Musings on RSS, Twitter and information overload

By April 16, 2009 23 Comments

It is a common complaint these days that we are all drowing in information and that it is exhausting trying to keep up with everything.  For me the problem is not in the information, but in the trying to keep up with everything.

In most areas our brains are well used to dealing with information overload, with our eyes and ears we naturally filter out most of what we see and hear without even thinking about it.  Also, most of the time we don’t worry about whether we have ‘missed’ anything.  Why? Because we know that if there was something important we will find out sooner or later anyway.

Something similar also happens with printed newspapers where we browse and flick through at pace very happily.

However, with digitally delivered news and information we are not so good at this process of browse and filter – largely because information overload in this area is a new problem.  The chart below, which I first saw on Raphael Labbe’s blog a couple of years ago explains this nicely.

The notion of little bits of information nibbling away at our consciousness all the time and causing problems is developing into a bit of a meme right now.  Yesterday I read a piece in the Telegraph which cited ‘research’ showing that it might harm moral values as people don’t dwell long enough on any one piece of news to feel compassion or admiration, and then this morning I read Alan Patrick’s return from holiday post which said:

I’ve come to the conclusion that the “always on” culture fills ones head with a clutter of fairly unimportant things – driving a “continuous partial attention” mode that can potentially block the ability to see the bigger picture, or the main strands of any issue.

For me the answer to the problem is simply to not pay attention all the time.  This doesn’t make me a great Twitter user (I’m often slow to reply, and indeed before the arrival of Tweetdeck I often used to miss @brisbourne messages altogether) but it does allow me the perspective that Alan describes.

I first wrestled with this problem a couple of years ago when I was trying to keep up with too many blogs.  Netvibes helped me for a bit, but ultimately only staved off the inevitable, which was to stop trying to keep up with so many.  Now I barely use an RSS reader at all.

The penny dropped for me almost exactly a year ago when I wrote:

To borrow a concept from Stowe Boyd the best way to think about all the feeds and news and status updates is as a river of news. You look at it when you can and sample what is going past at that moment. You don’t worry about missing stuff – if it is important people will write about it again and you will pick up on it the second, third or fourth time round.

For a very small number of us being right on top of the breaking news every second is critical to being effective in life or work, but for most of us that isn’t the case.  As Alan says, he was away for a week and the big picture didn’t really change.  For all of us there is probably a small percentage of sources we do absolutely have to stay on top of, but for the rest of them taking time out is a very good thing.

The conclusion to Alan’s post is that we need better filters.  In the past I have shared that thought, and I still think they would help, but what I think we need is to drop the idea that if we don’t read all our feeds and Techmeme twice a day something will go wrong.  That way we free up the time to reflect, mentally relax and (last but not least) get on with the rest of our jobs.

If you take this perspective Twitter et al are valuable easy to use sources of entertainment and information not threats to our clarity of thought and mental health.  Returning to the analogy with sight – if we are on a country walk sometimes we ignore everything around us, maybe to talk with a companion, and other times we take pleasure from admiring the view and occasionaly stopping to look at a tree/flower/animal/building in detail.  This is like dipping in and out of the Twitter stream and occasionally clicking through to an article somebody has linked to.