Information overload (also known as infobesity or infoxication)
is a term used to describe the difficulty of understanding an issue
and effectively making decisions when one has too much information
about that issue. The term is popularized by
Alvin Toffler in his
bestselling 1970 book Future Shock, but is mentioned in a 1964 book by
Bertram Gross, The Managing of Organizations. Speier et al. (1999)
Information overload occurs when the amount of input to a system
exceeds its processing capacity. Decision makers have fairly limited
cognitive processing capacity. Consequently, when information overload
occurs, it is likely that a reduction in decision quality will occur.
In recent years, the term "information overload" has evolved into
phrases such as information glut and data smog (Data Smog, Shenk,
1997). What was once a term grounded in cognitive psychology has
evolved into a rich metaphor used outside the world of academia.
The advent of modern information technology has been a primary driver
of information overload on multiple fronts: in quantity produced, ease
of dissemination, and breadth of audience reached. Longstanding
technological factors have been further intensified by the rise of
social media and the attention economy.
Clay Shirky, in a speech at the Web 2.0 Expo New York in 2008, has
indicated that information overload in the modern age is a consequence
of a deeper problem, which he calls filter failure.
1 Origin of the term
2.1 Early history
2.3 18th century
2.4 Information age
3 General causes
3.2 Web accuracy
4.1 Responses of business and government
4.2 Dealing with information overload
4.4 The problem of organization
5 Related terms
6 See also
8 Further reading
9 External links
Origin of the term
One of the first social scientists to notice the negative effects of
information overload was the sociologist
Georg Simmel (1858–1918),
who hypothesized that the overload of sensations in the modern urban
world caused city dwellers to become jaded and interfered with their
ability to react to new situations. The social psychologist Stanley
Milgram (1933–1984) later used the concept of information overload
to explain bystander behavior.
Psychologists have recognized for many years that humans have a
limited capacity to store current information in the memory.
George Armitage Miller
George Armitage Miller was very influential in this
regard, proposing that people can process about seven chunks of
information at a time. Miller says that under overload conditions,
people become confused and are likely to make poorer decisions based
on the information they have received as opposed to making informed
A quite early example of the term "information overload" can be found
in an article by Jacob Jacoby, Donald Speller and Carol Kohn Berning,
who conducted an experiment on 192 housewives which was said to
confirm the hypothesis that more information about brands would lead
to poorer decision making.
Long before that, the concept was introduced by Diderot, although it
was not by the term "information overload":
As long as the centuries continue to unfold, the number of books will
grow continually, and one can predict that a time will come when it
will be almost as difficult to learn anything from books as from the
direct study of the whole universe. It will be almost as convenient to
search for some bit of truth concealed in nature as it will be to find
it hidden away in an immense multitude of bound volumes.
— Denis Diderot, "Encyclopédie" (1755)
Information overload has been documented throughout periods where
advances in technology have increased a production of information.
As early as the 3rd or 4th century BC, people regarded information
overload with disapproval. Around this time, in Ecclesiastes
12:12, the passage revealed the writer's comment "of making books
there is no end" and in 1st century AD,
Seneca the Elder commented,
that "the abundance of books is distraction". Similar complaints
around the growth of books were also mentioned in China.
Around 1440 AD,
Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press and
this marked another period of information proliferation. As a result
of lowering production costs, generation of printed materials ranging
from pamphlets, manuscripts to books were made available to the
Scholars complained about the abundance of
information for a variety of reasons, such as the diminishing quality
of text as printers rushed to print manuscripts and the supply of new
information being distracting and difficult to manage.
Many grew concerned with the rise of books in Europe, especially in
England, France, and Germany. From 1750 to 1800, there was a 150%
increase in the production of books. In 1702, jurist and
philosopher Christian Thomasius expressed concerns about the
overproduction of books, comparing it to an epidemic. Thomasius felt
with more books being published, the standards of publishing a book
decreased. In 1795, German bookseller and publisher Johann Georg
Heinzmann said "no nation printed as much as the Germans" and
expresses concern about Germans reading ideas and no longer creating
original thoughts and ideas.
In the second half of the 20th Century, advances in computer and
information technology led to the creation of the Internet.
In the modern information age, information overload is experienced as
distracting and unmanageable information such as email spam, email
notifications, instant messages, Tweets and Facebook updates in the
context of the work environment.
Social media has resulted in
"social information overload," which can occur on sites like
Facebook, and technology is changing to serve our social culture.
In today's society, day-to-day activities increasingly involve the
technological world where information technology exacerbates the
number of interruptions that occur in the work environment. A 2012
survey by McKinsey Global Institute found that the average worker
spends 28% of work time managing email. Adding this decade's use
of the Internet, management may be even more disrupted in their
decision making, and may result in more poor decisions. Thus, the
PIECES framework mentions information overload as a potential problem
in existing information systems.
As the world moves into a new era of globalization, an increasing
number of people are connecting to the
Internet to conduct their own
research and are given the ability to produce as well as consume
the data accessed on an increasing number of websites. Users are now
classified as active users because more people in society are
participating in the Digital and Information Age. More and more
people are considered to be active writers and viewers because of
their participation. This flow has created a new life where we are
now in danger of becoming dependent on this method of access to
information. Therefore, we see an information overload from the access
to so much information, almost instantaneously, without knowing the
validity of the content and the risk of misinformation.
