Information Overwhelm: Overview, Symptoms, Causes, & Solutions

Information Overwhelm: Overview, Symptoms, Causes, & Solutions


  • Why does the Internet seem to be causing us to feel worse?
  • Why aren't all suddenly becoming super smart?
  • As information becomes abundant, what becomes scarce?
    • Attention
    • Time and intelligence to process all of the data and find alpha patterns
  • How could the information architecture / usability of an article be improved?
  • Is it possible to not feel information overwhelm?



You know that the more words is used for a phenomenon, the more important that underlying concept is for that culture. Information overwhelm

  • Information processing theory
  • Information process
  • information overload theory
  • Cognitive load theory
  • Cognitive processing
  • Media overexposure
  • information overabundance
  • infoglut
  • data smog
  • information pollution
  • Information overload
  • Information deluge
  • Information flood
  • Information poverty
  • information inundation
  • information excess
  • Information tidal wave
  • information fatigue
  • social media fatigue
  • social media overload
  • information anxiety
  • library anxiety
  • infostress
  • infoxication
  • reading overload
  • communication overload
  • cognitive overload
  • Information violence
  • Information assault
  • Infocolypse
  • Information explosion
  • information tsunami
  • infobesity
  • Information Fatigue Syndrome

Related Terms

  • Attention economy
  • Switching costs
  • Bottom-up vs. Top-down attention
  • multitasking

Interesting Ideas

  • What we call information overwhelm is actually a mixture of a lot of sub-ideas:
    • FOMO
    • Clickbait / Fake news
    • Superstimuli (money, models, controversy)
    • Newsfeed
    • Many inboxes
  • Info overwhelm has been around for a long, long time. It's not a recent phenomenon.
  • Look at coping with information overwhelm as a skill set:
    • Break it down into smaller skills
    • Get better at those skills

Areas Of Info Overwhelm

  • Online health information
  • Teachers - firehosing
  • Sales
  • Shopping
  • Attention fragmentation / multi-tasking
    • Meetings
    • Torrents of email and other inboxes


Information overload is a state in which a decision maker faces a set of information (i.e., an information load with informational characteristics such as an amount, a complexity, and a level of redundancy, contradiction and inconsistency) comprising the accumulation of individual informational cues of differing size and complexity that inhibit the decision maker’s ability to optimally determine the best possible decision. The probability of achieving the best possible decision is defined as decision-making performance. The suboptimal use of information is caused by the limitation of scarce individual resources. A scarce resource can be limited individual characteristics (such as serial processing ability, limited short-term memory) or limited task-related equipment (e.g., time to make a decision, budget). — Information overload in the information age
There is no single generally accepted definition of information overload. The term is usually taken to represent a state of affairs where an individual’s efficiency in using information in their work is hampered by the amount of relevant, and potentially useful, information available to them. The information must be of some potential value, or it could simply be ignored, and it must be accessible, or the overload will only be potential, not actual. The feeling of overload is usually associated with a loss of control over the situation, and sometimes with feelings of being overwhelmed. In the extreme, it can lead to damage to health. ... This can be all summed up by the idea that information overload occurs when information received becomes a hindrance rather than a help, even though the information is potentially useful. For reviews of the topic, see Eppler and Mengis [16], Bawden [17] and Bawden, Holtham and Courtney [18]. — Study: The dark side of information: overload, anxiety and other paradoxes and pathologies
In this article, the most widely-accepted approach is taken, and overload is regarded as that situation which arises when there is so much relevant and potentially useful information available that it becomes a hindrance rather than a help (Bawden, Holtham and Courtney 1999, Bawden and Robinson 2009) —Study: Information overload-an overview
Overload is here taken as being caused by technology bringing us too much information, made worse by a sense that there is not adequate control over the flood. More precisely, information overload can best be seen as the situation which arises when an individual's efficiency and effectiveness in using information (whether for their work, studies, citizenship, or life generally) is hampered by the amount of relevant, and potentially useful, information available to them. The information must be of value, or it could simply be ignored, and it must be known about and must be accessible, or the overload will only be potential; although that latter situation could certainly cause anxiety or FOMO (fear of missing out). —Study: Information overload-an overview
the situation in which someone knows that relevant information exists, but knows that they cannot access and use it properly because of time constraints. Wilson (1995)

Qualities Of Information Overload

  • Perceived lack of time to deal with all of the information at hand
  • Emotional toll of saying no to valauable information
  • Decision fatigue from constantly avoiding superstimuli
  • FOMO - realizing gap between what you could be, do, and have and where you are now


In some ways, one could visualize overwhelm as the gap between right information and ability to cope.

