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According to a study recently released by Yahoo, UK internet users are suffering from information overload.

As reported by the Association of Online Publishers UK, the study, which is entitled "Return on Attention," found that 70% of users "admitted to spending hours sifting through unwanted or irrelevant information."

62% of the users surveyed even felt that online information overload was having "a detrimental impact on their lives."

Yahoo, not surprisingly, looked at the study in the context of online marketing, noting that 79% of users want something in return for their "attention" to advertising.

Kristof Fahy, the VP of Marketing for Yahoo Europe, is quoted as stating:

"Successful marketers will develop innovative strategies to help people filter their already over stretched attention. It's no longer a case of just getting your voice heard, it's about having a dialogue with the individual while understanding and responding to their needs."

Of course, it's worth pointing out that successful marketing has always provided something of value to the recipient (that's why it's successful).

But I think it's worthwhile to take a step back and look at the study in a broader context.

Why do we have information overload?

As I see it, information overload is largely the result of a philosophy adopted by many of today's internet entrepreneurs.

That philosophy goes a little something like this - more information, more value.

From news aggregators to recommendation services to social networks, internet entrepreneurs have been busy turning the internet into an ocean of information.

The problem is that the ocean is far larger than required by the tiny fish that swim in it - the users.

Of course, these entrepreneurs tell us that their services are designed to help us find information that's relevant and to filter out the information that isn't. After all, we're sharing "stuff" with our friends and family and that means it's going to be relevant, right?

About as relevant as those annoying family newsletters Uncle Bartholomew sends out every holiday.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, entrepreneurs have also been busy creating incredible algorithms that help computers locate information that's of interest to us.

In essence, we're being told that today's internet is getting more and more information-efficient.

In my opinion, however, our information efficiency is a lot like our energy efficiency. Many of the devices we use on a daily basis may individually be more "energy-efficient" but we're using more of them and thus, consuming more energy than ever before.

And so it goes with information efficiency. In theory, we have great tools that should help us with information overload but we're using so many of them that the amount of information we're exposed to is still far greater than before.

While people like Robert Scoble may disagree, Yahoo's study hints at what most of us in the "mainstream" have known for some time - the internet today looks more like an information junkyard than an information superhighway.

A few million blogs too many, a billion useless tweets, petabytes of photos that are probably better off stored as memories.

At the American Magazine Conference in October, Google CEO Eric Schmidt stated that the internet is at risk of becoming a "becoming a cesspool."

He observed that "a world of disinformation...is the future" and noted that "the future of high quality journalism is a huge problem." At the same time, he called for more investment in the type of high-quality content that is produced by magazines, noting that brands help individuals determine which sources of information to trust.

Schmidt's comments are somewhat ironic, of course, since Google's goal is to "organize the world's information" and his company controls its own portfolio of largely useless content.

That said, even if he is speaking out of both sides of his mouth, he's correct.

The promise of the internet is being marginalized, as evidenced by the fact that 88% of the users in Yahoo's study stated they are being forced to block out irrelevant messaging.

But where there's a threat, there's also an opportunity.

Just as many advertisers flee to quality to deal with today's stark global economy, internet entrepreneurs should consider fleeing to quality as well.

Forget user-generated content, forget the "new media" notion that editorial structures are overrated and ditch the philosophy that more is better.

Instead, focus on providing high-value content, strive to employ editorial policies that help ensure every piece of information you supply is unique and relevant and adopt the mantra "less is more."

The promise of the internet was never built on notions of democratic content production, free content or crowdsourcing; it was built on efficient global access to high-quality, useful information.

Just as the best freeways are the ones that aren't plagued by bumper-to-bumper traffic, an information superhighway shouldn't be marked by a nasty-looking traffic jam of information that might encourage you to stay home rather than go out.

If you're working on the next Twitter, FriendFeed or Digg, you're looking to serve the market of people who think that information overload makes individuals smarter. It doesn't, as evidenced by how gullible these people are.