According to Sonora Jha of Seattle University, journalists use the Web
to conduct research, get information regarding interviewing sources
and press releases and update news online.
Lawrence Lessig has
described this as the "read-write" nature of the Internet.
“The resulting abundance of – and desire for more (and/or higher
quality) – information has come to be perceived in some
circles, paradoxically, as the source of as much productivity loss as
gain." Information Overload can lead to "information anxiety,"
which is the gap between the information we understand and the
information that we think that we must understand. As people consume
increasing amounts of information in the form of news stories,
e-mails, blog posts, Facebook statuses, Tweets,
Tumblr posts and other
new sources of information, they become their own editors,
gatekeepers, and aggregators of information. One concern in this
field is that massive amounts of information can be distracting and
negatively impact productivity and decision-making. Another concern is
the "contamination" of useful information with information that might
not be entirely accurate (Information pollution). Research done is
often done with the view that IO is a problem that can be understood
in a rational way.
The general causes of information overload include:
A rapidly increasing rate of new information being produced, also
known as journalism of assertion, which is a continuous news culture
where there is a premium put on how quickly news can be put out; this
leads to a competitive advantage in news reporting, but also affects
the quality of the news stories reported.:38–45
The ease of duplication and transmission of data across the Internet
An increase in the available channels of incoming information (e.g.
telephone, e-mail, instant messaging, RSS)
Ever-increasing amounts of historical information to dig through
Contradictions and inaccuracies in available information
A low signal-to-noise ratio
A lack of a method for comparing and processing different kinds of
The pieces of information are unrelated or do not have any overall
structure to reveal their relationships
E-mail remains a major source of information overload, as people
struggle to keep up with the rate of incoming messages. As well as
filtering out unsolicited commercial messages (spam), users also have
to contend with the growing use of email attachments in the form of
lengthy reports, presentations and media files.
A December 2007
New York Times
New York Times blog post described E-mail as "a $650
Billion Drag on the Economy", and the
New York Times
New York Times reported in
April 2008 that "E-MAIL has become the bane of some people's
professional lives" due to information overload, yet "none of [the
current wave of high-profile
Internet startups focused on email]
really eliminates the problem of e-mail overload because none helps us
In January 2011, Eve Tahmincioglu, a writer for MSNBC, wrote an
article titled "Dealing with a bloated inbox." Compiling statistics
with commentary, she reported that there were 294 billion emails
sent each day in 2010, up 50 billion from 2009. Quoted in the
article, workplace productivity expert Marsha Egan stated that people
need to differentiate between working on e-mail and sorting through
it. This meant that rather than responding to every email right away,
users should delete unnecessary emails and sort the others into action
or reference folders first. Egan then went on to say "We are more
wired than ever before, and as a result need to be more mindful of
managing email or it will end up managing us."
The Daily Telegraph
The Daily Telegraph quoted Nicholas Carr, former executive editor of
Harvard Business Review
Harvard Business Review and the author of The Shallows: What The
Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, as saying that email exploits a basic
human instinct to search for new information, causing people to become
addicted to "mindlessly pressing levers in the hope of receiving a
pellet of social or intellectual nourishment". His concern is shared
by Eric Schmidt, chief executive of Google, who stated that
"instantaneous devices" and the abundance of information people are
exposed to through e-mail and other technology-based sources could be
having an impact on the thought process, obstructing deep thinking,
understanding, impedes the formation of memories and makes learning
more difficult. This condition of "cognitive overload" results in
diminished information retaining ability and failing to connect
remembrances to experiences stored in the long-term memory, leaving
thoughts "thin and scattered". This is also manifest in the
In addition to e-mail, the
World Wide Web
World Wide Web has provided access to
billions of pages of information. In many offices, workers are given
unrestricted access to the Web, allowing them to manage their own
research. The use of search engines helps users to find information
quickly. However, information published online may not always be
reliable, due to the lack of authority-approval or a compulsory
accuracy check before publication. This results in people having to
cross-check what they read before using it for decision-making, which
takes up more time. There are "enormous disproportions between the
Internet sources and the possibility of processing them by
the human brain."
Responses of business and government
Recent research suggests that an "attention economy" of sorts will
naturally emerge from information overload, allowing Internet
users greater control over their online experience with particular
regard to communication mediums such as e-mail and instant messaging.
This could involve some sort of cost being attached to e-mail
messages. For example, managers charging a small fee for every e-mail
received – e.g. $1.00 – which the sender must pay from
their budget. The aim of such charging is to force the sender to
consider the necessity of the interruption. However, such a suggestion
undermines the entire basis of the popularity of e-mail, namely that
e-mails are free.
