Content Rivers and Information Gluttony

As the festive season was drawing to a close, I –like a large portion of the online population– became concerned about ending the cycle of over-eating. The sense of satiety is easy to numb and hard to get back. It is not only true for food but also for content. Non-physical items can lead to gluttony as easily as the very physical foods and beverages of Yule. Similar mechanisms are at work. Only, content doesn’t have a season. The feast is all year round.

Information overload or gluttony

“Information overload”, I hear you say, “we know that already”. Is it really the problem, though? As Clay Shirky argues in his talk “It’s Not Information Overload. It’s Filter Failure”, information overload is our new environment of plenty and not a problem that needs solving. We celebrate the availability of information in many great ways. Yet we experience problems with it sometimes. It lies upon us to create internal and external filters to manage our time and attention because they are our most precious resources.

Excited by the wealth of information available, we lay the traps ourselves by using the tools in an unsustainable manner. I’ve been doing it myself. At some point, I was following three hundred Tumblr accounts and around four hundred RSS feeds. Soon, I started operating under the impression that I should see every item and extract value out of them. These expectations were unreasonable and they were making me crazy. I cut more than half of my RSS feeds. I left Tumblr for a while. Only now that I have returned a wiser man, do I understand more about this information gluttony.

More and More

As humans we’re drawn towards content. There’s a drive to accumulate experience and learn about things because it helps us survive. Putting aside immediate threats, it helps us reach our other goals too. This drive, however, has a tendency to extend. Soon, we start consuming content because it might help us reach a potential goal. Our scope widens out of proportion. That’s also why we hop from entry to entry on Wikipedia and catch ourselves only four hours later. This is why people keep updating their Tumblr dashboard to see more shiny things.

Yet, if we go down this path, neophilia – the love of novelty – becomes the purpose. In the mass of indiscriminate content, true interestingness constitutes a surprise reward. As our brains try to unveil the secret pattern which leads to more such rewards, it sends us on a quest for more and more content. Infinite scrolling or infinite pagination can keep us on a site or service for hours.

Too Little Information To Decide What To Ignore

Dumb aggregation tools collect an endless chronological sequence of content items. The absence of an unread count makes it into a “river of content”. Somehow, this should be enough to change expectations and make it OK. It doesn’t always work and we get stuck on sites like Tumblr or Facebook.
Understanding what features of such content rivers cause you to slip into gluttony is key.

  1. Piles make us want to get to the end…
  2. but rivers of content have no edges or limits. Trying to consume all that passes on our screens is futile. So, we should know what we can safely ignore…
  3. yet, rivers of content are often indiscriminate messes which make it difficult to decide what to read and what to throw out. Posts are often unstructured and stripped from categories: source and date are all we have to decide. Links on Twitter are inscrutable shortened URLs so we don’t even get that precious little indication regarding the source.

Deciding with certainty which pieces you can ignore is important for content consumers as well as curators. Design can help us with that. As publishers and designers we should ask ourselves what relevant information we can provide to help our audience decide what they should or shouldn’t read. Metadata can be richer and more relevant.

Lists and Folders

Until then, we might have to use old tools to organize our incoming streams and restrain ourselves. Lists and categories provide order and visibility. They help us decide what to pay attention to and what we can ignore. To come back to food, you have better chances to avoid picking up candy if you make a list of groceries in advance and stick to it.

Mark Zuckerberg is often quoted as saying: “Nobody wants to make lists”. Most people don’t want to, yet, some order must be imposed if we are to stop treating content like formless stuff. Lists have a long and rich history in helping us make sense of the infinite, as Umberto Eco says. What makes list-making unpopular on the web is the lack of a strong incentive. and Google+ both encourage their users to make lists and categories.

  1. Google+ asks you to put the people you follow into circles.
  2. functions best with public Twitter user lists and, hence, provides a strong incentive to use them.

Yet, there’s something to note about categorization in Twitter lists, Google+ circles and folders in RSS readers. They categorize the sources but not the items they publish. Put a Twitter user in a list and then, regardless of what she publishes, the content is going to be in the list. Same with Google+ and most RSS feed readers. You put a feed in a category or folder and then, the items from that feed are all stuck together. There’s a general lack of granularity and an opportunity for more intelligent tools., however, is different. It shows the source and puts the links in categories like Technology, Business or Education automagically. The result is not perfect but –oh so– helpful. I would love to see other tools do the same.

Bearing this limitation in mind and with practice, it is possible to gain a little control back. Take a little time aside, while we’re still in the beginning of the year, to review your lists of sources and the folders/categories they’re in. It is worth doing.

Image credit: Portion depicting Gluttony in Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things”.

I wrote « Content Rivers and Information Gluttony » on the blog, it was originally published on January 13, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.