Information Overload and the Social Internet

Information Overload and the Social Internet

Due to the Internet  our world  has become increasingly bigger. More and more people are becoming connected with each other. Web logs appear like mushrooms after the rain, giving us all kinds of information on every conceivable subject from every conceivable corner of the world.

Want to know the Top Ten meals served in the restaurants of New Delhi or New York? Or the latest fashion on the streets of Rio de Janeiro? No problem; somewhere out there someone is writing about it.

So, whatever your cup of tea is, the Internet is the place to be if you want to stay informed about the latest developments.

We read articles every day on the Internet. From news items to blog entries to chitchat on our favorite social Internet hangouts. We browse the headlines and, occasionally, read a bit more. Sometimes we ‘digg it’, give it ‘kudos’ or the ‘thumbs up’. On rare occasions we actually leave behind some comment, usually in the form of praise or thanks, and move on.

But the Internet isn’t only about information; it has also become more and more a place of venting personal opinions and socializing with friends and fellow users. At the numerous social networks we gather more friends; we follow them around, watch what they find, or write, or think. Sounds like a buzzing, exciting place to be.

However, something is going on that doesn’t sit right. The last thing one would expect to happen is apathy.

Whether we’re talking about the readers or the writers, we can see that instead of getting closer to each other, we’re drifting away. Complaints like getting too many messages in the various mailboxes we own, or useless or unasked for information within these messages, are bountiful. As a result we’re not as excited anymore as we used to be. Or as we think we should be.

We can see it happening everywhere. Former popular social networks are becoming stale, or their users are leaving, jumping on the next network hype. Or they simply give up, and withdraw into the private space behind their computers.

Courtesy Allan Young.

Courtesy Allan Young.

Some might call this a matter of ‘information overload’. Like our computer – the model so often (wrongly) used to represent our brain – can freeze or crash, so apparently we simply shut down. Or shut up. I’m not so sure. Our brain has the capacity to deal with all the information we receive these days, and even more. It’s just that we are not used to deal with all the different voices.

As human beings, we are social creatures. No offense, but we like to travel in packs. We need fellow human beings to socialize with, to communicate with and exchange information. By nature we surround ourselves with like-minded persons. We could depend on our ‘family’, our ‘tribe’, our ‘group of like minded’ to guide us and to protect us. And to agree with us.

We talk about ‘our’ community whether it’s the neighborhood or city we live in, or country, with which we share certain ideas and convictions. And now, within the vast universe we call the Web, we’re starting to realize that the old ‘group boundaries’ are getting vague, fluid, or have disappeared completely. Not until now, we’re confronted with different ideas, different outlooks, and different behavior. Of course, we are used to dealing with differences. To a certain extent, that is. At least the people we used to meet would share some common ground with us, being fellow citizens, co-workers, etc. Nowadays we seem to encounter people we don’t share anything else with but the same planet. And sometimes, we feel, even that could be challenged.

In regard of the overflowing of our mailboxes from our friends at our social networks, I can understand the moaning and sighs. Constantly being asked to have a look, to review, become a friend, refer this or digg that. It’s not what these networks were intended to be about. I mean, no matter how much I love my real life friends, and value their opinions; I wouldn’t want to have them around 24/7!

Image courtesy The New York Times.

Image courtesy The New York Times.

Although the web has given us access to a greater social community, we haven’t adapted yet.

With the people we have to deal with in our every day life, now we also have to deal with all those on the web. We read, and write, and answer, and watch, and we’re trying to keep up.

The global village was heralded as being a wonderful thing; the whole world would unite. But we forgot who we are, and where we stand in our evolution. Socially speaking we’re not capable to relate to such a large group of people. Socially, we’re still in the tribal stage. And the way we handle strange ideas, deal with new concepts or any other information that lie beyond what we’re used to, hasn’t changed either. We either defend our own ideas, or attack the other. Built in to our minds is the need to determine who or what is right, and who or what is wrong.

It’s not that the world has become more complex all of a sudden, or that all of these different views appeared overnight. They have always existed but now, through our own invention, we’re getting the unfiltered version of it. Right here, in our living rooms.