Info Overwhelm

Too Much Information

  • Printing press
  • Email
  • Social media
  • Big data
  • Publication exploration
  • Easier to spread
  • Increasing population
  • More knowledge creators
  • Easier to publish (Internet, gutenberg)
  • Social media
  • Number of inboxes
  • Virtual reality

Types Of Information

  • Diversity
  • Complexity
  • Novelty
  • “Context-free” information

Pervasive and Pushed Information

  • Notifications (text messages, app notifications, calls, alarms, reminders)
  • Inboxes (email, social media)
  • Smart mobile devices that are always with us
  • Never-ending scrolling

Information Handling

  • “Siloed” information
  • Unconnected information
  • Unindexed information
  • Ineffective searching procedures

Coping Tools

Cognitive Capacity

  • Working memory
  • Limited information processing capacity per time unit
  • Decision fatigue / self-discipline
  • Emotional fatigue (overwhelm, FOMO)


  • Limited time (time pressure)

Info Architecture / UX

  • Encyclopedia
  • Dictionary
  • Map
  • Diagram
  • Index
  • Page numbering
  • Alphabetical order


  • Searc

Qualities Of Information

  • Quantity
    • Way more infformation than we need or can act upon now
  • Diversity
  • Quality of information
    • Useful vs useless (and we only have time for the very best)
    • Accurate vs innaccurate
    • Reliable vs unreliable
  • Complexity
    • Formats
    • Fragmentation across disciplines
      • Each field has its own vocabulary
  • Novelty of information
    • Sweetspot between too little and too much
    • New paradigm
      • Rapidity of change - We live in an era where things that were constant for awhile that we ignored that we now pay attention to (inflation)
    • "As regards the novel content of incoming information, there is a 'sweet spot' in relation to the amount of information presented and the decision made on it: adding information beyond that point leads to overload and a decline in the quality of decisions Chewning and Harrell 1990, Jones and Kelly 2018). Kuhlthau (1993) expresses the same idea in slightly different terms. The balance between redundant (already known) information and unique new information is crucial: too much uniqueness leads to anxiety and overload, too much redundancy leads to boredom. (Study: Information Overload—An Overview)
  • Contradiction
The more diverse and complex a collection of information is, and the more alternatives it offers, or appears to offer, the more likely it is to cause overload (Eppler and Mengis 2004, Bawden and Robinson 2009, Roetzel 2018, Li 2017). —Study: Information Overload—An Overview

Levels Of Information

  • Data
  • Information
  • Knowledge
  • Wisdom -
    • densely connected to other concepts from wide-ranging fields
    • Connected to more fundamental mental models

Second-Order Implications

Trust is becoming more important

  • There's not enough time to keep up with everything. That's for sure. So, we need to place our trust in filters:
    • Curators
    • Algorithms

Info overwhelm as a tool for hidden influence

So this is another type of censorship that I have thought about but don't speak so much about. Which is censorship through complexity. And that is basically the offshore financial sector. Censorship through complexity. Censorship of what? Censorship of political outrage. With enough political outrage there is law reform and enough law reform you can't do it anymore. So why is it that all these careful tax structuring arrangements are so complex? I mean, they may be perfectly legal, but why are they so god damn complex? Well, because the ones that weren't complex were understood and the ones that were understood were regulated, so you're only left with the things that are incredibly complex. But how in the future will people deal with the fact that the incentive to publish information that is misleading, wrong, manipulative, is very high. Furthermore you can't figure out who the bad publisher was as well as the good...because there's anonymity in the system. [...] So when things become open things tend to become more complex, because people start hiding what they are doing, their bad behaviour, through complexity. And so that will be bureaucratic double speak is an example. When things get bureaucratized and so on, and everything becomes mealy mouthed, and so that's a cost of openness. Is that kind of bureaucratization, and in the offshore sector you see incredible complexity in the layers of things happening to one another so they become impenetrable. And of course cryptography is an intellectual system that has specialized in making things as complex as possible. Those things are hard to attack. On the other hand complex systems are also hard to use. So bureaucracies and internal communications systems which have this, which are full of weasel words and arse covering, are inefficient internal communications systems. And similarly, those tremendously complex offshore structuring arrangements are actually inefficient. But maybe you're ahead when the tax regime is high, but if the tax regime is zero you're not going to be ahead at all. Sorry, if the tax regime is 3%, you're not going to be ahead at all, you're going to be choked by the complexity. Transcript of Julian Assange and Eric Schmidt (former Google CEO)

Stages Of Info Processing

  • Search
  • Selection
  • Processing
    • Cognitive biases
  • Application
  • Evaluation

