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I feel this is one of the big up and coming problems with society (well, first world society, but in a way that affects its dealings with the rest of society).

InformationOverload is the problem of dealing with the sheer amount of information available. It is the common ground between sorting through the news, sorting through email spam, and the problem of how to build a search engine. It is the problem of reading articles on the web, and getting the feeling that each one was important and valuable, and then afterwards deciding that you spent too much time reading articles on the web. The first problem is that there is too much junk to sort through; the deeper problem is that there is too much good stuff to sort through.

There are many ConsequencesOfInformationOverload.

I feel wikis are a powerful weapon in the battle against InformationOverload, and I feel they could become even more so in the future. See WikiVsInformationOverload.


Note that often in discussions of “information overload”, the incoming information is called “news items”; even though the incoming information may not be “news” in the sense of “belongs in a newspaper”.

Some solutions require other people (the original author or a third-party editor/reviewer/summarizer) to help.

See Also



Occasionally some wiki do an excellent job fighting information overload. How do they do this? What can we do in situations where they don’t work so well?

Nearly all the techniques we mentioned earlier can be used in Wiki:

Situations wiki don’t work so well: … WikiSpam … … ForestFire


JonathanRoes mentioned things that were later integrated into the above text

We need to change our perspective and attitude towards information accumulation and use. x-ref the ADD culture war, PairProgramming (Wiki:PairProgramming, TeachingByPairProgramming). An interesting related post by Marshall Brain.

I think “Information Overload” is something said by people who don’t know how to handle all the information available to them.

It’s not that there’s too much information- please make less.

It’s that when we come into new powers, we have to figure it out, and it’s not easy.

It’s like 13 year olds in martial arts- they keep tripping over their feet. Because their body is changing on them.

Same with us.

that would be me, one of those people who talk about information overload because we don’t know how to handle it. i’m not, however, saying “please make less”, hell no. but so far i haven’t found anything that lets me handle it in a satisfactory way. and i speedread already, use a lot of filtering and delegation, and it’s still overloading me.

I would strongly recommend that anyone who feels InformationOverload, to do the following:

  • Make a list of the benefits of being informed up to the minute.
  • Make a list of the costs of being informed up to the minute.
  • Cut out 90% of the information that you take in.
  • Replace that time with something that helps you reach your goals.

If you do that, then you’ll stop feeling InformationOverload.

I know myself, that- when I’m feeling InformationOverload, it’s because my energy’s being drawn out into the world. It’s being drawn out unnecessarily. When I’m suffering InformationOverload, I’ve developed a warped sense of proportion- how much something is worth. That’s when I need to reevaluate. Say, “What’s this giving me? What’s it costing me? What would I get if I did something else?”

Do I really need to read a magazine article on how batteries are a limiting factor in the computer technology? I already know that. I know that well. But even if I didn’t know it, I still wouldn’t need to know it. Knowing about battery power in computers doesn’t change my behavior one bit. I wouldn’t do anything different than I did before, except maybe wish and hope for a longer lasting battery. But I’d learn all of that incidentally, on an as-needed basis.

Net result? Cutting out that magazine article, I lose nothing, (zero!,) and I get to use my time usefully.

I think people put waaaay too much trust in knowledge and “being informed.” There’s a pleasure that comes with receiving information, like some sort of relaxing drug. We tell ourselves, “Oh, I’m just becoming informed,” but if we think about it honestly, most of that “getting informed” is completely unnecessary, and had no result on our actions. We need more “making things happen,” I would think. I generally argue pretty firmly for the “Act” corner of ThinkTalkAct. If you’re feeling InformationOverload, I’d say, “Well, get off the Talk arm.”

(Why “talk?” Because communicating with people via written stuff is a form of speech act, even though you’re not moving your mouth. I guess I consider “think” to be a purely internal conversation, rather one that’s happening with other people.)

If you’re feeling InformationOverload, I would either:

  • Stop talking, start Thinking.
  • Stop talking, start Acting.