A majority of people feel like they are lost, uncertain of the ‘right way’. Uncertain even if there is a right way. The moment we think we’ve found some truth, we get information that tells us the opposite. When we want to choose sides – which is an old primate survival technique – we can’t decide. Who is right, and who is wrong was never a simple question but we could count on our group to find a consensus. Not anymore. Reluctantly it begins to dawn on us that we have to make up our mind ourselves. And that’s something we aren’t used to do.

This not only happens on a personal level. Every group or institution that used to tell us what to know, what to do, and what to think; our leaders of society, religion, industry and media, are getting nervous and confused too.

Politicians are getting nervous because the masses know too much, or at least they have the possibility to find out for themselves what’s going on. Governments are desperately trying to maintain, and sometimes enforce, their national boundaries (and with that, their political views) on the virtual world. At the same time they feel they need the Internet to stay in touch with their voters and to monitor popular opinion.

Scientists warn us about what’s being published on the net, claiming it to be unverifiable; they point out that writers don’t use references, as they should. And therefore can’t be true. Or at least isn’t proved. But they are using the Web to publish new theories and discoveries, keeping track of the work of their colleagues, and following discussions about ethics.

Journalists complain about bloggers because they move into their territory – and at the same time they use the material they get from bloggers who happen to be in ‘hot zones’ around the world.

The movie and music industries are trying to impose restrictions on what and when people can view and listen to. Simultaneously, they are viewing the Web as a platform to do their business. Although their warnings, complaints, and criticisms are not without their merits, we should also be very aware of what these groups are attempting to do.

We are being challenged. What’s so special about this particular challenge is that we have created it ourselves. For the first time since we became Homo sapiens, the ‘thinking man’ almost 100.000 years ago, we have to think for ourselves.

The above is just scratching the surface of the problem of apathy, both on part of the readers, and of the writers. Another part of the problem lies within the technology being used. Let’s take look at the ‘social networks’.

‘Social’ is being defined as:

  1. a party of people assembled to promote sociability and communal activity marked by friendly companionship with others
  2. living together or enjoying life in communities or organized groups
  3. (of birds and animals) tending to move or live together in groups or colonies of the same kind
  4. composed of sociable people or formed for the purpose of sociability
  5. relating to human society and its members
  6. relating to or belonging to or characteristic of high society

The social networks are either ‘just’ a place where we bookmark sites we have liked, giving our friends and followers with similar interests the opportunity to do the same. Or they are places for exposing our egos to the fullest, and at the same time hiding behind, sometimes even several, fake identities. Social interaction is usually limited to quick remarks.

So much on ‘communal activity’. Not to mention even that a big chunk of the participants are actually using it to do business. Social networks have been set up with all the best intentions but are missing the point.

Image courtedsy All Things Digital.

Image courtedsy Joy of Tech.

The same goes for the blogs we visit and read (do we really always read them?), and then place in our bookmarks in our favorite social network. Even if we do react on a blog entry, it stays with a single comment. Unless the site has the means of telling me that someone else, or the writer, has placed another comment, I would have to remember to go back and see if there has been any kind of activity. A healthy discussion is difficult to start, and even more difficult to continue. This creates a feeling of being alone out there. Or, as one blogger wrote after being sick: “For all I know, I could have dropped dead and nobody would give a damn”.

There isn’t much we can do about all of this. It’s a matter of time; we have to grow, and learn how to deal with the multitude of information we have access to. We should also realize it’s not something we can achieve by changing the system or bringing in new technologies. It would help, no doubt, but mainly it falls on us, as individuals, to rise up to the challenge our brains have given us.

Once, a teacher of mine, listened patiently to some students who were telling him about all the information they were collecting, how much they knew, and how well informed everybody was. After that, he smiled, leaned forward, and asked; “That’s brilliant. And what have you DONE with all that?”

With all the information at our fingertips, what are you DOING with it? What’s the use of information if it just sits there in your memory banks, occasionally brought out to impress your friends or enemies? What are you doing to improve YOUR world?

Our access to information could, should, change our perspective. I’m not talking about changing the world; I’m talking about you. Did it change your behavior, the way you make your everyday decisions? Are you challenging your boundaries, your long held thoughts, ideas, and convictions?

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