Stats On The Amount Of Info Overload

As Of 2001

This is readily supported by statistics of the sort often quoted [17]:

  • a weekly edition of the New York Times contains more information than the average person was likely to come across in a lifetime in seventeenth-century England
  • the English language of the late 20th century contains about 50,000 words, five times more than in Shakespeare’s lifetime
  • the collections of the large US research libraries doubled between 1876 and 1990
  • over one thousand books were published each day across the world during 1990
  • more information has been created in the past 30 years than in the previous 5,000 years
  • the number of records in publicly available online databases increased from 52 million in 1975 to 6.3 thousand million in 1994
  • the number of documents on the Internet doubled from 400 million to 800 million from 1998 to 2000
  • it would take over 200,000 years to ‘read all the Internet’, allowing 30 minutes per document.

As Of 2020

  • A weekly edition of the New York Times in the early years of the 21st century contained more information than the average person was likely to come across in a lifetime in seventeenth century England (Bawden and Robinson 2009)
  • More information was created in the last three decades of the 20th century than in the previous 5000 years (Bawden and Robinson 2009)
  • In 2012 about 2.5 exabytes of data were created each day, with the amount doubling every 3 years, and more data were transmitted across the Internet each second that were stored in the whole internet 20 years previously (McAfee et al. 2012) 15
  • In the late 1970s, it was estimate that it would take seven hundred years to read one year's research literature in one subject (chemistry) (Bernier 1978)
  • By 2012, enough data was being generated each day to fill all the libraries in the United States eight times over (Floridi 2014B).
  • It is literally impossible to read all relevant material, even within a narrow speciality given by (Fraser and Dunstan 2010). They envisage a trainee in the speciality of cardiac imaging setting out to read the directly relevant medical literature. Reading 40 papers a day five days a week, they would require over 11 years to bring themselves up to date. By the time they had finished, another 82,000 relevant papers would have been published, requiring another 8 years reading.
  • In January 2019, a Google search for the phrase "information overload" produces over three million items. A search in the Web of Knowledge database of academic literature retrieved over 3,000 articles, while searches in bibliographic databases of subjects such as business, psychology and social sciences typically each found a thousand items. (Study: Information Overload—An Overview)


The topic has been reviewed over time and from various perspectives; see, for example, Wilson (1996), Bawden, Holtham and Courtney (1999), Edmund and Morris (2000), Eppler and Mengis (2004), Hall and Walton (2004), Levy (2008), Bawden and Robinson (2009), Hargittai, Neuman and Curry (2012), Benselin and Ragsdell (2015), Case and Given (2016, pp.122-127), Koltay (2017), Batista and Marques (2017), Roetzel (2018) and Jones and Kelly (2018). —Study: Information Overload—An Overview

Classical Era

Almost from the beginning of writing in the ancient and classical world, as the opening quotation from Seneca illustrates, there were complaints of too many books, and too much to read.
The writer of Ecclesiastes, who remarked that ‘of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh’ (ch 12, v 6), was the first of a long line of commentators who saw the proliferation of information as a detriment to effectiveness and efficiency.


In the European medieval age of handwritten manuscripts the problem was perceived to become more serious, with Vincent of Beauvais lamenting "the multitude of books, the shortness of time, and slipperiness of memory" in 1255. "By the middle of the thirteenth century", writes Blair (2010, p. 45), "the principle ingredients both of a perception of overload and of solutions to it were in place". The solutions included reference works, compilations, indexes, concordances, and structured design of text. —Study: Information Overload - An Overview
As Blair (2012) noted in her review article, even in the thirteenth century, scholars complained of “the key ingredients of the feeling of overload which are still with us today: ‘the multitude of books, the shortness of time and the slipperiness of memory’” (Blair 2012, p. 1). [...] In ancient and medieval times, the nobility and academics almost exclusively faced information overload-related problems, as Blair (2012) and Levitin (2014) suggested.

Printing Press Era

This era is analyzed by Blair (2003), who notes that a time of Gutenberg there were thirty thousand handwritten books in Europe, while fifty years after his death there were ten million printed books. She quotes Conrad Gessner complaining of a “confusing and harmful abundance of books" in 1545, and Adrien Baillet a century later lamenting that “we have reason to fear that the multitude of books which grows every day in a prodigious fashion will make the following centuries fall into a state as barbarous as that of the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire”

Study: Information Overload - An Overview

19th Century

Overload in its modern sense began to be recognised with the communications revolution of the 19th century, with steam-powered presses multiplying the volume of material available —Study: Information Overload—An Overview

Innovations in information technology, such as the printed book, the periodical magazine or journal, the abstracting journal and the computer, have all led to complaints that it is impossible to keep up with the amount of information available. Such complaints have increased steadily over time. In 1852, for example, the annual report of the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington drew attention to the fact that ‘about twenty thousand volumes.. purporting to be additions to the sum of human knowledge, are published annually; and unless this mass be properly arranged, and the means furnished by which its contents may be ascertained, literature and science will be overwhelmed by their own unwieldy bulk.'

