Information Overwhelm: Two Types of Overload

This week’s theme here at the Digital Natives blog is Information Overload. When my calendar reminded me of this, I squinted quizzically at the words. Though an entire chapter of Born Digital is devoted to the question of Information Overload, I realized today that the term is only a vague gesture toward a whole constellation of concerns. Before we talk about information overload, I wanted to draw a distinction between two facets of that constellation.

It is definitely possible to feel overloaded—even overwhelmed—by the amount of information that streams past on the internet. This feeling of overload can derive, though, from two quite different experiences of information: rabbit-holes and spigots. My friends and I often joke about the peril of Wikipedia—you fact-check one tiny thing, and before you know it you’re down the rabbit-hole. And there go the next few hours. For some reason, I have trouble getting worked up about this kind of information overload. It seems like a mostly-positive side effect of curiosity. It’s not similar to reading an encyclopedia all afternoon: it is reading an encyclopedia all afternoon. The hyperlinked nature of Wikipedia makes it a perfect environment for exploring the seemingly infinite array of knowledge available on the internet; the relatively stringent community policing at Wikipedia helps to raise the quality of the information contained within that environment.

That’s the rabbit-hole risk. Though I’ve described a pretty limited scenario—staying within the bounds of Wikipedia—it’s a good illustration of a phenomenon that can happen anywhere on the internet. Hyperlinks are a handy way to reveal the provenance of ideas and effortlessly suggest additional reading. The feeling of “overload,” it seems, occurs when curiosity or the fearsome imperative of procrastination makes the rabbit-hole feel inescapable.

What about the spigot risk, then? This is exemplified, I think, by the magnetic draw of RSS readers. RSS readers—”inboxes for the internet”—pull blog posts and updates down from chosen websites in real time, and aggregate them into programs that operate much like email inboxes. The programs (Google Reader is a popular one) display unread counts and often full-text copies of articles from each website. Theoretically, they save their users from having to check preferred websites constantly to see what’s new. Not all Digital Natives use RSS readers; in fact, probably few of them do. However, many other services leverage the same principle: providing a river of information that never runs dry. Facebook‘s news feed is another good example: it pulls “news” from friends’ profiles, providing a single destination for social procrastination. Other sites, like the gadget blogs Gizmodo and Engadget, pride themselves on posting new reviews and rumors almost hourly. And, of course, Digg‘s homepage aggregates the “most popular” posts on the internet at any given moment, as measured by the number of people who have “dugg” each one. These sites serve as de facto information spigots. The feeling of “overload” here, though, comes not from the time-suck of information exploration, but from the sense of obligation that accompanies an “unread” count. When given such reliable streams of information, it’s all too common to feel constantly behind; constantly in need of catching up. That sense of obligation, often, is misplaced. An unread articles count should be a convenience—not a wagging finger.

The internet is a vast array of hyperlinked information. Anybody could follow links for the rest of their life, and never reach the end. Overload, then, seems inevitable: the system itself has become a conglomerate entity that would overload any mind with its sheer volume. The question then becomes not how to stop overload, but how to manage and assuage the feeling of being overwhelmed by it.

How do you deal with information overwhelm? Are there there greater risks involved than the ones described here, and if so, what’s at stake?