If you’re thinking, you don’t feel information overload- you’re off in your own little world. (Or, rather, I should say, the world goes off into it’s own little world, and you get to sit, patiently, for as long as you like, just you, your piece of paper, your pen, and your desk. It is very comforting and relaxing. You also find your inner direction, listening to your inner voice.)

If you’re acting, than information overload is not a problem. You’re probably struggling with a lack of information at this point. When you have clear specific goals, it’s so easy to properly value things. “I’m making a robot. What do I care that there’s a trial about Foo half-way around the world? Irrelevent to my present mission. I’m busy soldering wires to chip holders, and testing my transistors.”

I believe InformationOverload is an internal problem. It’s not an external problem. No amount of technology fixes would solve it. You would never feel confident that you had “the whole picture.” (Impossible.) You’d always want more and more information. You’d never feel “up to date.” Events would keep happening.

That’s my take on it at any rate.

I’ve felt InformationOverload, but it’s something that I haven’t felt in a long time now. One day, I’ll say about InformationOverload what I say about “Boredom.”

“Oh yeah… Boredom…”

“I remember feeling that…”

“I was like,… 14 or something…”

“Yeah,… Boredom… Kinda weird feeling.”

(I think the reason people are bored, is because there are programs in them making it so that they can’t persue what they really want to persue, deep in their Soul. Since the inhibitor programs have cut them off from everything that really enlives them, what really matters, they have to persue something that doesn’t matter to them. The result, predictably, is boredom. Some people have other theories.)

Similarly about InformationOverload. I think there are expectations that “receiving information” shouldn’t cost anything; we mentally don’t budget for it, somehow. I’ve seen this a lot. Many people laugh a little bit and show some surprise when I say, “Of course it’s easy. Of course it’s trivial. But Trivial things take time.Everything is trivial. It all takes time. Time is the golden currency.

I don’t know; I have too much to say about the subject. I should stop soon.

For some reason, people rely very very heavily- too much so, on learned information. Maybe it’s a by-product of our heavy use of computers, and how we think about computers. We focus on: “You get the information, and then you copy it into your brain, and then you’re an upgraded computer.”

This isn’t a new thing, I don’t think. Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than Knowledge,” and I think he was talking a little bit about this.

And Napoleon Hill wrote a lot about how much people read, think, and then never do anything with what they learned. How so many of us are just passive. This may be a bit harsh, but I get the "Learned Helplessness" feeling here.

Eh, … I struggle with this post. I wish for Skype, so I could talk, listen, and we could collect a model together.

I think one of the reasons my messages are too long, is because I’m waiting to hear for an answer, but I don’t get one, so I keep on talking, in order to draw one out from you. And then you’re still silent, so I write some more…


  • If you’re feeling it, rethink your decisions.

WhenInformationOverloadJustAct. (Not sure that page really describes what I’m thinking, though…) Maybe I should make it: InformationOverloadIsntReal?. or: WhoNeedsInformationOverload?. or: InformationOverloadIsInTheMind?. or: YouDontNeedMoreInformation?. or: InformationCostsSomething?. or: InformationNoThanks?. or: SoWhatsAllThisInformationForAnyways?. or: HuckInformation? or: StopReadingTheNews?. ScrewInformation?. GimmeSomethingICanActOn?. I dunno. Something like that. InformationOverloadIsTheWrongTarget?.

So, major ideas (AttackTheDocumentMode):

General ideas about InformationOverload:

  • InformationOverload comes from thinking that information is worth more than it is.
  • InformationOverload comes from thinking that information costs less than it does. (time)
  • When we are in InformationOverload, we’re usually focusing on stuff we’d have learned otherwise anyways.
  • Too much focus on the external world (external information) is draining.
  • People put too much trust in external information because they aren’t confident in their own ability. (And more specificly, their ability to find information when they need it.)
  • InformationOverload is an internal problem; No amount of technology or organizing can solve it.
  • This is similar to boredom: No amount of external stimulation will “cure” the person’s boredom. Only self-analysis can really fix it.

