Information overload? Not for most Americans, Northwestern researchers find

September 2, 2012

(Credit: stock image)

“Information overload” may be an exaggerated way to describe today’s always-on media environment.

Actually, very few Americans seem to feel overwhelmed by the volume of news and information at their fingertips and on their screens, according to a new Northwestern University study.

A 2010 article in The New York Times featured a family of technology users framed as if they were addicts, unable to live without the constant flow of information from cell phones and computers (Richtel, 2010).

The accompanying photo of the family sitting at the breakfast table independently looking at their respective iPads takes the idea of disengaged communities and
neighbors down to the most intimate of societal units: the family.

However, “Little research has focused on information overload and media consumption, yet it’s a concept used in public discussions to describe today’s 24/7 media environment,” said Eszter Hargittai, an associate professor of communication studies at Northwestern and lead author of the study.

Most of the previous literature on information overload dynamics has involved the work environment or fighter pilots and battlefield commanders, according to a 2004 review and informal meta-analysis of the overload scholarship by two Swiss management professors.

“Empowered and enthusiastic”

To better understand how everyday Americans perceive the amount of information available through traditional and new media, researchers recruited vacationers in Las Vegas* to participate in focus groups. Seven focus groups were conducted with 77 total participants from around the country. The, small informal nature of the focus groups helped to reveal participants’ strategies for finding news, entertainment and gossip.

“We found that the high volume of information available these days seems to make most people feel empowered and enthusiastic,” Hargittai said. “People are able to get their news and information from a diverse set of sources and they seem to like having these options.”

Best news source: online; social media: “frustrating”

Most of the participants said television was their most used form of media, followed closely by websites. When asked how they felt about the amount of information available to them, few mentioned feeling overwhelmed or that they suffered from “information overload.” Here are highlights of the responses:

  • Participants had near-unanimous enthusiasm about the new media environment
  • Online news was regarded more positively than TV news
  • Cable news was often criticized for its sensationalism and stream of repetitive stories
  • Trivial social media posts and opinionated political pundits are top sources of frustration when seeking information

“There’s definitely some frustration with the quality of some of the information available,” said Hargittai. “But these frustrations were accompanied by enthusiasm and excitement on a more general level about overall media choices.”

The few participants who did feel overwhelmed were often those with low Internet skills, who haven’t yet mastered social media filters and navigating search engine results, Hargittai noted.

So what’s your experience? Overloaded? Underloaded? Oblivious? Leave me alone?\

* Skewed population: people who just wanna have fun. Maybe the rest of us are too cranky?