Yet if logic and empirical evidence won't convince you that the real opportunity is in providing high-quality information, one need only compare the CPMs charged by branded online content properties to the CPMs charged by properties like MySpace to gauge where the value is at.

Solving the problem of information overload isn't going to be easy. The cesspool that has been created isn't going to be drained anytime soon (and realistically never will).

Yet if you're looking to exploit the business opportunities offered by the internet, do consider that the opportunity lies outside of the cesspool.

Drama 2.0

Published 21 November, 2008 by Drama 2.0

237 more posts from this author

Comments (4)

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Kevin Makice

I'm going to go out on a limb and say you are not a Twitter user.

If you were, you likely would see your initial implication of all tweets being "useless" change dramatically with the positive impact these kinds of phatic messages have in strengthening community and individual relationships.

Taken individually, each typical tweet contains throwaway information, the kind of thing you wouldn't see in a newspaper or a blog (usually). The 140-character constraint is ideally suited both for these disposal statements and encouraging participation itself. Fortunately, no one using twitter consumes tweets in isolation. These disposable bit of information come from all of the people in your personal network, mimicking the same kinds of small talk that is vital to cultivating and maintaining relationships offline.

Twitter and other microblogging channels have no expectation of response. It is both asynchronous, where anyone can dip their feet or pour water into the public stream when they want, and directed one:many. Conversations (mostly) are brief, directed exchanges (estimated about 1/4 of all tweets are formal replies) or much more commonly, general announcements to the world.

If microblogging is teaching us anything else, it is the power of customized filtering. Just because millions of blogs are producing all that content each day, or Twitter is cranking out 1.4 million tweets daily, doesn't mean their is either the expectation or the necessity to consume them all. Our individual views of the web are able to become as large or small as we are each comfortable. Follow networks are not all the same, in fact they are not even mutual (where two people have to agree to take on each others posts in order to view). It is completely in your control which authors you want to follow and whether or not you want to stop following them. Tools are going to emerge that bring that kind of control to the rest of the internet, so our consumption isn't viewed as a burden. We will gather what we need.

over 7 years ago

Drama 2.0

Drama 2.0, Chief Connoisseur at The Drama 2.0 Show

Kevin: it's funny you went out on a limb and guessed that I'm not a Twitter user because I fairly recently joined Twitter and performed a little "experiment." You can read my thoughts here:

http://www.drama20show.com/category/the-scoble-experiment/

I dipped my feet into the "public stream" you speak of and the water was dirty and it was cold.

I quite honestly found few "conversations" or "exchanges" that were intelligent or valuable and I also found it extremely difficult to keep up with the constant flow of random tweets that make up a sort of disjointed collective stream of consciousness.

There is a key point that I think needs to be made: many (if not most) people have no interest in acquiring more information that needs to be filtered. There's already enough of that out there.

If you're passionate about "social media" and have the time to manage and filter tweets, that's great. If online social interaction is your thing, that's great.

For me, having to filter out nonsense ("woke up late") and unintelligent commentary ("GOOG is a buy at $380") just wasn't worth it. And I certainly don't need to be on Twitter to stay on top of what's happening in the world today. Mainstream sources that have editorial controls do that just fine (and ironically, get linked to a whole lot on Twitter).

Bottom line: I just don't have the time. And when I ask myself the questions "Does Twitter help me become a more informed person?", "Does Twitter help me maintain better relationships with my friends?" and "Does Twitter add value to my life?", the answer was no.

Some might answer yes and that's obviously perfectly alright but if you are building internet businesses, I think the study discussed in this post is worth considering because it suggests that most internet users are feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information they are being supplied and they are filtering out quite a bit of it. They seem to want less overall information and more quality information.

Creating services that are designed to increase the volume of raw information they have access to seems to be questionable in my opinion because you're fighting that dynamic.

over 7 years ago

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Kevin Makice

I argue that your methodology for your experiment is flawed.

