HOME
          
LATEST STORY
Light everywhere: The California Civic Data Coalition wants to make public datasets easier to crunch
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Nov. 26, 2012, 2:36 p.m.
iphones-shorter-cc

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.
SHARE THIS STORY
   
Show comments  
Show tags
 
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Light everywhere: The California Civic Data Coalition wants to make public datasets easier to crunch
Journalists from rival outlets are pursuing the dream of “pluggable data,” partnering to build open-source tools to analyze California campaign finance and lobbying data.
Ebola Deeply builds on the lessons of single-subject news sites: A news operation with an expiration date
Following the blueprint of Syria Deeply, the new Ebola-focused site hopes to deliver context and coherence in covering the spread and treatment of the virus.
Who dat? In New Orleans, The Times-Picayune is making print a little more regular
The Times-Picayune was the most prominent example of a daily newspaper cutting print and home-delivery days. But as part of a big bet on football, it’s bringing Mondays back to subscribers — at least for the fall.
What to read next
1020
tweets
The newsonomics of the millennial moment
The new wave of news startups is aiming at a younger audience. But do legacy media companies have a chance at earning their attention?
803A mixed bag on apps: What The New York Times learned with NYT Opinion and NYT Now
The two apps were part of the paper’s plan to increase digital subscribers through smaller, targeted offerings. Now, with staff cutbacks on the way, one app is being shuttered and the other is being adjusted.
537Watching what happens: The New York Times is making a front-page bet on real-time aggregation
A new homepage feature called “Watching” offers readers a feed of headlines, tweets, and multimedia from around the web.
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
NewsTilt
Apple
PBS NewsHour
The Awl
TBD
Arizona Guardian
San Francisco Chronicle
The Daily Voice
Next Door Media
Grist
MinnPost
Center for Public Integrity