Information overload is a concept that has long been used to describe the experience of digital media, although the term and the problem itself predate the digital age.
In a 2011 blog post, Nicholas Carr distinguished between two kinds of information overload: situational overload and ambient overload.
“Situational overload is the needle-in-the-haystack problem: You need a particular piece of information – in order to answer a question of one sort or another – and that piece of information is buried in a bunch of other pieces of information. The challenge is to pinpoint the required information, to extract the needle from the haystack, and to do it as quickly as possible. Filters have always been pretty effective at solving the problem of situational overload …
“Situational overload is not the problem. When we complain about information overload, what we’re usually complaining about is ambient overload. This is an altogether different beast. Ambient overload doesn’t involve needles in haystacks. It involves haystack-sized piles of needles. We experience ambient overload when we’re surrounded by so much information that is of immediate interest to us that we feel overwhelmed by the never ending pressure of trying to keep up with it all.”
Relatedly, Eli Pariser coined the term “filter bubble” around 2010 to describe a situation generated by platforms that deploy sophisticated algorithms to serve users information they are likely to care about. These algorithms are responsive to a user’s choices and interactions with information on the platform. The fear is that we will be increasingly isolated in bubbles that feed us only what we already are inclined to believe.
Last month, Zeynep Tufekci published a sharp essay in MIT’s Technology Review titled, “How social media took us from Tahrir Square to Donald Trump.” If you didn’t catch it when it came out, I encourage you to give it a read. In it she briefly discussed the filter bubble problem and offered an excellent analysis:
“The fourth lesson has to do with the much-touted issue of filter bubbles or echo chambers—the claim that online, we encounter only views similar to our own. This isn’t completely true. While algorithms will often feed people some of what they already want to hear, research shows that we probably encounter a wider variety of opinions online than we do offline, or than we did before the advent of digital tools.
“Rather, the problem is that when we encounter opposing views in the age and context of social media, it’s not like reading them in a newspaper while sitting alone. It’s like hearing them from the opposing team while sitting with our fellow fans in a football stadium. Online, we’re connected with our communities, and we seek approval from our like-minded peers. We bond with our team by yelling at the fans of the other one. In sociology terms, we strengthen our feeling of ‘in-group’ belonging by increasing our distance from and tension with the ‘out-group’—us versus them. Our cognitive universe isn’t an echo chamber, but our social one is. This is why the various projects for fact-checking claims in the news, while valuable, don’t convince people. Belonging is stronger than facts.”
While the problems associated with information overload are worth our consideration, if we want to critically examine the consequences of social media, particularly on our political culture, we need to look elsewhere.
For one thing, the problem of information overload is not a distinctly digital problem, although it is true that it has been greatly augmented by the emergence of digital technology.
Moreover, the focus on information overload also trades on an incomplete, and thus inadequate understanding of the human person. We are not, after all, merely information processing machines. As I’ve suggested before, affect overload is a more serious problem than information overload. We are not quite the rational actors we imagine ourselves to be. Affect not information is the coin of the realm in the world of social media.
This is implicit in Tufekci’s analysis of the real problem related to the encounter with opposing views online. It is also why the preoccupation with fact-checking is itself a symptom of the problem rather than a solution. People do not necessarily share “fake news” because they believe it. Emotion and social gamesmanship play an important role as well.
Finally, and this is the point I set out to make, we’ve been focusing on our information inputs when we ought to have also paid attention to audience effect. That’s what’s different about the digital media environment. Print gave us information overload, digital media gave all of us who would never have had a way to reach an audience beyond our small social circle in the pre-digital world the means to do so—it gave us audience overload. The audience is always with us, it is on demand whenever we want it. And the audience can talk back to us instantaneously. We will become who we think we need to be to get what we want from this audience.
And while it is impossible to fine-tune that audience in the same way we might work to fine-tune our information flows, we nonetheless can customize it to a significant degree, and, more importantly, we have some ideal image of that audience in our mind. It is important that this audience is not a definite, tangible audience before us. The indefinite shape of the audience allows us to give it shape in our minds, which is to say that it can all the more effectively mess with us for its being, in part, an implicit projection of our psyche.
It is this virtual audience which we desire, this audience we want to please, this audience from whom we seek a reaction to satisfy our emotional cravings—cravings already manipulated by the structure of the platforms that connect us with our audience—it is this audience and the influence it exerts over us that has played an important role in disordering our public discourse.
It is not just that our attention is fractured by the constant barrage of information, it is also that our desire for attention has deformed our intellectual and emotional lives. The ever-present audience has proven too powerful a temptation, too heavy a burden.