Content Rivers and Information Gluttony

These days every brand – big or small – is a publisher.

As Digital Eagles rightfully points out,

Content marketing lies at the foundation of any marketing strategy. For the sale of focus, we’ll be only discussing digital content marketing in this article.

As a result, consumers deal with a new – previously unseen phenomenon: “Information overload”

“Information overload”, I hear you say, “we know that already”. Is it really the problem, though? As Clay Shirky argues in his talk “It’s Not Information Overload. It’s Filter Failure”, information overload is our new environment of plenty and not a problem that needs solving.

We celebrate the availability of information in many great ways. Yet we experience problems with it sometimes. It lies upon us to create internal and external filters to manage our time and remain productive because they are our most precious resources.

Excited by the wealth of information available, we lay the traps ourselves by using the tools in an unsustainable manner. I’ve been doing it myself. At some point, I was following three hundred Tumblr accounts and around four hundred RSS feeds.

Soon, I started operating under the impression that I should see every item and extract value out of them. These expectations were unreasonable and they were making me crazy. I cut more than half of my RSS feeds. I left Tumblr for a while. Only now that I have returned a wiser man, do I understand more about this information gluttony.

More and More

As humans, we’re drawn towards content. There’s a drive to accumulate experience and learn about things because it helps us survive.

Putting aside immediate threats, it helps us reach our other goals too. This drive, however, has a tendency to extend. Soon, we start consuming content because it might help us reach a potential goal.

Our scope widens out of proportion. That’s also why we hop from entry to entry on Wikipedia and catch ourselves only four hours later. This is why people keep updating their Tumblr dashboard to see more shiny things.

Yet, if we go down this path, neophilia –the love of novelty– becomes the purpose. In the mass of indiscriminate content, true interestingness constitutes a surprise reward.

As our brains try to unveil the secret pattern which leads to more such rewards, it sends us on a quest for more and more content. Infinite scrolling or infinite pagination can keep us on a site or service for hours.

Too Little Information To Decide What To Ignore

Dumb aggregation tools collect an endless chronological sequence of content items. The absence of an unread count makes it into a “river of content”.

Somehow, this should be enough to change expectations and make it OK. It doesn’t always work and we get stuck on sites like Tumblr or Facebook.

Understanding what features of such content rivers cause you to slip into gluttony is key.

  1. Piles make us want to get to the end…
  2. But rivers of content have no edges or limits. Trying to consume all that passes on our screens is futile. So, we should know what we can safely ignore…
  3. Yet, rivers of content are often indiscriminate messes which make it difficult to decide what to read and what to throw out. Posts are often unstructured and stripped from categories: source and date are all we have to decide. Links on Twitter are inscrutable shortened URLs so we don’t even get that precious little indication regarding the source.

Deciding with certainty which pieces you can ignore is important for content consumers as well as curators. Design can help us with that.

As publishers and designers we should ask ourselves what relevant information we can provide to help our audience decide what they should or shouldn’t read. Metadata can be richer and more relevant. Some of the best WordPress plugins are free and many of them offers some great content categorization options.

Your web analytics will give you some clues as to which content is ignored by your audience and which pages “leak” conversions.

Lists and Folders

Until then, we might have to use old tools to organize our incoming streams and restrain ourselves. Lists and categories provide order and visibility.

They help us decide what to pay attention to and what we can ignore. To come back to food, you have better chances to avoid picking up candy if you make a list of groceries in advance and stick to it.

Mark Zuckerberg is often quoted as saying: “Nobody wants to make lists”. Most people don’t want to, yet, some order must be imposed if we are to stop treating content like formless stuff. Lists have a long and rich history in helping us make sense of the infinite, as Umberto Eco says. What makes list-making unpopular on the web is the lack of a strong incentive.

Bearing this limitation in mind and with practice, it is possible to gain a little control back. Take a little time aside, while we’re still in the beginning of the year, to review your lists of sources and the folders/categories they’re in. It is worth doing.

Image by silviarita from Pixabay