Social Media and Information Overload

I am about to embark on the next iteration of my e-mail reduction challenge, and in the process I’ve been thinking a bit more about the problem of information overload.

In particular, the objection that Switching to Social Media is not a solution to information overload – it just moves the problem somewhere else.

After all, if I get 200 e-mails a day to read, and those become a mix of 200 instant messages (that pop up on my screen to interrupt me), blog posts (that I feel obliged to read in my RSS reader) and community/activity updates (that I am notified about via a link in my email) … they are still the same 200 things being brought to my attention, and just as distracting as ever. But now they are in multiple different places that I have to check, and which have separate tools for filing and managing them (if any) and, even worse, which I can no longer handle when I am offline – thus reducing the amount of time I have to work on them.

What is worse, the very nature of these tools means I can easily turn 200 messages into 2,000 if I start following to all the blogs and communities I am interested in, the micro-blogs of my expanding network, etc.

The hope is that IBM Project Vulcan will address this one day by creating a new, single universal inbox that can contain all of those things, and let you respond to them and manage them in the same tool – just like an, err, e-mail inbox!

The challenge here is not moving the messages, but solving the "attention management" problem by changing when things are shown to us. Managing all of these interactions as conversations instead of as individual interruptions can help, as would a way for the system to separate messages the user "must act on urgently" from those they "must act on sometime," from those they "should act on if possible," from those that are "nice to have".

But ultimately, we are only going so solve this information overload problem if we reduce the number of messages/notifications that are sent. Ironically, I am the one person who cannot directly control that (although Luis Suarez has shown how much impact a forceful personality can have in changing the behaviour of others).

The Connections 3.0 e-mail notification digests will help a bit, since they batch up many unimportant notifications to avoid each one causing a separate interruption (and groups notifications about a whole conversation thread into one message). But we need more than that.

I am hoping, some day, to be able to tell the system that "I am working on Project X now" and have my Sametime Status change ("Concentrating on Project X – if you have something non urgent to discuss on another topic, please write on my Board or send e-mai/voicemail") and the messages I see from all my communications channel start to be filtered so I only see stuff to do with Project X (or stuff that is considered Urgent under some other rules can manage).

I think many users need help by having things hidden from me if I really don’t care about them right now. At least everyone who says they suffer from information overload (not that I would say that – I love information, the more the better, it is fascinating stuff  – but I do need help in effectively managing it all!)

Which brings me back to e-mail reduction, My first theory was that wherever possible the system should hide stuff that doesn’t need to be handled immediately (by putting it in a folder). For e-mail, that’s probably a "To Read" folder – or set of folders graded by importance. I’ve thought quite a but about how to structure those. Simplicity is best, so Important and Not Important could be enough. On the other hand, the sheer volume of message can be overwhelming, so there may be more of an incentive to go an look at messages on specific subjects. In the end, I decided on a maximum of 10 topic areas, ordered in decreasing importance, for a mini pilot. During which I learnt, once again, that I never actually go and read anything that gets put away like that!

I also had a minor technical hitch with my original approach of setting QuickRules to automatically file any message I did not need to see immediately into a folder for later. When I got to 60-odd QuickRules I started getting an error message. I am not sure if creating one rule per folder with more conditions in it will solve this – that is something I need to experiment with.

This experience led me to wonder if auto-filing is the right answer. I tried the same thing years ago by routing all public newsletters to my Gmail account – which is now unusable because of the number of messages that flood into it. The theory was that there was no way I could ever read them all, but at least I could dip in if I wanted to see the most recent, and search them all for a topic I needed to know about. But I never did any of those things.

It’s a bit like the problem I have with To Do lists – I am great at putting things on the list but useless at checking them off. I started to reread Getting Things Done recently in the hope I could come up with a better strategy for handling my to do lists (because the iPad has made it much easier to create lists, so I needed to be better at using them!) But finishing reading the book is now on a to do list somewhere 🙂

Conclusion: yes, all this rambling actually had a point! Or rather two:

  1. Everyone isn’t the same. Some people love managing to a zero inbox, while other’s prefer a less structured approach (and I have a suspicion that the latter, less disciplined types are more in need of social collaboration). Some people like to allocate time slots for everything, while others work better when interrupt driven. As Dave Allen points out, there is no one magic system that works for everyone – each user has to find a trusted process that works for them.
  2. If Social Media is the answer, it can only be because it enables us to take a radically different approach to information sharing. We need to convince everyone that the social platform will let people to find information they need when they need it, as long as it has been shared at some point. Then I no longer need to e-mail you some information that you might needs in six weeks time – I can just share it generally and be confident that you will find it if/when you need it. Only by changing this behaviour, in the people sending the messages, can we ever hope to reduce message volumes and so information overload.

There is an interesting challenge here around building trust in the social platform. We, as users, need to be confident that if we share something, it will remain available to us (and to others). This includes high enough space quotas that we are not forced to delete stuff we would rather keep sharing. Otherwise we are going to want to keep a local copy as well as a server copy, and this increases the effort required and reduces the likelihood that we will share things.

What is needed is to enable a cultural shift to information on demand when we need it, instead of information pushed when it is created.

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3 thoughts on “Social Media and Information Overload

  1. Great post Stuart – much like my thinking, that information overload will grow (al la death and taxes) and our attention deficit is challenged constantly – so what I personally want is an information "aperture" that allows to me tune out all incoming to a "shelf" so that I know its there if I need it (that what search is for) and I concentrate on (gasp) thinking for a change rather than reacting. A bit like the difference between living and surviving. As we had a while ago in IBM, Friday afternoon "Think" is a very good idea, stop and think and solve customer business problems rather than reacting to incoming fire hose. Like you, I have yet to finish the GTD book! Let me know when you solve this dilemma ! Thanks for a great read.

  2. Interesting post – to move away from the email, is one of my current ongoing "to do". But I think that if something will be to replace and be all in 1 let’s say. We need more than text, Image, and sound. We need; voice, intelligence and IBM Watson combined with circles of people we interact with. To provide them with real time information based on priorities, needs, time, mood… Thanks for great points stated in your post.

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