20th Century

Wurman [20] the first commentator to recognise the concept in its modern sense as George Simmel, a turn-of-the-century sociologist

Overload was acknowledged explicitly as a problem at the Royal Society’s influential Scientific Information Conference held in 1948 [17]. As Maurice Line commented:

“Not for the first time in history, but more acutely than ever before, there was a fear that scientists would be overwhelmed, that they would be no longer able to control the vast amounts of potentially relevant material that were pouring forth from the world’s presses, that science itself was under threat.” [17]

and, as a participant said at the time:

“Torrents and rivers of current literature pour themselves into libraries, adding, without cease, to what is already there … The scientist’s time and power of attention are precious things which need to be husbanded; to do this we need techniques of controlled selectiveness in supplying his needs.” [17]

... The situation worsened, for those dealing primarily with academic and professional publications as information sources, due to the increase in volume of the primary literature throughout the 1970s and 1980s. A commentator on medical information in 1986, concluded that:

Many [medical practitioners] have abandoned “keeping up with the literature”. They are paralysed by the sheer enormity of the task: more than 20,000 journals in biomedicine are published each year and a consultant in a single medical sub-speciality may need to read fifteen to twenty publications a month to keep up to date”. [17] Eugene Garfield [21], two years before, had described it as an “already well-defined disease”. By the 1990s, information overload began to be referred to as a major problem, in the business world as much as in academia and the professions, and even more so with the influence of new technologies, particularly electronic mail and the internet. This was crystallised by a series of reports of large-scale surveys, notably that of Reuters, and influential books such as that of Shenk [22], which indicated that information overload was a major problem for individuals and for organisations, and that the techniques and “coping strategies” used in the past were no longer effective. The problem was affecting the effectiveness, and even the health, of professional workers, particularly managers in businesses, and was severely affecting the efficient working, and productivity, of organisations. The Reuters survey of business managers, “Dying for information” revealed a number of startling statistics [17]: • two thirds of managers believed information overload had caused loss of job satisfaction • two thirds believed it had damaged their personal relationships • one third believed it had damaged their health • nearly half believed important decisions were delayed and adversely affected as a result of having too much informatin.

Study: The dark side of information: overload, anxiety and other paradoxes and pathologies

Individual Coping Strategies

Information Literacy

  • Planning
  • Attention to detail
  • Ability to find good sources
  • Effective search procedures
  • Managing environment
  • Ignore certain information
  • Taking action without having all the facts
  • Create an information queue
  • Filter information ruthlessly;
  • Delegate information responsibly
  • Learn to skim read.
  • Slow reading & reflection


A closely related viewpoint is that overload, assuming that it exists, is not really caused by TMI, since there is never a necessary for anyone to absorb all relevant information; rather it is caused by "filter failure", an inability, which may be due to a variety of causes, to identify from the mass of available information what is useful to us to any particular time; for a clear identification of this ides in the context of health information, see Klerings, Weinhandl and Thaler (2015). —Study: Information Overload - An Overview
Savolainen (2007), as noted earlier, identifies filtering as a valuable mechanism for reducing overload. He denoted a filtering strategy as a disciplined and systematic attempt to focus on relevant information from chosen sources, by specifying criteria for immediately removing items from consideration. These criteria will necessarily be different for each source, and may be applied intellectually or algorithmically. Manheim (2014), Shachaf, Aharony and Baruchson, (2016), Feng and Agosta (2017), Saxena and Lamest (2018) and Jones and Kelly (2018) also identify filtering as a major strategy for avoiding overload. The behavioral decision theory literature in essence also assumes that decision makers do not consider everything in making choices (Lau, 2019). Study: Information Overload - An Overview

Types Of Filtering

It may involve a variety of processes for selecting, omitting, and ranking information (Belkin and Croft 1992, Rader and Grey 2015, Saxena and Lamest (2018). A distinction is sometimes made between active filtering, seeking useful information and drawing it to the user's attention, and passive filtering, omitting less useful material from that presented to the user. Filtering may be done automatically on the basis of explicitly asking for user preferences. Alternatively, it may be done algorithmically , by simple means, such as by noting what kinds of email messages are deleted unread, or by more complex means, using techniques such as machine learning; for examples of the latter, see Jones and Kelly (2018). It can be achieved by means of organizational procedures; elite politicians, for example, were noted to filter incoming information through procedures and the use of assistants as information intermediaries Walgrave and Dejaeghere (2017). —Study: Information Overload - An Overview

