Information Overload: Reaching Readers in a State of Distraction

Like most people in this day of information abundance, I suffer from overload. So I thought it would be interesting to hear some solutions to the problem. (Evidently, many other SSP attendees thought the same because the room was packed to overflowing, so I wondered if the session should have been called “Room overload”!)  This was a fascinating and interesting session offering different views on a common problem that besets everyone.

Phil Davis, a Postdoctoral Associate at Cornell University, began his two-part talk by describing of the problems he faced in coping with many distractions and interruptions as he attempted to write his Ph.D. dissertation. He noted that dissertations are not like scholarly articles because they contain things a journal editor does not want to see:  details of experimental research, an extensive bibliography, and suggestions for future research.

Once his research was completed, Davis carved out an hour or two every day to get away to the library and write his dissertation. But libraries are changing and are encouraging user interactions. Quiet study is now the exception, not the rule. We understand the attention economy well, but most solutions to information overload have focused on the person receiving the information: the reader, which raises some paradoxical questions:

  • Why are journals still published when authors can reach readers without them?
  • Why has repository publishing failed to become more popular?
  • Why has post-publication review failed?

Many of these problems can be traced to information overload, but as noted author Clay Sharkey said,”It is not information overload. It’s filter failure.”  Here are some symptoms of this:

Scholarly communication is a 2-sided market of authors, who are also readers, and publishers in between them. Authors know more about quality of their work than readers, which has led to the following behavior patterns:

The principal function of journals is to organize and mediate quality signaling in the author-reader market. We need to think of overload as a market problem. Journals are mediators of quality signaling, which gives them many opportunities to alleviate information overload.

Creating and consuming scholarship in the age of information overload
Oliver Goodenough, Faculty Fellow, Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Harvard University

In high school we were taught to be literal readers.  Then at college, we were bombarded with information, experienced overload, and needed to learn to skim and select.  Thus, we were told to behave in a way that is now our problem!  What is this doing to our brains, to scholarship, and to our livelihoods?

What we do and read shapes how we think. Culture and education work together, making us smarter at some tasks than we would be otherwise, and language is allows us to share and store information. For further information, a good reference is Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.  The internet increases access and storage, puts many traditional economic models at risk, multiplies but shrinks the workspace, and fragments our attention.

Pre-printing (memorization, dialog and debate, etc.) originally led to printing books and papers. Did we gain or lose?   Consider what scholars produce and share.

In educating future scholars, we must help them to understand their field. Wikis are not a substitute for a review. Communal workspaces may be growing as personal ones shrink. It is important to write good articles and share them with your readers.  Publishers can have a role in this:

Users: Let’s Throw Them a Bone, Already
Kristen Fisher Ratan, Director, Strategic Development, HighWire

We have not served users well and have left them to their own devices. Our products are not targeted at them: there is a wall between the user and publisher.  David Shenk’s book, Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut is a good reference on the symptoms of overload.

A HighWire survey of 45 Stanford researchers uncovered some interesting opinions:

  • Respect the workflow.
  • Productivity is more important than novelty.
  • Produce time-saving tools and information.

Admittedly, this was not a typical user audience.  None of the respondents use mobile phones for their information needs.  Instead, they take their laptops everywhere. To them, communication means email and Skype. Reading means skimming and using e-TOC alerts.  Still, some of their opinions are revealing to a more general audience:

Serendipity is how ideas are generated, and publishers could do better at producing tools to help it. The HighWire users were conservative towards change and did not want to take time to learn how to use new tools.  We need productivity, not novelty, but our websites tend to be like Swiss Army Knives with all the blades out!

Some things we can we do are:

  • Show abstracts in popup windows, saving clicks.
  • Clean up the real estate by providing more intelligent choices.
  • Use scrolling in place widgets like Amazon.
  • Provide visibility to content not necessarily associated with the article.
  • Don’t muddy search results with a lot of extra information (but have it nearby).
  • Think about new ways of doing things using touch screens or augmented reality.

Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today and Conference Circuit Blog Editor

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