And FWIW it IS the end of the world should I miss an episode of Game of Thrones or Vampire Diaries, which in the event of DVR failure, I have. Ahem.

 

I've never tried to keep up with everything, but did have to actively step back in order to allow more 'other' stuff in. It's a pain and I lurk and still 'miss' things and yet, somehow the world is still spinning on its axis. I long ago set up filters - blocking Foursquare and Triberr links in TweetDeck, limiting who's in my FB timeline and making judicious use of the unfollow button to name but a few. As you say, it's all on us - I'm still learning how to 'unload' and let it go. FWIW.

kmueller62
kmueller62

@digett @RealMediaKC thanks for sharing!

marysrockman
marysrockman

@shonali @kmueller62 YES there is! We're consumed by it in this uber connected world.

girlseeksplace
girlseeksplace

Good advice here. I am often overwhelmed by the number of blogs and articles and Facebook and Twitter, but I am slowly learning that I survived without knowing this information before computers and I'll survive not knowing it now. If it's something that affects me in some way, I'll find out about it. It's so easy to want to be involved in everything that's going on, to feel like we're included and fit in, but sometimes that isn't the right way to be.

bdorman264
bdorman264

Adapt and adjust; sage advice indeed. When I first jumped in it was with Gini's crowd and I thought that was the 'normal' pace. Yikes, it was truly crazy for awhile. Fortunately I found what is sustainable for me and some days I'm more 'in' than others. And guess what? The sun still came up regardless of how present I was or not.

 

It's fun, educational and entertaining for me; sounds like a win and if I was a doctor, my advice would be to just keep doing what you are doing then, right? 

Soulati | Hybrid PR
Soulati | Hybrid PR

Thanks for the link love, Ken. Excellent thoughts on this conundrum. What you fail to mention (not really a fail) is the personality type of the person on sensory overload. Me...Type A PR Agency Born...thrives on this sense of urgency to read, comment, post, do, be, more. That's a fail of mine. What's happening, though, is that when I let the blog go a week without posting, my guilt is not as strong as it used to be; I relish that time and come back with such incredible mojo (as recently when I sat and wrote 7 posts right after another). When our profession is this world, it is consuming. Thus, there needs to be boundaries set and rules made so we don't get so flitty and make zero progress. (argh...my graph breaks went away...sorry!)

Kabutakapua
Kabutakapua

@ShellyKramer @kmueller62 definitely!my way is to have an idea of what's going on and then look for what I'm really interested in

AV_Comm
AV_Comm

@ShellyKramer @kmueller62 Yes, that's what I get whenever I go online. I've got bookmarked pages enough to last 6 months if I read 24/7!

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator

 @BestRoofer Wait...putting roofs on houses is more important than reading my blog???

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator

 @AnthonySGuyer I find that unusual. For me, "spam" is generally not something from someone I know. His response was really odd, in my mind. 

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator

 @3HatsComm It's an ongoing process, for sure. But once it's in place, it becomes easier to manage over time. 

RealMediaKC
RealMediaKC

@kmueller62 Ken, you always publish such great content - we can't help but share it!

digett
digett

@kmueller62 Information overload is becoming a big issue; thanks for putting some good points and tips around it!

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator

 @bdorman264 I felt the EXACT same thing with the EXACT same crowd. I love it there, but I'm not gonna die if I'm not there all the time. 

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator

 @Soulati | B2B Social Media Marketing Agreed. I think the problem, in my mind, is that I hear so many people complaining about information overload when THEY are the ones who can and should control it. Don't blame the Internet. Don't blame Twitter. Don't blame whichever platform you don't think you can handle. We are the ones in control of what we consume. 

kmueller62
kmueller62

@Kabutakapua i'm not so sure there is

kmueller62
kmueller62

@AV_Comm @ShellyKramer i'm not so sure there is

kmueller62
kmueller62

@RealMediaKC thank you very much!

Kabutakapua
Kabutakapua

@kmueller62 you don't think we receive too many info?

kmueller62
kmueller62

@Kabutakapua i guess so, though I think we can learn

Kabutakapua
Kabutakapua

@kmueller62 unfortunately not everyone is able to do that!

kmueller62
kmueller62

@Kabutakapua agreed, but i just tune that out. rarely see it

Kabutakapua
Kabutakapua

@kmueller62 I don't only refer to information from media but also adverts and unwanted images/sounds

kmueller62
kmueller62

@Kabutakapua i think it's all a matter of perspective. and we control it.

Trackbacks

  1. […] I wrote about the notion of “information overload” and why I don’t think it’s necessarily a real thing. Or at least doesn’t […]

  2. […] Whereas you will be expected to organize your reader by what holds the most importance for you, too many newsreaders flatten all items into the same importance, style and format. This is very unlike the front page of a newspaper, which not only sports some type of infographic and some teasers, but of course the main story as a headline. The decision-making process could be greatly assisted by some sense of hierarchy on the part of newsfeed readers and the RSS. Front pages are curated on newspapers; what you need is an intelligent newsreader that thinks on the same lines. Your newsreader should also rank stories on their level of relevance as they pertain to your interests. Too much information and the human reader will simply click off due to information overload. Not all stories about your interests are of relevance; too many stories about one thing will be just too much. […]

  3. […] point is, there is only an information overload if we permit it. We are at the controls. We have the ability to open and close the spigots as far as we want, and […]

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