The End of Information Overload?

The phrase “information overload” is still omnipresent, decades after it was coined, although its definition has changed along the way. Barely a day goes by without an email newsletter or a blog post advising on how to deal with it. There are countless allusions, too, to “filter failure” (including by me, it has to be admitted) — so much so that it seems to have become a given that anyone working in a networked, globalised economy is too information-rich and too time-poor.

Is that really as true today as it once may have been? Maybe information filters, and human beings’ ability to use them cleverly, have improved so quickly we didn’t even see it happening?

Maybe I am way too optimistic, but I’ve seen a few scraps of anecdotal evidence that we’re not so overloaded any more; in fact, we may even be on the verge of taking control of the information flow.

Babbage, The Economist‘s science and technology blogger, had this to say recently in a post about long-form journalism and its rise in popularity:

People are as hungry as ever for good things to read, and length is no object…

That increasing numbers of people are bookmarking lengthy reads — be they journalistic narratives, essays or fiction — seems to say we are acquiring the skills to filter out what we need and to set aside the time to read it. Babbage alludes to the burgeoning number of places on the web we can read such pieces of between 1,500 and 30,000 words. He mentions several online libraries of different hues: Longreads, The Browser, The Verge‘s tech reads, Give Me Something to Read, Grantland and The Atavist, as well as nifty bookmarking tools like Instapaper and Read It Later and “…more are springing up all the time”.

Longreads, by the way, helpfully displays the number of words in each piece and an estimate of how long it will take to read.

Intrigued by the idea that no longer are we helpless and hapless in the face of the information mountain, I browsed to The Browser, which says it is “creating a 21st century library of Writing Worth Reading”. The curated pieces are not necessarily long-form, but are articles that its editors think will appeal to the “intellectually curious”… and are clearly designed for savouring slowly rather than scanning-and-deleting. Graham E. Seel’s essay on Good King John from History Today will likely take longer than your coffee break.

More news consumed

Once I managed to tear myself away from The Browser I revisited a study I’d seen on the reading habits of tablet users, which seems to add weight to the argument. The Tablet Revolution, conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism in collaboration with The Economist Group, published on Journalism.org in October 2011, says this:

About half (53%) [of tablet owners] get news on their tablet every day, and they read long articles as well as get headlines.

The survey also finds that three-in-ten tablet news users (defined for this study as the 77% of all tablet users who get news at least weekly) say they now spend more time getting news than they did before they had their tablet. More news consumed, as well as more bookworms, at least among certain groups. Add to this the continuing rise in sales of e-books… well, that’s enough factbites.

The idea that people are reading more, and finding time to do so by, perhaps, filtering more effectively, resonates with me. As did Frank Paynter’s recent conclusion on this very blog:

An age of networked knowledge is upon us, bringing with it the tools to conquer the mountain.

We are benefiting from a new generation of filtering tools and people are rapidly becoming adept at using them to curate, individually or in crowds. They range from the smart automation-mixed-with-human-curation of our own Paper.li newspapers — and now our Topical Browser which is in alpha — to the hand-selected offering from The Browser‘s editors, the crowdsourced choices of Longreads‘ users, and many other curated sets out there.

Networked individuals have taken control of the information overload, and fast.

Update: If you enjoyed this, read a related piece by Brian SolisThe Fallacy of Information Overload

Photo credit: quatro.sinko on flickr

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  • http://www.lizwilson.me/ Liz Wilson

    Thank you both for commenting. Your points are well made and underscore the need for curators to provide niche collections of content – which can then help the folks Doug mentions as they find curators to become their trusted guides.

  • Doug Breitbart

    I think the idea that folks are beginning to get on top of the information tsunami is somewhat overstated, outside of a relatively miniscule segment of the more sophisticated digerati. For the vast numbers of non-social-media-literate folks comprising the majority of online users, they are under water and sinking fast.

    As a purveyor of social media literacy training to corporate cohorts, we find vastly more folks in serious distress without any reference points or clues as to how to turn the digital tide. Clearly the need for clarity and guidance on strategies, tools, and practices is still hugely needed, at least in the territories we are navigating.

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  • http://explainafide.com.au Robin Jennings

    People seem to be fracturing into niches when it comes to news.

    Most people aren’t satisfied with a 30 second wrap up of each topic. People that love politics only read politics and want it in detail. Likewise for Environmental news, Science news or Financial news.

    The days of millions waiting for the 6 o’clock news might not be around for much longer.