Responding to InformationOverload:

  • Think about how much reading lots of stuff is costing you.
  • Cut out 90% of your information intake.
  • WhenInformationOverloadJustAct. Do something, and follow the mental train tracks set down by the action plan.
  • Or, think independent of external signaling. Sit at a desk, with blank paper and a pen, and think by yourself.

“What, they don’t teach you this in school?”

I disagree:

Sure, I can cut back on information consumption when I get busy, and my life doesn’t suffer. Indeed, I feel that I could live a whole life in this mode and have a successful career. However, I still feel that I would have had an even better career if I had been told about more interesting developments.

I feel like much of the information consumption time is being spent consuming suboptimal information. With a proper news filtering system, this time could be spent much better.

I am disturbed at the haphazard way in which important information spreads. For example, researchers often hear of important new work by stumbling upon it. I learned of wikis by stumbling upon them. Few people in neuroscience hear about new mathematical techniques which could greatly help their work until these techniques are 60 years old.

I disagree that most information consumption is unnecessary. Yes, 90% of what you find isn’t worth it, but right now there’s no better way to get to the 10% that justifies the rest. Better filtering strategies could provide that 10% without the other 90%.


  • I think casting around for information is worthwhile, if not necessary
  • I feel that people miss plenty of important information
  • Much important information today seems to be transmitted haphazardly
  • A better information distribution system could give us better mileage for a given amount of time

Well, okay- I can agree with some of these ideas.

Like: We can find important stuff from 60 years ago, right? I agree with that.

But, is lack of 60 years old knowledge really something that comes from InformationOverload?

That sounds more like: It was something important that was buried a long time ago. Maybe it was the cure for cancer, and it’s been sitting under a box all these years. But would that be the fault of InformationOverload? I don’t think so.

I guess I don’t get it.

When I read ConsequencesOfInformationOverload, and it says “…A decrease in personal time as people have to spend more and more time keeping up (reading the news, learning new technology, responding to email, surfing the web)…” …my, “this is a problem in the head” knee starts to twitch. The same when I read, “It is the problem of reading articles on the web, and getting the feeling that each one was important and valuable, and then afterwards deciding that you spent too much time reading articles on the web.” I mean, maybe it’s just me, but that really looks to me like a sense of proportion that’s out of place.

Well, how about this:

Can you tell me a story about a time when you were getting InformationOverload, and it shouldn’t have been happening, and a technology or procedure would have helped?

I can think of a lot of ways to help organize our communications. Then we could receive/make more communications, and not get all confused in the process. (Like how GMail orders conversations, or help boards, or whatever.)

I have difficulty imagining a non “haphazard” method of spreading information, aside from agitation, education, organization.

But I always get the feeling that, with the InformationOverload types, no matter how good the system becomes, they will always feel that they are not “on top of” all the information out there. Perhaps this doesn’t accurately describe you, but I think it does accurately describe most of the people I know who are talking about “InformationOverload.”

I would want to seperate the “personal” problem of InformationOverload, from the goal of making communications more efficient.

Instead of InformationOverload, I might make it ManagingCommunication?, or something. What you are describing in your last post sounds a lot more like: “Hm, it’d be great if we could organize our communications better,” than it sounds like: “Ack! I’m stressed out! I feel like I’m drowning in a sea of information!”

Am I understanding what you mean right? Does my response make more sense, cutting the issues up like this?

Visualizing information is a response to the first. Personal reflection and change is a response to the second.

Hmm, I guess I blend the two together a bit (the efficiency of communications, and the drowning in information feeling). I feel like the drowning in information situation is the canonical InformationOverload. But even if you don’t feel overwhelmed and you only spend 10 minutes a day “keeping up”, if those ten minutes are spent reading mildly interesting stuff while you are missing much more valuable stuff, then there’s a problem.

