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Study Explodes the Myth of Internet-Based Information Overload

Listen to enough hysterical warnings and dire forecasts and you’d think that information overload is leading us to some kind of bleak, post-apocalyptic future. In an Advertising Age column he wrote back in 2007, Edelman Senior VP Steve Rubel said, “A crash is coming, folks. But this time it’s not financial—it’s personal.” The attention crisis, he said, is an epidemic. “There’s no more room at the inn. People will cut back.”

Outlets ranging from The New York Times to Lifehack.org have addressed the consequences of too much online information. Personally, I’ve never bought it. More than a decade ago, I argued that people can stand all the information you can possibly throw at them—about things in which they’re interested. The stuff they don’t care about? They don’t waste time with it. As for the worry about too many sources of information, content and conversation, I figure people will adjust based on their interests and the time they have available. Tools that consolidate, aggregate and curate have helped, too.

But now, there’s proof that all this worry about information overload, message meltdown and attention crash is overinflated hyperventilating. A study out of Northwestern University finds that “very few Americans feel bogged down or overwhelmed by the volume of news and information at their fingertips and on their screens.”

Published in the journal The Information Society, the findings were based on seven focus groups with 77 participants from around the country. According to study author Eszter Hargittai, associate professor of communication studies, “We found that the high volume of information available these days seems to make most people feel empowered and enthusiastic. People are able to get their news and information from a diverse set of sources and they seem to like having those options.”

Study participants were asked specifically about the volume of content at their fingertips, but few said anything about feeling overwhelmed or suffering from overload. According to a report on the study, typical responses included the following:

  • Participants had near-unanimous enthusiasm about the new media environment
  • Online news was regarded more positively than TV news
  • Cable news was often criticized for its sensationalism and stream of repetitive stories
  • Trivial social media posts and opinionated political pundits are top sources of frustration when seeking information

In fact, rather than feeling buried by information, people are getting more critical of its quality. “But these frustrations were accompanied by enthusiasm and excitement on a more general level about overall media choices,” Hargittai said.

As for the few who did feel overwhelmed, these tended to be participants with low levels of Internet skill, people who can’t navigate search engine results or filter through social media updates.

Incidentally, if you’re shaking your head at the idea that information overload is an overblown issue because of the amount of information you deal with at work, that’s another story! There’s ample data to support employee claims of being buried in information; the email inbox alone is enough to drive some people over the edge. Fortunately, IABC’s Research Foundation has produced a report on sources and solutions for the enterprise overload problem.

Join The Conversation

  • The ICT Resourcer @ DataHelpDesk's picture
    Sep 16 Posted 2 years ago The ICT Resourc...

    Good one Shel! I've been arguing that MS Outlook has been driving people bonkers for a while. Microsoft is addressing this issue with some new products, as you say, to aggregate. I only just started aggregating my own sources after 15 years at least - and only now do I realise just how much I've been missing out on.

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