Robert Scoble, Leo Leport, Barack Obama ... these are not the typical Twitter users. They are the anomaly. Most will have a balanced following-follower ratio and have networks that are under 100 people. Most people use direct replies about 1 out of every 5 tweets. Most people use Twitter primarily with people they know in some capacity.

Twitter, as a phatic function of communication, is not meant to replace any other form of communication. It is a supplement.

Give it more time than 13 days trying to prove a point you already convinced yourself you knew. In fact, do it very quietly. Don't blog about. Don't purposely push buttons. Take a more ethnographic approach and see if your opinion changes after several weeks.

Start small, with people you do know and care about. You need some critical mass, but 10-20 reasonably active users (the 1+ a day variety) will get you some real sense of community.

Use something other than the Twitter web site. Highly recommended for Mac users is Twitterrific, and for Windows is Twhirl. Tweetdeck and some of the new iPhone apps are also experience changers. Don't go to the tweets; make them come to you.

Respond or not in the moment and be OK with that.

If you are going into this just looking for investing diamonds or polished insights, they you are indeed viewing the medium incorrectly, imo. It is not about information. It is about relationships, fueled by a flow of tiny bits of disposable information. The online and offline mix much better because you do know that Member X frequents a local restaurant or was feeling bad the previous week.

Look at Twitscoop (http://www.twitscoop.com) for an example of how powerful the aggregation of all those little tweets can be.

Reclaim your deleted account. No reason for deletion, and no chance of anyone evaluating your experience detailed in your blog on its own merits.

Or ... not. One of the reasons Twitter is only approaching 4 million accounts is not just because it is new. It also isn't for everyone. I just wanted to suggest that your basis for for saying no and condemning Twitter isn't strengthened by the test you conducted.

over 7 years ago

Drama 2.0

Drama 2.0, Chief Connoisseur at The Drama 2.0 Show

Kevin: thanks for the thoughtful response.

Admittedly, my "experiment" was a bit tongue-in-cheek. That said, Twitter really isn't all that useful for me.

Only a few of my friends and associates use Twitter and they weren't very active when I was using the service.

When it comes to my friends, most of my interaction is in person or over the phone. When it comes to business associates, I communicate by phone, email, IM and in person when geographically possible. As such, given the fact that my real-life "social network" isn't really using Twitter, there's very little practical use for it in my life.

On a typical day, I work more than 12 hours (far too many of them are in front of computer monitors) and I'm not really looking for a social or "community" experience online. I just don't have time for it.

I completely understand that some people find Twitter valuable. That's cool, although I'm personally of the opinion that some people spend far too much time using services like Twitter and would be more productive if they didn't use it so much. C'est la vie.

All of this said, as someone who runs a number of online services, I'm always looking at the state of the online market, what the trends are, where there is opportunity, etc.

And I'd observe that this issue of "information overload" is a significant one because it tells us that perhaps the majority of internet users are feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information they're being bombarded with online and are being forced to filter out much of it.

As an entrepreneur, that's important to me. It not only means that barriers and challenges are being created for the services I run, it also means that there is opportunity being created to stand out from the crowd by providing content that is useful, focused and of tangible value.

I'm certainly a bit biased. At the end of the day, I'm a content guy. I'll bet my money on high-quality, professionally-produced, unique content over user-generated content every day. When I look at where the real money is being made online (and where I've been able to make my money online), I have no reason to abandon "premium" content for user-generated content.

But let's put that aside.

No matter what type of content you "believe in," however, I think the implications of the study discussed in this post are clear: users want content of value no matter where that content comes from. If you don't provide it, you're increasingly liable to be "filtered out."

On a side note, the ~6 minutes I've spent typing this response are certainly more than I would have invested in writing 15 tweets but I've gotten more out of this "conversation" than I would have from trying to write things that are worthwhile in only 140 characters. Food for thought.

over 7 years ago

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