One of the approaches to reduce information overload are “alert services”, i.e. news services which only send very specific information to its subscribers, and only when it is required.
We’re currently working on a new website for those alert services. In order to find out which alert services we should offer, we’ve launched a survey (results will be published in due course). Please help us fill it out! Only takes 5-10 mins. Participants will be first to know when the new website is launched.
Posted by: Nicolas in: Uncategorized
Can you imagine a world where we only received the information that is relevant to us? A world without time-consuming screening, where we only got the news – and all of the news – that we really care about?
Why don’t we have this world today?
The easiest answer is that the current filtering techniques aren’t advanced enough, and more work needs to be done to improve them. However, in this article I would like to argue that we should not only try to fix the receiving end, but the sending one as well.
Today, no matter what “information stream” we subscribe to; be it newsletters, RSS Feeds, newspapers, TV etc., most of the time we will also receive a lot of irrelevant information. Just think about the newsletters or RSS Feeds to which you currently subscribe. While they do contain interesting information from time to time, they also contain a lot of information you don’t need to know, correct?
The reason for this is, I believe, a structural one. For all “streams” today, once the connection between sender and receiver is established (e.g. subscription to a newsletter) the sender can send us as much information as he or she wants, until we cannot stand it any longer and unsubscribe (or switch channels). There is no direct “control” over the sender to only send the important information, beyond the “threat” that his or her subscribers may jump overboard.
What may initially sound as a benefit to senders actually turns out to be a disadvantage for them as well, because the subscribers are increasingly reluctant to subscribe due to the fear of information overload and senders don’t get as many people to subscribe as they could.
For example: Let’s say you come across a preview site of a new Web 2.0 service that offers to inform you when the service has been launched. How should the webmaster of the site offer to inform you? The most common methods are email alerts/newsletters and RSS Feeds. However, they each have disadvantages from a subscribers’ perspective, leading to fewer subscriptions:
The idea put forward in this article is to introduce “limited sending rights” for senders, whereby the sender defines a maximum number of messages he can send. That way subscribers know that the sender will not “use up” his sending rights for sending irrelevant information.
For instance, in the above example the webmaster could setup a feed (let’s call it “Private Feed”) on a neutral platform that allows only one message to get sent in total (with a message like “Site has now launched!”), after which the Feed gets automatically deleted.This solution has several advantages from a subscriber’s perspective:
Posted by: Nicolas in: Uncategorized
Yesterday I stumbled upon the interesting new service Filtrbox which also aims to help users to deal with information overload in a better way.
Filtrbox basically does the same, however with some nice enhancements:
• Suggestion of keywords: after an initial keyword has been entered, filtrbox displays a cloud of additional tags that might be interesting to add/ exclude in your filtr
• More user friendly interface: users can drag & drop suggested keywords to include or exclude them
• Preview: you can watch what your filtr retrieves in real-time, making optimizing your filtr easy
Beyond that, you can also apply a “filtrrank” to your filtr, which means excluding articles that don’t score high in the filtrbox ranking scale, which is a combination of “contextual relevance, popularity and users feedback” – we will see how well this works.
Filtrbox is certainly a useful service and I might be using it instead of google news alerts. At the moment however, being in private beta, the news sources seem to be rather limited, e.g. it retrieved no article for the search term “information overload”. Maybe that’s because the founders think that with their service there won’t be information overload any longer, but I doubt that ;-)
Anyway, useful service, check it out.
Is this a joke? Surprisingly, it’s not.
At first thought it seems to be an unbreakable rule that in order to expand our knowledge, we need to take in (“consume”) new information. Unfortunately, finding relevant information and consuming it takes time and effort – especially in today’s world of information overload this can be quite tedious.
Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we did not have to consume any information and still expand our knowledge as shown in the following picture, therefore sidestepping information overload?
Believe it or not, but there is a way to achieve this. The secret lies in reliable alert services that only inform you if a specific happening has occurred, therefore also telling you something if they keep quiet (so that you know nothing has happened).
One example: you subscribe to an alert service that notifies you if a US tennis player wins a tournament on the ATP tour. If you haven’t received an alert for the last two months and somebody asks you about it, you could tell him that in the last 2 months no US player has won a tournament – without actively following the tennis results.
In other words, you have increased your knowledge over time without having had to consume any information. The beauty of reliable alert services is that they don’t just provide value when they inform you but also if they keep quiet.
Many examples can be found where such alert services would be very useful. The problem today, however, is that it’s not easy to find those alert services. Or very often, they do not exist at all.
NextFeeds.com, a soon-to-be-launched web service, will provide a platform for users to subscribe to a wide range of alert services free of charge and also setup new ones. You can preregister if you want to be informed upon launch.
