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Nov. 26, 2012, 2:36 p.m.
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How we read, not what we read, may be contributing to our information overload

A new study finds that the use of computers and Facebook are more associated with information overload than the use of television and iPhones.

Every day, a new app or service arrives with the promise of helping people cut down on the flood of information they receive. It’s the natural result of living in a time when an ever-increasing number of news providers push a constant stream of headlines at us every day.

But what if it’s the ways we choose to read the news — not the glut of news providers — that make us feel overwhelmed? An interesting new study out of the University of Texas looks at the factors that contribute to the concept of information overload, and found that, for some people, the platform on which news is being consumed can make all the difference between whether you feel overwhelmed.

The study, “News and the Overloaded Consumer: Factors Influencing Information Overload Among News Consumers” was conducted by Avery Holton and Iris Chyi. They surveyed more than 750 adults on their digital consumption habits and perceptions of information overload. On the central question of whether they feel overloaded with the amount of news available, 27 percent said “not at all”; everyone else reported some degree of overloaded.

Holton and Chyi asked about the use of 15 different technology platforms and checked for correlation with feeling overloaded with information. Three showed a positive correlation as predictors of overload: computers, e-readers, and Facebook. Two showed a negative correlation: television and the iPhone. The rest — which included print newspapers, Twitter, iPads, netbooks, and news magazines, among others — showed no statistically significant correlations.

The mention of netbooks — that declining form factor — raises an important factor about the study: Its survey took place in 2010, which was like another world when it comes to news consumption platforms. The iPad was brand new; Android was just starting its rapid growth. The kind of early(ish) adopter who was using Twitter or a Kindle in 2010 is likely to be different from the broader user base those platforms have in 2012.

What the findings suggest, Holton said, is that the news platforms a person is using can play a bigger role in making them feel overwhelmed than the sheer number of news sources being consumed. So even if you read The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, The New York Times, and ESPN in a day, you may not feel as inundated with news if you read on your phone instead of on your desktop (with 40 tabs open, no doubt). The more contained, or even constrained, a platform feels, the more it can contribute to people feeling less overwhelmed, Holton said. A news app or mobile site, for instance, is an isolated experience that emphasizes reading with minimal links or other distractions. Compared with reading on the web at your computer, your options seem smaller.

“There was no connection between the number of news outlets people were using, so it made us think it was the device,” Holton told me. “You see less of a statistically significance between outlets and more between platforms.”

That may also explain why people have feelings of being overwhelmed by Facebook, which, like reading on the web, can be a bottomless hole of stories, videos, and endless links. But it doesn’t explain why people in the survey had different feelings towards Twitter, which can also be an unyielding stream of links.

“We expected to find some overload in the use of Twitter or YouTube because there is so much content,” Holton said. “But there was no significance we found. Twitter was almost baseline.”

One possible explanation is whether you define yourself as a news junkie. The survey asked people to report how much they enjoyed keeping up with the news — people who said they did had less of a perception of information overload. If you’re the type of person who wants to follow news during the day, it’s likely you have an established routine and a set of sites you check regularly. You also may not need as much context around the news. All of that would make Twitter a good source for you.

Conversely, if you’re more passive about following the news, you might need to make more of an effort to find the right sources or find background or contextual information, which could lead to feelings of being overloaded, Holton said. “Knowing what you’re looking for can decrease overload or perceptions of overload. So can constant engagement,” he said.

Holton said they’re planning to dig deeper into the topic of information overload, looking specifically at how different devices feed feelings of overload. What the data says so far reinforces something we know anecdotally: People have different uses for the different platforms. And a purpose-driven visit to twitter.com is different than a purpose-driven visit to facebook.com. On Twitter, you may be directly looking for news. On Facebook, you may have no agenda other than seeing what your friends are up to.

Image by Yutaka Tsutano used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 26, 2012, 2:36 p.m.
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