I agree that I’ll still be whining about “information overload” when things are 100x better than now. I guess that the way that I define it is just simply as an environmental condition that we have to deal with, the same way that “an arid climate” is a condition that creatures in it must deal with: there are much more pieces of relevant information coming in than we even have time to superficially scan. Hence, it is very easy to miss valuable/important information. Because of this, it may be possible for an organism’s performance to decline when more information is available. With this definition, there can be “information overload” even when everyone is using an optimal information consumption strategy, and even when everyone is un-stressed; it’s just a description of the environment.

Another way that I think about it, though, is that information overload is a problem when the environmental condition “information overload” is present AND you are using a suboptimal strategy which is causing you to miss important information which you could otherwise have caught. Of course, we may never find an “optimal strategy”, in which case I’ll still be whining about the “problem” even if we get much better at dealing with it (the same way I would point out “we live in an arid climate”; it’s useful to continue to point out these things so that we continue to focus on adapting to challenging parts of the environment).

Some more concrete examples:

  • Email backlog. I have lots of it. I feel like I’m drowning in it. It doesn’t kill me. But it sucks.
  • Mailing lists. Just by being a grad student at UCSD I’m subscribed to a zillion mailings lists, some for all grad students, some for people in my department, some for people in my specialty, etc. I filter most of them to a mailbox that I never read. So I never hear about all sorts of interesting lectures, etc, which might relate to my work, which seems a waste. But, each lecture announcement that I’m interested in in buried in between 20 that I’m totally NOT interested in. The distinction between the kinds that interest me and the kinds that don’t is pretty simple; I’m interested in anything that corresponds to subfield X which doesn’t correspond to subfield Y. So it’s not like it’s some idiosyncratic unpredictable preference. Any of a number of simple collaborative filtering systems could use other people’s opinions or categorizations to distinguish between the ones I’d like to hear about, and the ones I don’t. But none of these are implemented, so I miss all of them.
  • I’m a graduate student in neuroscience, so in theory I’d be keeping up with all this neuroscience research. And I’ll try. But other people I ask say they just look over a high-profile journal every now and then, and in addition read anything they happen to hear about. Which means that most of the work, work which is good but which does not make the journals Science or Nature, barely gets read. That sucks.
  • There’s tons of stories on slashdot, so it’s hard to “keep up”, even if you filter by topic. But, when I ignore slashdot, I miss out on stories that I care about that I don’t hear about elsewhere, such as announcements about new versions of programming languages, stories about new programming languages which are gaining in popularity, and civil liberties issues.
  • I want to keep up with new internet technologies. Need I say more?
  • And, of course, the problem of keeping up with RecentChanges on a couple of wikis, even when you are busy for a month or so, falls under this umbrella

Different settings:
There is the outside world, the world outsides of our - personal - brain. A developing and changing world. We do not know about it but by our experiences and memories. We are eager to update these expieriences and memories. We are even capeable of drawing conclusions, changing our viewpoint but we need information to do so. Our senses now give us a fairly rich bandwidth to receive such information. We see, hear, taste, smell and feel. Our brain is an extemely powerful system to decode and analyse and process new information and work it in with our experiences and memories. Information reaches our brain mostly through in first two senses, see and hear. These are to a degree processable in our brain that no other living species other than H-double-s (Homo sapiens sapiens) ever has achieved. A falcons eyes are good enough to “read” a newspaper across a tenniscourt. Our brain can read, a falcon’s brain can not. A dog’s ears hear voices clearly before we even notice them. But our brain understands spoken language, a dog’s brain doesn’t.
During the explosion of our brain (an ongoing process btw) humans developed capabilities and techniques to deal with information, to conserve and to spread it: language, writing, printing, telephone, radio, television and most recently the internet. Language is very old. Writing is old, it marks the beginning of history. The time before it, the time there is no information about recorded by humans, is called prehistory. With Mister Gutenberg’s invention in “14hundred I don’t remember” we got into something new, something mad somehow. We created the machinery for our information-overload. It seems to be a recent human trend, at least since 500 years to create the suppositions for information-overload. We here - interested in this machinery, interested in effectivating it - are especially prone for it.
As Lions said information-overload is sheer “personal”. Like it is a personal issue to get from Berlin to Hamburg. Walking over the fields is a solution. It will take you several weeks. Having a highway and a car this comes down to thee and a half hours. Clever technique can very well cut down on superfluous information. On wiki and now topic-nodes seem very hot to effectivate on finding the right information.
On the other hand for me personally information-overload is a necessary and temporary state of mind. I need it. It makes part of my personal rythmn, it is what I feel when I get too close to the fire described on meatball-wiki: wiki as a fire. I need phases, painful phases of being overrun with information causing confusion, in fact I deliberately create such situations from time to time. Or better: I watch myself manouvering myself into them unable and unwilling to do anything against it going though all the colateral damage of emotionality this ineviteably creates. But then an automatic selection process sets off, it dumps all the irrelevant stuff and makes me concentrate on one thing and work on it, positively capable for a certain time to ignore all the other available information sources, until the work is done or until my soul reaches for disruption again which then again leads to a temporary ability for concentration. It’s pretty annoying sometimes but it is like that. I think I’m not the only one to works like that, rather this might be a general way of human thinking, a desire for a repeating pulse, tension/release-tension and pretty likely it is also a principle in the way the hive-mind works.

