Information Overload Isn't A Thing, Study Finds

Information Overload Isn't A Thing, Study Finds

Forget information overload. What you've got is information just-right-load.

That's the conclusion reached by a trio of researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Michigan, who interviewed 77 people in seven focus groups in an effort to understand the new media consumer's psyche and ability to adapt to the barrage-of-information age.

Contrary to many experts' warnings that the "always-on" media environment has "overwhelmed" audiences and creating a society of antisocial Facebook-addicts more interested in hashtags than hugs, the study found that participants said they felt "empowered" and "enthusiastic" about the volume of information at their fingertips, not overloaded. Social networking sites didn't receive that same endorsement from interviewees, who said that when it comes to Facebook and Twitter, it's the quality of information, not the quantity, that turns them off.

"Instead of feeling burdened by choice many participants enjoyed the freedom it brought, especially the range of information available online," according to the study, which was published in the journal "The Information Society." "Our participants [...] expressed near-unanimous enthusiasm about the new media environment."

Among participants, television was the most popular media source, followed by websites. But TV news channels were also the most frustrating for news consumers who reported taking issue with the sensationalism they saw on the airwaves. Though wary of the varying trustiworthiness and accuracy of online news outlets, the focus group participants generally preferred getting their news from blogs than news anchors.

Social media garnered little love among the interviewees, who ranged from twenty-somethings to people over 60. Twenty-two out of the 77 particpants had "considerably negative feelings" about social networking sites, while nine out of the 77 expressed "strong positive feelings."

"[T]here is a distaste for activities on social network sites, suggesting that many people are annoyed by what they perceive as the minutia of people's lives fed to them through Facebook and Twitter," the study's authors write.

In this case, that negative perception was fueled more by social media sites' reputation -- what researchers call "reflected assumptions about how certain services work" -- more than users' personal experiences with the sites.

There are a few caveats to the findings to keep in mind.

Eleven of the 77 people interviewed did report a sense of information overload, and one participant even likened herself to Robin Williams character in Moscow on the Hudson ("He has to go pick up a can of coffee at the supermarket and he hyperventilates because there are so many choices. That's how I feel with all these sources of information," she said).

One of the study's authors, Northwestern associate professor Eszter Hargittai, noted that feelings of being "overwhelmed" by information were most common in people with elementary "Internet skills" who were unfamiliar with navigating search engines and social media sites.

The research is also based on interviews conducted in 2009 -- eons ago, in tech-world time. When the researchers held their focus groups three years ago, Pinterest hadn't yet launched, Instagram hadn't been born, Google+ wasn't even a glimmer in Larry Page's eye, Facebook was years away from unveiling the all-seeing, all-sharing "frictionless" apps, and Twitter had half as many users as it does now (75 million vs. 140 million).

The deluge of data being churned out by media sites of all stripes has, in recent years, spawned a new breed of companies -- such as Relevance, Newsle, Summify (acquired by Twitter), Zite, and Flipboard -- that aim to help tame the information flow and distinguish the jewels from the junk.

In short, the volume of information coursing through the internet hasn't just ticked up in the past few years. It's exploded. While information overload might not have weighed on users' minds in 2009, news consumers might give a very different answer if asked the same question today.

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