Information overload a modern curse

Too many devices and too much data can be damaging

Jeff Saper, CIO at strategic communications firm Robinson Lerer & Montgomery, drives a hybrid car, favours service providers that use alternative energy and has launched many green IT initiatives at his firm. But he's also concerned about a type of pollution that even Al Gore has yet to tackle: digital pollution.

The recent growth of information sources such as blogs, social networks, news aggregators, microblogs like Twitter, instant messaging and email has been exponential.

"On the positive side, there's so much more information available," Saper says. "But it becomes overwhelming, especially for those unfamiliar with the tools to filter through it."

According to market research firm IDC, by 2011 the digital universe will be 10 times the size it was in 2006.

It's gotten to the point where information -- which should be useful -- has in some cases become a distraction. According to research firm Basex Inc, information overload is the "problem of the year". Basex claims that disruptions caused by email, text messages and other incoming data cost large organisations billions of dollars annually in lower productivity and hampered innovation.

Disruption comes in many forms. There's the urgent email that arrives when you're heads-down on a project, the volumes of stuff to browse through to make sure you're not missing anything relevant, and the temptation to scan your RSS feed during conference calls.

"For so long, companies have preached the importance of multitasking," says Michael Fowler, IT director of risk, compliance and change management at Constellation Energy Group. But now, he says, the pendulum has swung back: "What happens when you're too multitasked?"

Many worry about missing out on something. "People fear a disruptive technology or business model will come on the scene and they won't have time to act," says Steve Borsch, CEO of Marketing Directions, a consulting firm. "It's becoming exponentially more difficult to tap into the collective consciousness and stay on top of changes in an industry or area of interest, or even stay relevant in the workplace."

He admits to struggling. "I now am skimming and reading articles on dozens of news sites and technology journals, clicking on sources linked to by a blogger, and a whole lot more," Borsch says. "The river of content is turning into a flood, and my instinct is to get to higher ground."

Borsch firmly subscribes to the belief that what technology has gotten us into, it can get us out of. He has studied customizable RSS feeds and "smart" news-aggregation sites that allow him to choose the types of news he wants to see as well as submit content and vote on items to promote their visibility.

On his PC, Borsch has arranged his browser into about a dozen workspaces. Three are always open for e-mail, the Google Reader RSS feed and three news aggregation sites: Techmeme for technology news, Blogrunner for general news and Wikio for global coverage.

Techmeme not only aggregates links to technology stories but also provides a visual sense of how important each story is through a list of links to the discussions each generated. If the list is long, Borsch says, he knows he should pay attention to that item. Similarly, compilation sites like Digg and Hackernews use social promotion techniques to help readers discern what's important. As readers vote on items, the most popular get more visibility.

Borsch says he has spent lots of time customising Google Reader, editing what he wants to see and organising how he sees it. He has created 20 folders for topics such as venture capital, video, technology, marketing/public relations, virtual worlds and gadgets. One is labelled "above the fold", for the 15 blogs that he considers must-reads, including Boing Boing. That feed pulls information from 171 blogs and various other sites, for a total of about 225 feeds. On one recent day, Borsch had 926 articles waiting for him. "I'll probably grab a sandwich and skim through them all, unless I get hooked into an article that burns up all my time," he says.

Still, the RSS feeder does save time. "It might take me a minute to scroll through the posts, but if I went to [each] site itself, it would take 45 seconds just to load the page," he says.

With all the time he spends on aggregation sites and his RSS feed, Borsch says he has reduced his investments in books, TV, newspapers and magazines. He's even cut down on his podcast listening time. At one point, he says, he'd collected 36 hours' worth of weekly podcasts with only 10 hours per week available to listen. But with the aggregation sites, he says, "it feels like I've got people's thoughts at my fingertips, and to me, that's fabulous."

"If it weren't for RSS readers, I'd be dead," he says.

Saper also uses aggregators to battle information overload. His favorites are Newsgator and Flock, which he says is a combined browser and aggregator. He says that Flock can aggregate all his social networking activity and feeds into one place. He subscribes to about 40 sources, with topics such as Microsoft, virtualisation, mobile technology, networking, environment, public relations and general business.

"Do I read every hit? No," Borsch says. "It gets back to there being too much noise out there."

But tools can't do it all, he says. With new sources of information appearing every day, it's difficult to know which are legitimate. That has driven Saper to be more discerning about which sources he trusts. Mainly, he says, he sticks with sources he knows or those that are recommended by peers or friends.

Ole Eichhorn, chief technology officer at Aperio Technologies, which provides systems for digital pathology, agrees. His number one way of finding new blogs is by referrals, sometimes through his own blog. Once a week, he checks to see who has linked to his blog, which inevitably leads him to look at theirs. "They found me, so there must be a similarity of interest," he says.

The human touch can, of course, be automated, Fowler says. Although he seeks recommendations from peers and friends and uses social promotion sites like Digg, he has also found a shortcut: using Delicious, a social bookmarks manager. He marks favorite items on the site, but he also checks out the bookmarks of other people he trusts or those who specialise in areas of interest to him. "I'd expect them to have found the top sources, so why search?" he says. "I can just go to their Delicious site."

Fowler uses an RSS feed to keep on top of about a dozen sources from tech news, and to follow a local newspaper columnist who often writes about Constellation Energy. But he doesn't check them daily, and he purposefully limits the number he follows because much of the news gets repeated. "Less is more, at least for me," he says.

Borsch unsubscribes from any blog that is no longer adding value. And when he needs to concentrate on work, he closes down instant messaging, Skype and e-mail, turns off Twirl (the Twitter desktop client), and tries not to think about what he's missing.

Mental discipline is especially important when it comes to email. Many people feel compelled to check email throughout the day and to respond immediately to what comes in. "You can be on deadline, and one of your friends sends you a random note that you could read two hours later, but knowing it's there disrupts you," Eichhorn says.

He offers a solution: "Just because someone sent you something doesn't mean you have to read it. Thinking that way is empowering."

The same goes for RSS feeds. Although Eichhorn loves RSS and monitors 300 to 400 feeds via a reader called Sharpreader, he calls it an incredible distraction. He estimates that he gets 2,000 to 3,000 items per day and reads about one out of 20. His advice: Choose specific times throughout the day to check email and read your feed.

Fowler has come to like Twitter, which limits messages to 140 characters. He mainly uses it to stay connected with other people via his group distribution list and to stay abreast of their activities. However, services such as CNN also broadcast news on Twitter, and some industry leaders have begun using it to communicate updates at conferences and boot camps.

Eichhorn agrees that following Twitter is becoming more important. Originally, he says, the idea was "What are you doing?" but it has evolved to, "What are you thinking?"

Information overload is not going away, and organisations will need to find ways to deal with it, particularly when it comes to determining which sources are considered reliable, says David Newman, an analyst at Gartner.

"I don't think we understand how bad it's going to get, especially as more young people come into the workplace and are used to using these sources in their personal lives," he says. "We can't put our head in the sand about this."

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