  • The possiblity to be overloaded with information is a rather new human desire. We obviously strive for it.
  • Technical means can effectivate information selection enourmously.
  • Within a personal rythmn, and pretty likely also within a collective rythmn (hive-mind) information-overload is a necessary, temporary and as ineviteable a positive state of mind.

This reminds me of something I read about someone’s experience in a library. He was looking at archives of astronomy magazines in chronological order (oldest on left, most recent on right), which filled a long shelf.

  • The halfway point on the shelf had magazines from about 15 years ago. At first he thought this meant that the library subscribed to those magazines about 30 years ago, and they were filling up about 1 shelf every 30 years. So in, say, 120 years from now (4*30), those magazines would fill another 4 shelves.

However, with a little more information he got a completely different picture.

  • The 1/4 point from the left had magazines from about 15 years before that (30 years ago).
  • The 1/8 point from the left had magazines from about 15 years before that (45 years ago).
  • And so on.

This shows that astronomy information doubles every 15 years. If we have one shelf full of information now, then 120 years from now (after 8 doublings), we need 128 shelves to hold all the information accumulated.

As the rate of information accumulation increases, eventually it will become impossible for a person just to keep up with everything published in astronomy that year – even if he devotes full time to it.

(I wish I could remember where I read this, who wrote this – if you know, please mention it). (Um, this really doesn’t have anything to do with Bradford’s law. Oops. Perhaps move to ChangeFailure ?)

I forgot where we were with this conversation, but I just saw this article that notes that it's not about too much information – rather – it’s about our inability to organize it and distribute it appropriately.

I wrote this a little while ago:

Incidentally, what I discuss in that blog post is related to why I believe that many of the pages on CommunityWiki are so valuable.

Awesome article!

(from the article:)

This means that you could make one “post” to the internet in your entire life, that synthesizies valuable information into actual knowledge, and that it could then exist as a re-usable knowledge resource towards theory building and actual problem solving for years to come. This ONE “post” existing as information digested, understood, and synthesized into knowledge, could be more valuable than all of the information-relaying blog posts that you make in your entire life

That’s really interesting, and crosses paths with something I was just saying the other day to the Y Combinator crowd, and is something that I’ve noticed in my notekeeping:

In the domain of notes and notekeeping, it’s not about being able to find related articles – rather, it’s about being able to edit and extend prior notes.

People are overly focused on search & retrieval, when what they really need to be thinking about is organization & extension.

That is, people ask “Can I search? Can I find a needle in a haystack?” But what is far more important is: “Can I develop this thing?”

So in your article, you were showing the ethic of “blog blog blog blog as much as you can, be an information source.” And I see how our notekeeping systems, electronic or otherwise, say “write write write, write as much as you can, get those ideas out there.” And then that induces a focus on search – which begs the question: “Do you ever actuall revisit those notes you write?”

