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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

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 is different than a purpose-driven visit to 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.

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  • Adam Popescu

    read a book. futurist retro info consumer.

  • Conrad Buck

    The irony of reading a study that is about information overload….

  • ranjanxroy

    I’m a bit confused how Twitter and Facebook are platform analogous  to netbooks, iphones, ipads, or computers. Conflating a software platform with hardware seems to confuse the entire question (what about Facebook on an iPad, Twitter on an iPhone vs. computer)….

    Independent of that, the single best book I’ve read on this subject is Net Smart by Howard Rheingold. He brings up the need for internet literacy to become an academic discipline to help educate people on how to get the most out of the internet. Like learning a language, learning to manage the vast quantities of information out there should be something codified into education.

  • Clinton Wu

    I think a lot of this makes intuitive sense for the most part since some believe that info overload is a symptom of overconsumption but not the actual problem (see: Relating that notion to this research, it may be that the platforms that promote overconsumption are those that are highly correlated with overload. But what about the fact that twitter isn’t correlated? I believe there’s some truth to the assertion that the survey was done in 2010, which is eons ago in today’s tech world. 

    Extrapolating things further, I think there should be a distinction between a technology device and a platform.  An interesting study would be to bifurcate the two since intuitively I would think device AS WELL as platform user experiences affect info overload positively or negatively. I’ve given this stuff a lot of thought :). 

  • Dylan A. Kent

    40 tabs open? If you’re blocking pop-ups that won’t happen.   Facebook is, at this point, rather old school.  Many early adopters moved on from FB a long time ago or never got involved.  True, Twitter is not very annoying at all.  I can have news on the TV, work on a pc and have a Twitter stream running simultaneously without so much as a blip of distraction.  I have designated reading times for books. If you have some discipline, you don’t need to experience overload.

  • Abdallah Al-Hakim

    interesting point about bringing internet literacy to an academic discipline. The amount of data being gathered now is beyond comprehension, but I am not sure if an academic course will be the solution for it. I think the tools people will use to navigate the web will depend on what their friends use and/or recommend. Having said that – I am interested in checking the book you mentioned.

  • Brian Driggs

    I agree there’s a growing need for improved digital literacy. Perhaps not so much reading comprehension (still sadly lacking in modern society, but I digress), but in search, critical/creative thinking, analysis, and logic. Knowing where to find the information we seek, how to evaluate its accuracy, and adapt it to relevant use which drives value is going to prove an ever more important.

  • Hannah Leverson

    Found this on Twitter.. does that make it more worthwhile than finding it on Facebook? 

  • Joshua Benton

    Trust me, Dylan: I don’t think I’ve had fewer than 40 tabs open since Netscape 0.9 beta. It’s a sickness.

  • Chris Lau

    When you spend time creating content instead of consuming it, you learn to cut down on who you follow, what you read, and where you go. I go mainly to twitter for information and google+ for quirky and tech news. I almost always tune out of facebook (which only gets about 2-3 pages of updates a day on 450+ connections).

  • HomerGreenz

    “When you spend time creating content instead of consuming it, you learn to cut down on who you follow, what you read, and where you go.”

    No, when YOU spend time creating content, instead of consuming it, etc.

    For some us, it’s a simple matter of self control.

  • HomerGreenz

    fuck this

  • Déborah Mesquita

    Interesting. I notice that when I access the twitter though the phone I feel less overwhelmed than in the PC

  • Anthony Stamford

    Great post. However, one important point that this study doesn’t reflect is how the source our information influences the importance that we give to it. It is well known that recommendations and word of mouth are the most trusted sources of information, so any article that comes recommended by others should not add to the sense of information overload; which in turn is what explains people using platforms such as or