Kevin Rose started out with a mere $200 funding. Within 18 months, his internet application Digg has become one of the most visited technology media sites and made it into the top 1,000 sites on the net. As a result, estimation of Digg’s current market value go high, reaching $300 milllion and more.
The reason for Digg’s amazing success seems to be obvious: Digg provides a platform for users to vote on articles, these votes then serve as a guideline for other users to identify the needles (good articles) in the haystack, therefore helping to deal with information overload in a better way.
As Techcrunch points out, this is not only Digg’s secret: many successful Web 2.0 services aim to make it easier for people to deal with the mountain of information they are facing every day. And due to the scope of the information overload problem (in my opinion one of the biggest of all, check out The real costs of information overload and IO: The Silent Burden) the value of those services is directly correlated with it – making the ones that really help to deal with information overload highly successful very quickly.
However, in order to understand Digg’s success in detail (and also where its limits are) it is required to digg deeper…
Starting with Diggs value proposition “making it easier to find good articles”: what does “good” actually mean in this context? What are the different factors that make an article “good” and how does Digg help to find those articles?
In the following chart I’ve put down the main factors that I consider to make an article worth reading:
Although the importance of those factors is subjective**, the categories themselves are likely to apply to all readers (did I forget anything?).
The question is: Does Digg help to find the articles that score high in these dimensions? The answer is a mixed one. Digg does well in criteria 3 and 4 because it is relatively easy to get consensus among a crowd whether an article fulfills these. For example, most people would give the same answer when asked whether a certain article is well and humorously written.
However, the Digg algorithm struggles to retrieve articles that are relevant to the user (criteria 1 and 2) as relevancy is highly subjective. For some users the newest article on “The Best 10 SEO Tips” was exactly what they were looking for at that moment – for others it is just irrelevant. And by having to filter the articles to find those that are relevant, Digg falls short of delivering only the articles that the user is interested in.
An attempt to fill the gap will be NextFeeds.com, a free to-be-launched web application that will try out some new ideas to deliver only the relevant information to users (you can preregister to get informed upon launch). More about NextFeeds’ ideas in the following posts.
* For instance, check out Victory for the Topless Front ;-)
** Also, this evaluation is not only different from person to person but my own motivation to read articles changes during the day as well: at work I need to focus on finding relevant information that I can use either immediately or later (categories 1 and 2), while after work it is also considerably important that I get a direct joy from reading articles (categories 3 and 4).
Information Overload is an interesting phenomenon. Everybody knows it’s a major obstacle to productivity but if you ask people you’ll find out that not many are thinking on how they can deal with it in a systematic way.
For instance, do you agree that information overload has a negative impact on your day? And: when have you last taken some time to consciously think how you can deal with it more effectively? I am not talking about quick fix solutions like simply cutting back on information consumption (which is often the subconscious solution), but really spending some time to come up with solutions that reduce the negative impact from information overload without running the risk of missing out on the important news.
For many their honest answer to these two questions implies a certain paradox. It might be a bold statement, but information overload may be a problem with one of the highest “negative impact” to “what is done about it”-ratios.
I’ve been thinking why this is the case and came to the conclusion that it’s mainly due to two factors: one is the incremental costs of IO, causing people to underestimate them, and the other is that information overload’s costs are not very well visible.
The incremental costs of IO can be demonstrated best if we try to quantify them. For instance Basex, a US research firm, made this attempt with a focus on costs due to interruptions from communication media. Basex starts looking at IO’s impact for a knowledge worker per hour before extrapolating it to the whole US economy. The damage that is done are frequent interruptions (reducing productivity) that only feel a little annoying at the moment we experience them. However, at the end of the day (or year), if we take all the costs together it has accumulated to something of enormous size.
I don’t want to get too philosophical here, but the underestimation of incremental things seems to lie in human nature. For example, most people have once realized with surprise how quickly the spending of small amounts of money can add up to something significant. Or if we first hear about interest rates’ impact over a longer period of time, e.g. if we invest in some financial products today, don’t touch or think about them over a decade, and then look to how much it has accumulated. The same phenomenon might be at work with information overload, causing us to underestimate the damage that is done overall.
However, information overload is even nastier than this. In the example with the money spending, we will realize it someday (when we see the bank statement at the latest!). Unfortunately there is nothing that counts the costs of information overload, so even after the damage has been done it is not very well visible. Thus we are not fully aware of the damages and we continue as we did before without adapting to deal with the problem.
Information overload can therefore be seen a silent burden that, despite its well-known existence, might still not get the full treatment it deserves. Every knowledge worker should at least spend some time to think about how to deal with IO in the best possible way – which will lead to a significant long-term increase in productivity. Some advice on this in one of the following posts.
