The Info Overload guru is taken by surprise
I was talking to a college student, and she threw me a question: how can she deal with the overwhelming information overload afflicting her life?
She then elaborated, and to my surprise it turned out the overload was not the familiar push-mode problem typical of email; she was talking about pull-mode, specifically, Facebook and RSS.
This was a surprise for two reasons: first, because here was a Gen Y person complaining about Facebook, the social network that her cohort is so famously in love with; and second, because I’d always advocated RSS feeds as a method that alleviates the overload seen in the email inbox. Naturally, I inquired into what was going on.
Turns out, the young woman was checking her Facebook repeatedly throughout the day, practically from wakeup to lights out. She could not resist; it was so interesting to see what was new. My first thought was that she was consuming the inane updates that are so common in Facebook feeds: the iconic cats, the motivational messages, the endless stream of photos of cakes and pies and salads, the antics of friends’ cute babies…
And then I got my second surprise. This student was not checking friends’ posts; it wasn’t that at all. What she was looking at were Facebook interest groups she had joined, and Pages she had Liked. Nor had she joined them frivolously – they were carefully selected, because she’d found them interesting – intellectually stimulating and worth learning from. She had a list of hundreds of those.
What’s more, she also had a huge list of YouTube channels to watch, in addition to TED lectures; and when I mentioned RSS I discovered she had a great many feeds she was consuming through Feedly. All together she had collected some 2,000 channels of incoming information – and she had carefully curated that collection based on a genuine interest and desire to improve herself by learning all that the sources in it had to teach. When I suggested pruning the collection she really looked pained – she felt that the list of sources was a precious outcome of hard work, and cutting it would be an act of vandalism, as it were. And because the feeds were crafted – by design – to be of personal interest to her, she couldn’t stop checking them. She knew she had a problem, but she was unable to help herself.
Information addiction with a twist
Having always felt that Gen Y folks are much better than the image that their elders have of them (the one that marks them as spoiled, selfish, impatient, and so on), I was happy to see this representative of the digital nation expressing intellectual curiosity, intentional management of her online interactions, and awareness of her problem. I was less happy to hear how it caused her distress, and tried to understand her predicament’s causes.
The obvious answer was that she was addicted to Social Media. In that she is not alone; almost everyone today – not only Millennials – is addicted to that, to one extent or another. And an addiction it is: the academic research shows it clearly (for example, take a look at the paper Examination of neural systems sub-serving Facebook “addiction” by Turel et al.).
But less obvious, and therefore far more interesting, was the insight she shared – that she was addicted, not to images of cats, but to the interesting compilation of information feeds she had crafted so carefully and intentionally. In a way, then, she was addicted to the quest for knowledge, a concept not commonly expressed these days when knowledge is everywhere. Or, more precisely, it was a quest for interesting knowledge. Is this a calculated response to the low density of interest in the overall info-flood?
Some personal reflections
Here I need to share a couple of key observations I’ve made years ago, after coming close to the same problem in my own life.
First, you can’t base your intellectual life only on absorbing the product of other people. There’s enough valuable information out there to last you a thousand lifetimes of reading and watching, and with the advent of the World Wide Web (a mere 23 years ago, as you may have forgotten!) it is all accessible to everyone.
And second, I observe that creating new knowledge with my mind creates more value than consuming the knowledge produced by other minds out there. Minute for minute, time I apply to writing, drawing, crafting, problem solving or just plain thinking about stuff generates more value for me – and certainly for others – than the time I passively read even the most interesting blogs, sites, or books.
This is not to say that I don’t read or surf – I was always an avid bookworm! – but I make sure to balance this with actual creative time.
So – what can you do about this?
Helping addicts is a thankless task, since addiction runs deeper than the level you can interact with. Still, I told the Facebook addict what I said above – that if all she’s doing is filling her time to overflowing with reading other people’s thoughts, then she is under-utilizing her life and short-changing her personal potential.
In practical terms, I advocated she put boundaries on her channel consumption. She should – as do I, and as should you – set time slots in the day for reading her feeds and groups. A good place to start is during coffee breaks; another is after you’ve finished some serious work each day – say, not in the morning hours. Details will vary based on your personal habits and work, but it is critical that you internalize the concept of “Now is not a permitted surfing time”.
And do start using some of the time you save for creative work – for instance start a blog, if you haven’t got one; get a hobby; meet people face to face. Then you will experience the difference between passive and active engagement with stuff!