(People are astonished when they hear me say yes! Yes I do! I estimate that 1 in 15 pages is revisited even after a full year. I consider this an incredibly high value. But I do not often add new pages – I would estimate 3-5 new pages a week; Rather, I extend existing pages most of the time.)

So I see that notekeeping is much like social writing, and social writing much like notekeeping.

We must not forget the purpose of TheoryBuilding, though I think SunirShah would wisely point out the motivation of the formation of PersonalRelationships. That said: writing for one’s own self can be seen as forming a personal relationship with oneself, and further, we could identify the importance of purpose in personal relationships. (Some deny the existence of purpose in personal relationships, but I personally do not believe it.)

:) The trail you leave, as for jet pilots the jet stream they leave behind is difficult to see. Returning into it is painful. Take a small dosage in the beginning and see how ya BodyAndSoul? react. Do cross your jetstream, check the instruments.

Thanks for calling me out, Mattis; I was just excited because paths crossed in a synchronistic way.

What I guess I meant to say is:

The idea in common seems to be:

The value comes from reworking, from synthesizing, from connecting, rather than from the copy-and-pasting, or the cacophany of writing writing writing and focusing on search technologies.

If we’re focused on search, it might be that we’re not focused enough on concentrating.

For example, I don’t use the “search” features of Wikipedia often; Going to the page that has the title of what I’m looking for is, 19 times out of 20, the only “search” I need to perform. That’s because the content is reworked and things are placed where they need to be placed.

I think you are really onto something, LionKimbro.

10 years ago, futurists, thinkers, media ecologists were going around telling everyone that [[Search?]] was the fundamental activity of the DigitalMedium?. I think at that time we were right. Search is like the “stage 1” of an emerging media ecology, when growth speed is really high/fast. So, search and aggregation are important in the beginning.In later stages, I think things come to the point where the primary activity is synthesis and integration of found and aggregated (and created) content, and simpler messaging.

This is actually similar to the ways that ecologies of flora and fauna in natural systems work. After a forest fire, for instance, certain species (usually very homogeneous in comparison to later species) spread and propagate very fast and “fill in the void”. Then, successive waves of more longer-term species emerge. These later waves are more deeply integrated in many ways, despite possessing very different/diverse properties as individual species.

So, I definitely agree with you Lion. And of course I imagine you’ve probably had this insight for a while yourself for quite a while, given everything you’ve written here and elsewhere on the subject :-)

Agrees, LionKimbro rocks! For some years he electrified this wiki by a stream of milk and blood, many pages I still have to understand, still have to even read… The sheer energy did it, I liked that.

No idea what will come after search and aggregation, you’re both right. Most of all extending search and aggregation is what you can do best without users. ;)

The metaphor of the recovering biosphere does appeal. I hope it also applies.

BiologyAndProgramming? BiologicalProgramming?

Thanks guys. :)

Sam, what you say makes sense – that first there is a proliferation of content, and then there is synthesis. This connects back with PublicRefineryProcess.

Mattis’ question: “What comes after?” I keep envisioning the SchematicWikipedia?, based in SchematicForm. But not just tied to encyclopedia type content…

But also, we should hope: As information is usefully organized online, then it should make some sort of transformation in our culture. How could we predict the kind of changes that are going to occur? I would look at the questions that people are asking and the answers that are forming, and try to generalize from there.

Define external redirect: ScrewInformation InformationOverloadIsntReal InformationNoThanks YouDontNeedMoreInformation BiologyAndProgramming Search WhoNeedsInformationOverload BiologicalProgramming GimmeSomethingICanActOn InformationCostsSomething DigitalMedium SoWhatsAllThisInformationForAnyways HuckInformation StopReadingTheNews InformationOverloadIsTheWrongTarget ManagingCommunication SchematicWikipedia InformationOverloadIsInTheMind SpeedReading BodyAndSoul

EditNearLinks: SunirShah ForestFire PersonalRelationship


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