ManagingIO is a blog devoted to Information Overload and its solutions. You are welcome
to comment on this post on ManagingIO.com. Also check out NextFeeds.com, a new and free
web service which tries to contribute to tackle information overload.
Posted by: Nicolas in: Uncategorized
For those of you who are interested, here is my comment on the information overload debate hosted by The Economist and CA (Computer Associates) as mentioned in the previous post:
Technology’s aim never was to simplify our lives. It’s idea is to improve our lives. Simplicity is certainly correlated with the latter goal, but it is not the same. The proposition’s statement (“…if the promise of technology is to simplify our lives, it is failing”) is therefore based on a wrong assumption.
However, it does point to something that many people complain about: technology is often stated as the culprit of information overload causing lost productivity, diminished quality of thought, increased level of stress and so on.
But also this statement is not correct. It’s not the technology itself, but the higher expectations that are set by our line managers, our friends, and ourselves. We could simply stop using technology to get information (it’s optional after all) but we would fall behind in comparison to what our colleagues or friends know.
Therefore you could say that technology is indirectly responsible because it enabled the development to our society where we are expected to be on top of the news. However technology is one of humanity’s greatest achievements which improved our lives in so many ways; the propositions statement sounds a little as if technology as a whole is put on trial.
Information overload should be regarded as an indirect by-product of technology with some negative effects; now the focus should be on finding ways on how to reduce those effects. For this, technology itself might be the answer once again.
I have been a subscriber and devoted reader of , the by far best weekly news magazine I know, for almost 8 years now and was very pleased to get informed by them on a debate they are hosting in cooperation with CA (Computer Associates) that deals with information overload. The central statement, put forward by the “proposition”, states:
“The house believes that if the promise of technology is
to simplify our lives, it is failing.”
”The proposition proposes a resolution for the debate ‘with constructive arguments and the use of supporting material.’ The opposition then opposes the resolution by rebutting these arguments and by bringing its own supporting material to bear. Traditionally, each side has three opportunities to advance its cause, through an opening speaker, a second speaker and a summator.”
Posted by: Nicolas in: Uncategorized
Here’s a list of useful websites/ resources I came across that deal with information overload or closely related subjects. Some of the articles/ studies are not the newest ones, but I preferred quality over publishing dates.
Blogs/ Websites with focus on information overload
Something missing on this list? Share it by commenting to this post!
As stated in this blog’s , estimations on the costs of information overload go up to USD 650 billion a year for the
The reason for this is that those figures are only looking at the direct cost of information overload. For example, the stated figure from of USD 650 billion is only reflecting the costs due to interruptions at work from communication media. The study is based on interviews at US companies which revealed that interruptions consume 28% of the knowledge worker’s day, translating into 28 billion lost man-hours per annum. Multiplying this with an average hourly salary, the cost figure of USD 650 billion is derived.
Many other go into the same direction: the stated costs are mostly direct costs, such as lost productivity, diminished quality of thought, increased level of stress and so on.
However, there is another category of cost which is often overlooked because it is not that obvious. These are the indirect costs of information overload, i.e. the missed opportunities due to the “solutions” that we are forced to apply when dealing with IO. Those solutions, e.g. as suggested , are mostly a form of cutting back on our consumption of information, leading to missing out on information that would have been valuable.
One example: every time we miss out on an interesting movie or documentary on TV we have just become a victim of information overload. Why? Because we could have screened the TV schedule the days before but decided not to due to the amount of information we would have had to go through. The benefit just does not compensate the loss of time; therefore we don’t bother and miss opportunities.
Obviously, there can be many examples found for this, both in private life and arguably more important in business as well. Everybody who is working at a big company has surely come across the phenomenon that we work on something only to find out later that it has been done already (or at least that there has been internal information that would have facilitated our work a lot). But doing extensive research on this beforehand would just take too much time and we would never get to do real work. Lew Platt, former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, is quoted to have said “If only HP knew what HP knows”, which underlines this and shows that knowledge management’s main task is to deal with information overload.
While it is not easy to quantify these indirect costs of information overload, something tells me that they are not smaller than the direct ones, but may actually be many times higher. Whatever the extent of those costs may be, if you take direct and indirect costs together, information overload does indeed seem to be one of the main problems of the year 2008, as Basex claims. And this is not likely to change much in the years to follow.
ManagingIO is a blog devoted to Information Overload and its solutions. You are welcome to comment on this post on . Also check out , a new free web service which tries to contribute to tackle information overload.
1 E.g. have a look at and
2 See some suggestions at . More comments on potential solutions in following posts.