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Information Overload: the Tooth Fairy of the Internet

Submitted by Kate Sheehan on October 15, 2008 - 10:37am

I never quite got the hang of believing in Santa. Flying reindeer seemed suspect to me, but the real problem I had was the speed at which he made it around the world, in and out of all those houses and back in a single night. Even accounting for time differences and the International Date Line, I couldn’t get comfortable with the idea.

Like Santa, Information Overload has never quite settled properly into my mind. Every time I read an article (and there are oh so many to read) about the perils of the Information Age and the overwhelming amount of information we’re all drowning under, I find myself squirming.

I know there’s exponentially more information available to us, I know we all feel overwhelmed at times and I know those two factors intersect, but I could never bring myself to set out milk and cookies for Information Overload.

At the recent Web2.0 Expo, Clay Shirky explained why, like Santa, Information Overload is a myth. One meant to make us feel better and keep some magic in our lives, but something that does not exist.

The problem, Shirky tells us, is not more information, but outdated filters. This should resonate with librarians who have helped people use the Internet for the first time and watched the careful left to right tracking of their eyes across the screen, treating everything on the page as if it had equal importance… as if it were printed material.

Compare that to teenagers who can keep several chat windows open, hang out on Facebook, listen to music and work on their math homework simultaneously. Filters that evolved with the Internet are fitter.

Over at the reference desk, our job has evolved from information provider to information filter. “Here are the materials on your topic” isn’t good enough anymore, not because people are lazy, but because that stack of material is gigantic and in order to truly help our patrons, we have to help them parse what’s in there.  

Sites like Chowhound and Yelp have become wonderful reference tools because they filter information through the obsessive lens of people who really care about a subject. Tagging, reviewing and discussing things online aren’t just ways of adding user-generated metadata to objects, they’re a way of sifting through the information onslaught. People who are passionate participate and create a better way to get at the nuggets of information we really want.

It’s not enough to point people towards the Dewey range, database or websites that they need. We have to become that passionate filter for their topic for the five, fifteen or fifty minutes we spend working on it. We have to page through the books, search for articles, dig through the discussion boards and really engage with their topic.

Everyone who’s worked a public service desk has had the experience of chasing after a patron with “just one more article” after the patron was satisfied (and possibly frightened of the librarian’s zeal). Engaging with content is, in many ways, nothing new for librarians and we need to keep tapping that professional quirk that makes many of us great at Trivial Pursuit or pariahs at family gatherings.
The gatekeeper model that says “I will show you where the information you need is” is dead. The gates aren’t locked; they aren’t even closed. The world is flooded and our value will shine when we extend our hands to our patrons and jump in with them.


Comments (10)

I think it's never too much,

I think it's never too much, if you can find all information you need, it's excellent.
Greets Wellnesshotel

I think it's never too much,

I think it's never too much, if you can find all information you need, it's excellent

I am referring to Clay’s

I am referring to Clay’s video commentary beginning at 15.16 minutes.

Crashed information flows unleash opportunities to build creative solutions or new systems.

Historically, academia’s social system has maintained the system - individual or small group hard work = degree and scholarly product.

Filter failure has a negative connotation in my mind. Folks who evolve in a multitasking environment may not view academia’s social system authenticity in the same manner as the traditional academic community. (I realize this is a broad generalization.)

The chemistry students who evolved in a multitasking online environment perceive the social system of knowledge acquisition differently than the university administration.

I believe the group of university learners values the hunt for information (perhaps this can be extended to include knowledge acquisition). The university study group of 146 presents a valid evolution of an existing system in my mind. The University administration defines the study process as cheating. The students have been using cheats for years to further the quest for superiority and knowledge in gaming formats. The two groups see and evaluate academia’s social system differently.

Social values will shift as systems affect social norms. The study group may view the online format as a more authentic and empowering means to gain knowledge in spite of the free riding tolerance of the system. Freeriding tolerance may be viewed differently as online social groups evolve.

Someone can print notes from the study group and pass the test; however the multitaskers of today may equate the study process to the practice of using cheats to beat The Legend of Zelda. Beating the game in the real world takes more than passing a test.

Human Computer Interaction analysis must play a role in the development of new system tools.

It is a strange separation.

It is a strange separation. But one that makes sense in the context of the cultural baggage around "Information Overload."

The usual tone of articles about information overload is that the amount of information out there is increasing at an exponential rate and our brains are exploding with it all and the solutions offered are usually along the lines of "step away from the Internet."

But Shirky's point is that the amount of information has always been increasing. It's not the increase in information we should be focusing on, but rather building better filters. Feeling overloaded in this case does not mean we are overloaded, or at least more overloaded than usual. It means a filter broke.

In other words, when we feel overloaded, it's not because there are so many more shiny boxes, but because our x-ray specs are on the fritz.

Thanks for not ratting me out to Santa. From what I hear, he already knows about my doubts!

But if we "feel" overloaded,

But if we "feel" overloaded, then aren't we overloaded? Just like, if you feel tired, then aren't you tired? This is a strange separation to me, and I'm not sure I agree with it (also, I'll hold off on calling Santa to tell him about your doubts: it's very too late to reform.)

I agree with the idea of filtering: more information requires better filters requires a more value-added service from librarians.

Let's try this. If the "right information" is like a present left under the tree by Santa, information overload is the Grinch that stole Christmas; instead of taking the presents from under the tree, though, he filled the entire house with empty, wrapped boxes tied with shiny bows. Now, when the little Who children wake up from their beds, they can't find their real presents for all the shiny but useless empty boxes. Then the Grinch feels guilty, gives all the children x-ray glasses to find their real presents, and they all lived happily ever after.

Or something like that?

Davin, thanks for

Davin, thanks for commenting. I don't think I'd put Clay Shirky in the cheerleader/guru category. A lot of the "new media" writers and thinkers have thoughtful things to say about how people interact with technology and each other. Clay Shirky, danah boyd, David Weinberger and Guy Kawasaki all spring to mind as people who librarians should be paying attention to. There's a world of difference between writing about what non-librarians are saying and "wholesale, uncritical adoption."

Steven, thanks for the link. You're right about the distinction between a sense of overload and actual overload. I think that's what I find most appealing about the idea that it's not information overload so much as broken filters. The sense of feeling overwhelmed is real, but how we think of it is off.

Carolyn, do you mean systems that are tolerant of free-riding?

Davin, your dismissal of

Davin, your dismissal of Clay as a "new media cheerleader" is entirely unwarranted, and reflects poorly on your discernment. He's genuinely one of the most thoughtful people I know; particularly, his take on (ahem) "new media" is far more nuanced than you suggest.

Do free-riding tolerant

Do free-riding tolerant systems enhance or erode perceptions of authenticity?

I think the sense of

I think the sense of overload may exist, but actual overload may be a myth. A topic dealt with in an interesting way by Adam Greenfield recently:

I think "Clay Shirky

I think "Clay Shirky explained why" should be changed to "Clay Shirky proposed that." I'm not rejecting his thesis out of hand, but as a library professional I am troubled by the wholesale, uncritical adoption of these new media cheerleader/gurus into the discourse.

Regardless, this is an important and fascinating topic and I'm curious to hear what other commenters think.