Information Rich or Information Overload? The Blessing and Curse of Abundant Choice

TREND: The size of the digital universe will continue to expand exponentially with information and content shaped by a kaleidoscope of social, political, corporate (and on occasion extremist) agendas, alongside a trend towards smaller more private online social networks

According to the International Data Corporation’s 2011 Digital Universe Study, in 2010 the quantity of information transmitted globally exceeded 1 zettabyte for the first time. With the amount of information within the digital universe predicted to double every two years, how will the neurological limits of the human brain for processing information constrain or define future social networking and the consumption of information and content?

The Role of Information Literacy

In a context where 250 million websites, 150 million blogs, 25 million tweets, 4 billion Flickr images compete for our attention – with an additional 24 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute – the amount of new digital content created in 2011 amounts to several million times that contained in all books ever written (2011 report by think tank DEMOS, page 12). Given the on-going explosion of choice in terms of the range of digital content and information we can potentially consume, the importance of information literacy skills as a tool for authenticating information and differentiating between content presented as fact (whilst often in reality being shaped a diverse range of social, political, corporate and occasionally extremist agendas) will become increasingly important. As Miller & Bartlett (2012, page 37) suggest:

The key challenge is that the specific nature of the Internet makes telling the difference between viable and unviable truth claims particularly difficult. Many of the processes and strategies we use to do this offline either no longer apply, or have become more difficult and less reliable.

There is evidence to suggest that many individuals may not be sufficiently critical of information they find online. 2010 research from the Oxford Internet Institute on patterns of online trust (in the UK) reported that “trust in people providing Internet services” exceeded trust in other major institutions including newspapers, corporations and government. Furthermore, according to the UK Journal of Information Literacy (see page 37), decisions about information quality are often based on site design, rather than more accurate checks: 15% of 12-15 year olds don’t consider the veracity of search term results and just visit the sites they “like the look of”. The pitfalls of this approach are illustrated by the site which claims to offer “a valuable resource for parents and teachers alike” but in reality is hosted by white supremacist group StormFront.

Indeed there are indications that such resources are proliferating. A 2009 report from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre identified over 8,000 hate and terrorist websites and claimed that this number was growing at a rate of 30% per year. The report also suggested that extremists are dynamically leveraging new technologies such as online videos via YouTube and Facebook, as well as blogs and online virtual gaming. In 2010 a study from Florida University examined online games containing racism and violence from 724 white supremacist websites and concluded that the purpose of these games was to indoctrinate players with racist ideologies and practice aggressive activities towards minorities which may influence subsequent real world interactions.

These trends present a significant challenge to the educational establishment. As Miller & Bartlett suggest in their 2012 article “Digital Fluency: towards young people’s critical use of the Internet”:

The Internet has become central to learning, but the skills to use it appropriately and well have not become central to learning how to learn. The era of mass, unmediated information needs to be attended by a new educational paradigm based on a renewal of critical, sceptical, savvy thought fit for the online age. Doubtless, today's teachers and librarians deserve sympathy because the speed of change has been very rapid and education curricula have as little free time as education and literacy professionals do. However, education must keep pace with society's turbulence, not vice versa.

The Trend Towards Intimacy in Social Networking

In his 2010 book “How Many Friends Does One Person Need?” Robin Dunbar, Director of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University concludes that the cognitive power of the brain limits the size of social networks that any one species can develop. Drawing upon his study of the brain sizes and social networks of primates, Dr Dunbar suggests that the size of the human brain permits the formation of stable networks of 150 people (see page 4).

His argument is that in a context where meaningful relationships require a certain investment of time as well as emotional and psychological capital; there are sociological and anthropological limits to the number of people who we can know personally, trust and feel emotional affinity for. In practice the size of a broad range of social groupings have been shown to conform to the “Dunbar Number”, from Neolithic villages and military units from Roman times to the present (Harvard Magazine 2010) to the average number of friends people have on Facebook (New York Times 2010) and even the average number of Christmas cards households send out every year (Bloomberg Businessweek Technology 2013).

This research has fuelled a trend towards smaller online social networks – Path a mobile social networking application established in 2010 explicitly limits the number of friends users can add to 150 (based on the assumption that people generally have 5 best friends, 15 good friends and 50 close friends and family). As of September 2012 the Path network has expanded to over 3 million users (CNET 2012). In November 2010, South Korean firm VCNC launched a mobile social networking application “Between” which offers a private online space for couples to share photographs, memories and chat in real time. In January 2013 VCNC secured $230 million to grow its business internationally after reaching 2.35 million downloads (The Next Web 2013). Other mobile social networking applications such as Storytree and Familyleaf have been established to provide private online networks for family members. The question remains, will this trend contribute to denser more meaningful online social exchanges, or divide the web into introverted and fragmented social enclaves?