Technology was supposed to make our lives simpler and save us time. In many ways, it's done just the opposite. Last month, we took a look at how often our gadgets let us down, and how screen-based devices are literally rewiring our brains and robbing people of focus and social skills. But we left one of the more obvious techno-fear topics -- information overload -- for another day.
A new study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project suggests consumers are coping with the avalanche of information they receive in unexpected and often successful ways. So today we'll discuss both that silver lining and the gray cloud inside of it.
Having all the world's information, and very nearly all the world's people, just a click away seems like a fantastic development for humankind. But how much is too much?
The Economist magazine recently reported that the total amount of information in the world is growing 60 percent annually, and that U.S. households digest 34 gigabytes of data per person per day.
That's not information overload; it's practically electrocution. But the Pew study sheds some light on how U.S. consumers are dealing with the surge -- they're getting a little help from their friends.
In a new report called "Understanding the Participatory News Consumer," Pew says that one third of consumers have commented on news stories or shared them through social networking sites, half "rely on people around them to tell them when there is news they need to know," and 8 out of 10 get or share links in e-mail.
"Consumers are using social networks to filter, assess and react to the news," the report concluded.
In other words, one sure-fire way to build Web traffic is to get a social network user to yell at all their friends, "Hey. Look at that!"
"Yes, there is a lot of that going on," said Lee Rainie, who runs Pew's Internet research. "People are getting their news through recommendations in social spaces."
New participation, new loyalty
Those are just a few of the findings in the Pew study, which suggested that consumers are driving news creation and even story selection like never before. In a moment, we're going to ask you about the ways you consume news and deal with information overload. But first, here are more tidbits from the study.
While the changing online news user seems loyal to their friends and their recommendations, loyalty to specific online news brands is evolving differently. Only 35 percent say they have a favorite place to visit for news -- contrast that with consumers' relatively fierce loyalty toward Coke or Pepsi, Burger King or McDonald’s.
"There is some level of loyalty but it's striking that people didn't say, 'Oh yeah, all the time, I am always checking out this Web site," said Rainie "We didn't expect that. We thought people would have a favorite, even if they were just 'grazing' on news. We were betting the percentages would be reversed."
On the other hand, Web users are loyal to a small family of Web sites they trust. The majority of online news consumers (57 percent) visit only two to five Web sites to stay updated. Only one in 10 users said they regularly visit more than five news sites.
Rainie cautions people on comparing the loyalty numbers to other media or other consumer products. Many people prefer one news anchor to another, or prefer Coke to Pepsi. But clicking on a Web site or blog represents a different kind of choice. Picking Coke necessarily means picking against Pepsi, and watching one network means not watching another. But on the Web, people are free to split time among multiple sources.
"You are not being disloyal if you click on a link from someone to another Web site," he said. There's no rejection involved. Online, people simply follow a click trail. "On the Web, it's more like an impulse buy."
With consumers trusting a circle of friends to keep them updated, professional journalists are becoming just another member of this intimate circle that serves as filter, Rainie said.
"A notable number of Internet users are beginning to treat news organizations, particular journalists, and other news mavens as nodes in their social networks," the report found. Fully 57 percent of U.S. adults use a social networking site, and 97 percent call themselves online news consumers.
Pew's research makes obvious that consumers are faced with an ever-growing list of choices. Fully 26 percent of U.S. adults, 33 percent of cell phone owners and 88 percent of mobile users are what Pew calls "on the go" users, meaning they use the Web to access news on their phones, the study found.
Meanwhile, "participation" in news is nearly as popular. Commenting on news stories -- as readers do on the Red Tape Chronicles or Newsvine -- has become almost a mainstream activity, with one in four respondents saying they'd done so. "On-the-go" news users are even more dedicated, with half saying they had engaged in personal commentary.
On the other hand, despite all the talk about Twitter (which just passed the 10 billion Tweet milestone), only 3 percent of users said they'd Tweeted about news. Twitter updates – either from professional journalists or friends – were the least commonly used news source among the general population, the study found. But Twitter users are an intense and devoted bunch. Nearly 100 percent are engaged in sharing news online and in other forms of participation.
Tools vs. overload
This level of active participation is not what you'd expect from a group of consumers cowering under the mountain of data headed their way every morning. This group is not disengaging because they can't keep up. In fact, the Pew study shows that people who participate in news stories are much more likely to follow that story over time, and to care about the outcome. It's a mixed bag, Rainie said.
"Information overload is part of the story, but not the whole part," Rainie said. "Some people are participating because they have so much choice in news and in life. Some people are probably disengaging. But some people are more engaged. … Some people do it because they can. The tools (for participating) are very good now."
Meanwhile, almost half of Web users (44 percent) say they have signed up for nifty technology that lets "the news find them," Pew said. They use an alert service, automated Web site updates, e-mail, or social networks to get headlines and stories delivered right to their screens. Slightly more than one quarter of Web users say they receive such passive news delivery at least once a day.
News snackers vs. deep divers
Clearly, some news consumers have changed their habits. Instead of spending 60 minutes reading a newspaper or 30 minutes watching a newscast, they might spend 5 minutes on a Web site or even just 60 seconds scanning headlines posted by friends on Facebook . This group is sometimes referred to as "news snackers." Rainie calls it "drive-by" headline scanning. There's concern that this group is learning less about their world and will be less able to participate in the political process. But even here, Rainie cautions against generalizations.
"We didn't ask equivalent questions in 1976, like 'How many of you are done with the newspaper in 3 minutes,'" he said. "Obviously, some people just scanned newspaper headlines, too. Meanwhile, people who care about a subject now have a lot more opportunity to get documents, video clips, and commentary. They have the ability to dive deeply into stories, sometimes for hours."
It's far too optimistic to suggest news consumers are winning the war on information overload, but Rainie thinks the new tools have at least given them a fighting chance.
"People are learning how to arrange the information universe around them, and learning how to be on alert in an environment that has this capacity," he said. "They are learning to open themselves up to more input from friends, and they can customize their sources to focus on subjects that matter to them. The technology is quite robust for doing these things."
But not everyone is being taken along for the ride. Lurking behind this debate about the new news consumers is a potential widening of the digital divide. Will consumers who don't Tweet, use Facebook, leave comments or post cell phone video fall ever further behind? While about one-third of the Internet audience is now fiercely engaged in posting news stories, arguing online or linking to video clips within sophisticated social media sites like Facebook, a host of other Americans don't have high-bandwidth access or the know-how to get involved.
"This is a long-standing concern of political scientists in general," Rainie said. "Even before the Internet there was a lot of evidence and research that people who were not deeply engaged with communication didn't take advantage of media sources, and, how would their voices be heard? ... Online news participants are still upper class and well educated."
This might leave consumers with a stark choice: participate or perish.
"People have to either be engaged, or be left out," he said. "Many people lack the technology and the tools to take full advantage of this new environment that gives them the capacity to be more involved. We have to make sure that there is fundamental access to the new tools for participation."
What about you? Do you feel more engaged or more overwhelmed? Are you using new tools like Twitter and Facebook as much as Pew thinks you are? Do you like participating in debates on blogs like the Red Tape Chronicles? Have you personalized news sources? Are there other news and information tools you are craving, or that you imagine would be helpful? What subjects would you like to hear more about? Leave your comment here, or if you prefer, discuss on my Facebook fan page, follow me on Twitter, or Tweet about this story to your friends.