Yes it IS Information Overload, Clay Shirky, not only Filter Failure

Posted on May 18, 2010 · Posted in Analysis and Opinion

You can see it on Twitter every day, a year and a half after he coined it: Clay Shirky’s famous Filter Failure meme,

It’s Not Information Overload. It’s Filter Failure”.

It’s catchy. It’s thought-provoking. And yet, I believe, it’s also misleading.

This meme started with an excellent keynote Clay gave at Web 2.0 Expo NY in late 2008, and I strongly recommend you watch the video if you haven’t already: it’s very insightful and interesting. If you’re too overloaded to spend 23 minutes, some of the ideas are also in a CJR interview here.

Filter cigarette stubs

To sum it up, Clay says Information Overload is not new; it’s been around since antiquity, and really took off with Gutenberg’s printing press. But in the print era, a publisher had to filter what to publish, because it cost them up front and might not sell; this filtered the available information at the source. The Internet introduced “Post-Gutenberg economics”: it’s now possible to publish anything for free, so the filter is gone. Therefore, there is no such thing as information overload, there’s only filter failure, which we should solve by developing new and better filtering paradigms.

Which makes a lot of sense, except that I’ve spent the past 15 years of my professional life helping knowledge workers who are driven to distraction by a very obvious and real affliction they call Information Overload. So how can Mr. Shirky, a leading expert, say it’s not even a problem?

On one level, it may just be a logical error: just because A is caused by B doesn’t mean that A isn’t a real problem. The Black Death was caused by flea-carrying rats; yet no one would say “It wasn’t a terrible plague, it was a pest-control failure”. It was a very real plague caused by failure to kill the rats; and Information Overload is a very real problem caused (in part) by Filter Failure.

More importantly, I think Clay and I define “Information Overload” – the “It” in the meme – differently. As he states in the CJR article, “[having] more information in one place than one human being could deal with in one lifetime… is almost the definition of information overload”. If this is the definition, then I agree it isn’t a problem – and certainly not THE problem – at all. Who cares if there’s a lot of information in a library, as long as you don’t have to read it all?

The problem of Information Overload as I see it, the one that’s robbing millions of people of their productivity, sanity and quality of life, is definitely new, going back to the proliferation of email in the nineties. It is not that there’s a lot of information; it is that there’s a lot more information that we are expected to read than we have time to read it in. It’s about the dissonance between that requirement and our ability to comply with it, and this requirement was not there in Alexandria or in Gutenberg’s Europe: you were free to read only what you wanted to and had time for. This is what has changed, not just the filtering. Take email: the real problem isn’t spam, which is easily dealt with; it’s the scores or hundreds of work-related messages you receive each day, and the fact that replying intelligently to even the fraction that is really important forces many to work late into the night, 7 days  a week. This is an intensely real nightmare for managers, engineers, and many others. And this is why Email Overload is a problem and RSS feed overload is much less so: there is an expectation (express or implied) that you must go through all the mail in your Inbox; there is no such expectation for an RSS reader.

That said, is this problem caused by Filter Failure? To some extent it is: when you had to stuff your mimeographed interoffice memos in envelopes, the inconvenience was a filter; when you got your reprints on paper from the company librarian, that too was a filter. The Reply to All button is a major filter-buster. However, I perceive other causes, as you readers of my blog know. In particular, there are cultural reasons for the abundance of workplace email: CYA, publish or perish, mistrust, escalation, and so on.

So if Clay is simply talking about the “OMG there are so many publications out there I will never read” kind of IO, while I am talking of the “I will never clear this Inbox in time to take my kid to the game” kind, why do I take issue with him? I do so because stating “there is no such thing as information overload” does not make that distinction; it makes it sound like all the people who claim they have an IO  problem are whiners and luddites. It also reduces the motivation to deal with Information Overload, and this leaks over into “my” kind of IO, where such motivation is highly beneficial to people. And lastly, emphasizing that it’s “only” Filter Failure takes attention away from the many solutions that address IO from other angles, such as understanding and changing the underlying workplace culture. Which Clay himself would probably welcome, since he concludes the lecture with the statement that we will need to rethink social norms to fix the issue. Amen to that!

What do you think?