Every time you see a story about information overload you see a chart with the curve skyrocketing off to the right. The story says something like ‘Ten years ago we were on the left. Today we’re here on the right.’ But that’s not new. Because for 15 years we’ve been reading the same story about information overload. If we’ve been reading the same story all this time, why is it still a big surprise, asked Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody to the audience at Interop in New York.
For 500 years, the chart has always been going up to the right
We blame the chart on our lack of productivity and our inability to manage information. It rapidly goes up to the right. See? That’s why I’m not getting anything done. I’m suffering from information overload.
Shirky argues that since the 1500s, after the creation of the Gutenberg Press, we’ve been able to tell a story about information overload. That’s because by the 1500s the cost of producing a book got so cheap and the number of books created was so high that the individual person had access to more books than they could consume in a lifetime.
Pre-Internet, individuals and businesses formed filters as business models
Gutenberg created a cheap way to make books, but there was still a publisher for filtering for quality of books. A book didn’t get printed unless a publisher was willing to make an economic investment in advance, and then recoup the costs. You couldn’t just print anything because you could lose money if people don’t buy your books. We made publishers the filter for information printed in books.
Before the Internet, that type of business-based filtering included all other media types. Whether it’s a printing press or broadcasting video signals through TV tower, someone has to filter for quality.
The Internet produced post-Gutenberg economics
With the introduction of the Internet and its transparent publishing and communications, the price of producing anything dropped through the floor. With Internet publishing, there’s no economic logic that says you have to filter for quality before you publish.
Shirky argues that what we’re dealing with now isn’t information overload. The past always looks good and the future looks daunting. That’s the normal case. It’s an issue of the filters are no longer in place or no longer sufficient to handle the content. We now have to rely on other filters that may not be controlled by other individuals and businesses. And those filters are a combination of technology, other people, and ourselves.
Spam is a good illustration of the information overload problem, said Shirky. We incorporate automatic and manual forms of filtering. But none of these are “set it, and forget it.” All solutions are temporary and we take the volume increase for granted. But once spam hits a certain critical levels, we react and change our filters. We start unsubscribing from lists, we switch spam filters, change email accounts, and start developing harsher criteria for deleting, reading, responding, and/or filing.
You can control your filter, but if you let some information out, you can’t control distribution
Shirky told a very true and funny story about a friend of his that wanted to change her relationship status on Facebook. She had broken up with her fiance and wanted to change her status from “engaged” to “single.” On Facebook, when you make that change the social network sends out an alert to everyone on your friends list. The problem is the people that she’s “friends” with are not necessarily equal friends. Some are very close friends and others are not. Some are actually friends with her ex-fiance and she wanted to give him the chance to announce the break up first.
Trying to be thorough, she went through Facebook’s very thorough privacy settings and changed them so it wouldn’t send out this massive alert. She wanted it to slowly build. So she’d tell four friends and then they’d tell four friends and it would grow like that. Well, that’s not what happened. The information got out there fast and the “slow distribution” of her relationship status didn’t happen the way she wanted it to.
It was a valiant effort, but as she realized, it just can’t be done. Managing your privacy preferences is an unnatural act. No one is good at setting up or managing their privacy settings. It’s not something we’re used to even if Facebook has really good privacy settings. And Shirky’s friend wanted to slowly get the information out. She wanted it to come out in partial waves. It was natural for her to think that, because that’s the way it used to happen before Facebook sent out mass alerts to our friends about our relationship status.
It’s a question of filtering, not managing preferences
Back in the day we had something called a personal life. We don’t really have that anymore, said Shirky. Managing preferences is not going to control our personal life. We need to think about managing filters. That’s the story of outbound information flow.
Shirky told another story of Chris Avenir, an 18 year old Ryerson college student that started a study group on Facebook. Here’s a young kid that grew up with the Web and was comfortable with this form of collaboration. The institutional faculty at Ryerson didn’t see it that way, and accused Avenir with multiple accounts of cheating which equaled the number of people in his Facebook group plus himself.
To Avenir, Facebook is just an extension of his group life. Ryerson thought he was publishing information. That’s because colleges try to contain “study group” knowledge within the four walls of the institution. The school has an inward message that says to the students, welcome to our community of conversation. To the outside world, universities say we’ve got quality control and great minds and we’re going to deliver them to you fully formed for the working world or the next stage of learning.
The two messages are separate. By moving his study group to Facebook Avenir caused these two worlds to collide. Small groups defend themselves against free riders. If you have a study group of four people and a fifth one comes in and just wants to leech off of everyone, you’ll kick that person out. Conversely, large groups, like what can be created on Facebook, are tolerant, not resistant.
With these examples, and our constant history of information overload, Shirky asked us to constantly rethink what are our social norms. When we feel we can’t handle the information, ask yourself, “What filter just broke? What was I relying on that’s not working?” Now look for a new solution.
One Response to “Interop_ NY: Information overload is an old issue, Clay Shirky says you need to rethink and redefine your filters”