Beware of "Exploding" Studies

Information Overload
Twice in two weeks I've read a similar headline about a Northwestern University study: "Study Explodes the Myth of Internet-Based Information Overload." Authors of these articles should be mindful of the implications of research-and look more carefully at the methodology.

The study, involving a mere seven focus groups of 77 participants on vacation in Las Vegas, asked people about information they receive through the web and other media sources and how they feel about it. A relatively small study that doesn't look at behavior should be considered cautiously. Eszter Hargittai, lead author of the study, drew this conclusion:

"There's definitely some frustration with the quality of some of the information available. But these frustrations were accompanied by enthusiasm and excitement on a more general level about overall media choices."

Fair enough. But articles such as Social Media Today's is not exactly in line with the study's reach and impact. Northwestern University's own descriptions seem more appropriate:

"'Information overload' may be an exaggerated way to describe today's always-on media environment. Actually, very few Americans seem to feel bogged down or overwhelmed by the volume of news and information at their fingertips and on their screens, according to a new Northwestern University study."

"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.'"

On the other hand, the Social Media Today article raises a good point about exaggeration on the other side of the argument:

"Listen to enough hysterical warnings and dire forecasts and you'd think that information overload is leading us to some kind of bleak, post-apocalyptic future. In an Advertising Age column he wrote back in 2007, Edelman Senior VP Steve Rubel said, 'A crash is coming, folks. But this time it's not financial-it's personal.' The attention crisis, he said, is an epidemic. "There's no more room at the inn. People will cut back."

Perhaps we can learn lessons about both sides of the debate.

Image source.

Discussion Starters:

  • What's your own view about "information overload"?
  • What could have been a better headline for the story in Social Media Today?