May 28, 2007

Social Information Overload

My first overload was with online news. Hundreds of sites to visit and later to pull into an RSS reader. Then I cut down the feeling of overload with the decision to simply read things filtered by bloggers.

Second was blogger and by extension, news overload, where there were hundreds of bloggers to read, and all the news articles they pointed to. Then I cut that down by topic filter searches that were pulled into my news reader.

Third was photo and video overload, where I had tons of sites to look at photos and videos and was spending hours a day seeking out whatever was going on. Then I cut that down by using 1001 for photos and using people to filter videos, by hand selecting a few each day in either topic areas or for things that were just interesting. I use Dabble a lot for this.

Fourth, and I'm not sure how I'm going to cut this one down is social network info overload. Upcoming, Facebook, Myspace (less so but still!), Dopplr (travel YASN), Linked In, plus every wiki I'm in for different events and groups, as well as all my Google and Yahoo groups, plus groups at Magnify, Vodpod and Flickr, maillists that have grown much more around social interaction than they were in the past where they appeared more as information I could take or leave. There are the games and mobile groups I'm in, Twitter, and I'm sure there's more but I just can think of it all. In other words, the social interaction and information overload has become high pressure.

I'm looking for some filter to go through and just grab what I need and not have to know about or read or watch the rest, or reply to it, unless I want to and it fits in with an event or need or desire.

In the past, I've just gone skipping around, and at other times been immersive, but it's all so random right now, there is so much, I'm feeling anxious all over again, as I watch it all scroll by.

I don't know the answer, but the question might be, what happens when you have Social Information Overload? What is it, how do you manage it, and what can you use to filter it? Don't tell me use my bloated RSS reader which I abandoned when it had 450,000 unread (no exaggeration.. I can't open it) items. There must be something to solve this.

I was at a talk two weeks ago, where the speaker said that 5 years ago, 3 percent of online activity was at social sites, and now 31 percent is. I can say that I spend at least if not much more than 31 percent of my activity online in social spaces. That doesn't include the games and mobile stuff.

So.. how can I be informed, but not rude, comfortable without anxious worry about missing things, immersive but only when it's fun? What is the answer?

Posted by Mary Hodder at May 28, 2007 02:51 PM | TrackBack

'What is the answer?'

Suggestion: stop spending so much time signing up for all these things :-)

Posted by: Alex Barnett at May 29, 2007 10:59 AM

I think those using these social spaces understand themselves what a stress it can be to keep up with everything that's happening online these days, and understand if you don't always reply. My answer has been to worry less and go for quality over quantity.

I think the Twitter approach to partial attention is a good one if only more people used it. Intermittently I'll check what people have written to get the gist and move on, not feeling obligated to reply like I might with email or a personal message/post on these social sites. People can send private messages if they deem something important enough to do so and then I get an email.

People sending "fun" links has made email dead to me now and mailing lists overload me so I filter them direct to folders leaving my inbox for important things. IM too just takes so much attention I have to limit it.

My solution to feeds has been to be brutal with managing them to only those interests I have at the time. I used to hoard feeds(especially personal ones) thinking I might miss something important, now I just bite the bullet and move lower priority feeds to another folder I might read once in a blue moon.

Media online is a new time-waster. Video I find in my feed reader I drop in a ToWatch folder and when I'm bored or have free time I look for something interesting there, moving them to the Watched folder once I've consumed.
Podcasts come in a feed stream and sync to my player, I listen on walks, auto-deleting them after a week on it(listened or not). Individual items I find in pages I tag for downloading later to listen when they get synced to my player with the feeds.
Just like our brains I believe we have to learn to throw away information because of time and space constraints, and learn not to feel bad about it when we forget something, or someones name. :)

On a practical note, you could try Particls to manage feeds, seems the flavour of the week...
I just can't stand the constant attention grabbing ticker across my screen. I prefer task-oriented consumption, focusing on as few things as I can at a time to get the task at hand something done without being distracted or overwhelmed.

Posted by: Craig at May 29, 2007 11:45 AM

Hi Alex,

Yeah, I know. You're right except that when I see all the people that make the social media using all these services, they mention one or another things, in casual conversation. And if I don't know what's going on, well, I feel more anxiety than when I wasn't sure if I'd gotten every last detail even partially before.

But thanks for letting me off the hook, in theory.

Hi Craig,
Thanks for the very thoughtful ideas. As I said above, the problem is that even with partial attention, there is anxiety in either catching or missing each piece of info, and with the rate of in person conversations that reference all this stuff, the pressure is there.