Economics often assumes that people are rational in that they have the
knowledge of their preferences and an ability to look for the best
possible ways to maximize his preferences. People are seen as selfish
and focus on what pleases them. Looking at various parts on their own,
results in the negligence of the other parts that work alongside it
that create the effect of IO. Lincoln suggests possible ways to look
at IO in a more holistic approach by recognizing the many possible
factors that play a role in IO and how they work together to achieve
Dealing with information overload
There are various solutions that can be used to mitigate IO. It is
difficult to say whether or not there is a solution that can solve the
issue altogether, but many methods have been suggested. Based on the
definition of information overload, there are two general approaches
to deal with it: 1) reduce the amount of incoming information,and 2)
enhance the ability to process information
Johnson advises discipline which helps mitigate interruptions and for
the elimination of push or notifications. He explains that
notifications pull people's attentions away from their work and into
social networks and e-mails. He also advises that people stop using
their iPhones as alarm clocks which means that the phone is the first
thing that people will see when they wake up leading to people
checking their e-mail right away.
Clay Shirky states:
What we're dealing with now is not the problem of information
overload, because we're always dealing (and always have been dealing)
with information overload... Thinking about information overload isn't
accurately describing the problem; thinking about filter failure is.
The use of
Internet applications and add-ons such as the Inbox Pause
add-on for Gmail. This add-on does not reduce the amount of
e-mails that people get but it pauses the inbox. Burkeman in his
article talks about the feeling of being in control is the way to deal
with information overload which might involve self-deception. He
advises to fight irrationality with irrationality by using add-ons
that allow you to pause your inbox or produce other results. Reducing
large amounts of information is key.
Dealing with IO from a social network site such as Facebook, a study
done by Humboldt University showed some strategies that students
take to try and alleviate IO while using Facebook. Some of these
strategies included: Prioritizing updates from friends who were
physically farther away in other countries, hiding updates from
less-prioritized friends, deleting people from their friends list,
narrowing the amount of personal information shared, and deactivating
the Facebook account.
Media scholars are conducting research to promote awareness of
information overload. Kyunghye Kim, Mia Liza A. Lustria, Darrell
Burke, and Nahyun Kwon conducted a study regarding people who have
encountered information overload while searching for health
information about cancer and what the impact on them was. The
conclusion drawn from the research discusses how health information
should be distributed and that information campaigns should be held to
prevent irrelevant or incorrect information being circulated on the
There are many books published to encourage awareness of information
overload and to train the reader to process information more
consciously and effectively. Books like "Surviving Information
Overload" by Kevin A. Miller, "Managing Information Overload" by
Lynn Lively, and "The Principle of Relevance" by Stefania
Lucchetti all deal with the topic.
Clay Johnson, the author of the book "The Information Diet", uses a
metaphor for Information Overload by comparing the information we
consume to a diet. The idea is that people tend to consume the
information that they find to be interesting, which he says is similar
to people "eating dessert first". The use of social networks, blogs,
and online videos has accentuated this because people share what they
find interesting with all their friends online causing it to spread.
There is a need to create cheap, popular information and this is how
the media has defined itself today; by producing information like
this. He compares it to the food industry which industrialized and
created incentives for producing a large amount of cheap, popular
The problem of organization
Illustration for an article published in Diario Uno (es)
Decision makers performing complex tasks have little if any excess
cognitive capacity. Narrowing one's attention as a result of the
interruption is likely to result in the loss of information cues, some
of which may be relevant to completing the task. Under these
circumstances, performance is likely to deteriorate. As the number or
intensity of the distractions/interruptions increases, the decision
maker's cognitive capacity is exceeded, and performance deteriorates
more severely. In addition to reducing the number of possible cues
attended to, more severe distractions/interruptions may encourage
decision makers to use heuristics, take shortcuts, or opt for a
satisficing decision, resulting in lower decision accuracy.
Some cognitive scientists and graphic designers have emphasized the
distinction between raw information and information in a form we can
use in thinking. In this view, information overload may be better
viewed as organization underload. That is, they suggest that the
problem is not so much the volume of information but the fact that we
can not discern how to use it well in the raw or biased form it is
presented to us. Authors who have taken this tack include graphic
artist and architect
Richard Saul Wurman
Richard Saul Wurman and statistician and
cognitive scientist Edward Tufte. Wurman uses the term information
anxiety to describe our attitude toward the volume of information in
general and our limitations in processing it. Tufte primarily
focuses on quantitative information and explores ways to organize
large complex datasets visually to facilitate clear thinking. Tufte's
writing is important in such fields as information design and visual
literacy, which deal with the visual communication of information.
Tufte coined the term "chartjunk" to refer to useless,
non-informative, or information-obscuring elements of quantitative
information displays, such as the use of graphics to overemphasize the
importance of certain pieces of data or information.
The similar term "information pollution" was coined by Jakob Nielsen
The term "interruption overload" has begun to appear in newspapers
such as the Financial Times
"TMI" (too much information), an initialism alluding to information
overload but often used in jest
"TL;DR" (too long; didn't read), another initialism alluding to
information overload, this one normally used derisively.
Continuous Partial Attention
Age of Interruption
Information filtering system
Lexicographic information cost
Too Much To Know, a 2011 book about information overload
Accelerando, a 2005 science fiction novel about information overload
and accelerating change
Data Smog, a 1997 book about information overload
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