I think the answer may be less in finding a new RSS feed reader and more in Alex's thought, which is in just saying 'who cares' and letting some of it go.

But I'm serious that other's expectations now are rather high, and it doesn't feel very good.

There are actually a bunch more services that I get info from occasionally, that make it hard, that I didn't even list.

I don't know.


Posted by: mary hodder at May 29, 2007 09:38 PM

Craig thanks for plugging Particls.

Mary with Particls it is possible to turn off the Ticker and turn on an RSS feed - the feed will be just the most important/personally relevant stuff you have to monitor. You can subscribe to it via a widget or homepage or even a normal reader.

It is exactly what you asked for in terms of you request "I'm looking for some filter to go through and just grab what I need and not have to know about or read or watch the rest"

Hope this helps!


Chris (ceo/co-founder particls)

Posted by: Chris Saad at May 30, 2007 04:18 PM

Hey, Mary!

It's my firm belief that the truly important stuff always shows up over and over and over again. So I don't feel anxious when I mark a whole ton of stuff 'read' without looking at it. The good stuff will show up again, and be there when I *do* have time.

Hell, I even do this as a product manager. You let all the feature requests that come in wash over you in a wave, and start working on the ones that show up enough times that you start to take notice...

Of course, I suspect I'm dealing with a lot less information intake than you!

Posted by: Greg at June 4, 2007 08:42 AM

Yes.. i know i have a lot. But the question is, how to manage it. And while people have suggested tools above, i haven't found the answer. i'm still ruminating over what we need here.


Posted by: mary hodder at June 4, 2007 11:30 AM

HI Mary: I heard you on the Yi-Tan call today on FaceBook and Widgets and have reflected on your dilemma - what Linda Stone calls CPA (continuous partial attention)

Along with several colleagues, I have been working on a possible solution to CPA - and was particularly interested to see how it might be ported to the Facebook Platform, so Jerry's call was very instructive.

I will post to Yi-Tan as soon as I have applied our "less is more" solution to the Yi
Tan archived content and can test it with a few of the folks who "attended" the call and the larger circle of those who didn't who may be interested in seeing or hearing a soundbite reconstruction of the hour-long program into a user-customizable attention-saving listening filter.

Goal: reduce the podcast time to 10% of the original (6 minutes versus 60) - along with a link to the user's favorite playlist for later listening if desired.(A TiVo archive to everything you might want to watch or listen to but don't have time for right now)

Your information anxiety is vividly expressed in your post above and in your live comments on Yi-Tan today.

we're working on trying to provide you some needed relief.

Posted by: dave davison at June 4, 2007 05:07 PM

Mary, funny you should bring this up. I just found the following comment on a thread about a new small world experiment (how many e-mails hops to get from someone in MA to someone in ND). This excerpt is a bit out of context, but the last sentence is the capper:

"I tried to get my own chain going to North Dakota by asking a trusted colleague from Saskatchewan to forward the e-mail to one of his contacts, but he replied much later that these kind of e-mails look very suspicious these days and that the CBC has been enduring a tsunami of spam lately.

It also becomes increasingly hard to reach people on their cell phones: society's tolerance for people answering their phone in the middle of a conversation is diminishing and people are now asked to turn their cell phones off in meetings and different gatherings.

This is, in my view, an interesting new paradox: people are now easier to reach but it is harder than ever to communicate with them."

So, the suggestions are good ones, but I'm wondering if we're just building a new set of disconnected groups by multiplying the number of networks in which I feel obliged to participate. Your thoughts?


Posted by: Bill Anderson at June 6, 2007 03:27 PM

I was at a talk two weeks ago, where the speaker said that 5 years ago, 3 percent of online activity was at social sites, and now 31 percent is.

Mary, can you share the id of the speaker-- and the source of their data? great post.

Posted by: John Bracken at June 19, 2007 11:52 AM

Hi John,
The talk was by:

Safa Rashtchy, Managing Director & Senior Research Analyst, Piper Jaffray

and my notes were as follows:

Six trends for key drivers of this revolution

1. Communitainment -- same thing as media and communication
2. mainstreaming of the internet
3. emergence of usites - 31% of internet traffic is on community sites (5 years ago it was 3%)
4. fragmentation of media consumption - TV, radio, phone, internet - multitasking and fragmented attention
5. the advance of user generated brands - users don't like push ads, instead users take control of brands

Hope that's helpful.


Posted by: mary hodder at June 19, 2007 11:52 AM