Costs Of Filtering

Filtering is always a trade-off. It helps reduce overload by allowing users to concentrate on useful information, but may cause them to miss serendipitous encounters with novel information, and may discourage exploration. There is also an ethical question about who, or what, is controlling what information a user sees. An antidote to this may be to ensure that filtering is always done transparently transparently (Jones and Kelly 2018, Raderand Grey 2015). —Study: Information Overload - An Overview

Examples Of Filtering

  • Ignoring emails and social media notifications from certain people and about certain topics
  • Unfollowing accounts on social media
  • Examining only the most recent, or the most relevant, items from a long list
  • Examining only items inlanguages in which one is fluent, rather than seeking a translation for others

Study: Information Overload - An Overview


Definition Of Satisficing

Satisficing, also termed bounded rationality, is a way of making decisions and choices when it not feasible to fully compare the benefits of possible options; in essence, a way of efficiently getting something that, while not necessarily optimal, is good enough for the purpose (Simon 1955, Gigerenzer and Selten 2001; Stevens, 2019). —Study: Information Overload - An Overview

Satisficing Information

In the information context, provided that there is a good rationale for the decisions made, this can be a good heuristic for getting good enough information without being overloaded. Indeed, such behaviour, often quite sophisticated and usually involving withdrawing and filtering approaches, is commonly observed; see, for example, Agusto (2002), Prabha et al. (2007), Mansouran and Ford (2007), Savolainen (2007), Warwick et al. (2009), MacDonald, Bath and Booth (2011), Manheim (2014), and Shachaf, Aharony and Baruchson, (2016). It is sometimes clearly the predominant means of avoiding overload, as with the Belgian politicians studied by Walgrave and Dejaeghere (2017). It is often suggested that satisficing is an expression of Zipf's Principle of Least Effort, but Mannheim produces examples to show that this may not always be so; people do not always follow, in information terms, the path of least effort. —Study: Information Overload - An Overview

Good vs Bad Satisficing

Bawden and Robinson (2009) distinguish good satisficing from bad satisficing. Good satisficing requires a clear (to its user) rationale for why decisions are being taken. Bad satisficing reduces to an essentially random and contingent selection of sources and material, and to an avoidance of information. The former is a good solution to perceived overload; the latter, while it may easy anxiety, is unlikely to be effective where the information carries any real significance for its user, life, work or study. Cooke (2017) points to the danger of bad satisficing in relation to problems of post-truth and alternative facts, and in particular to the spreading of fake news.

Avoiding And Withdrawing

The rather crude heuristic of information avoidance relies on simply ignoring potentially useful information, and sources of information, either because there is just too much to deal with, or because it is incongruent, difficult to fit with the user's existing knowledge (Sweeny et al. 2010, Neben 2015)... As Johnson (2014), and the sources which he quotes, point out, avoidance, or escape, may be a perfectly rational response to overload, if one cannot make any use of the information obtained. Manheim (2014), somewhat similarly, argues, that not seeking for information may be a perfectly reasonably course of action in some circumstances, and will certainly prevent, or at least minimize, overload. However, more negatively, avoidance may lead to avoiding disquieting or discordant information, which can lead to escaping, seeking simple solutions to complex issues by avoiding information which may be challenging or unsettling, or even by turning to demagogues (Johnson 2014). Case and Given (2016 pp.115-116) use selective exposure for much the same strategy. A more nuanced approach, identified by Savolainen (2007) is information withdrawal, a conscious decision to keep to a minimum the number of sources to be considered, ideally combined with a filtering of intake, and a rapid weeding of relevant material of limited usefulness. This strategy has been noted by other researchers; see, for example, Shachaf, Aharony and Baruchson, (2016), Sasaki, Kawai and Kitamura (2016), Liang and Fu (2017), Feng and Agosta (2017), and Saxena and Lamest (2018). The senior politicians studied by Walgrave and Dejaeghere (2017) placed much reliance on this approach, focusing on information matching their ideology (party leaders) or their specialist brief (ministers). Examples of withdrawal are: * customising social media to limit the number of notification received * unfriending or unfollowing social media accounts * turning off mobile devices, or ignoring email or social media, for a period * focusing solely on information matching existing knowledge or frame of reference * leaving a social media platform entirely. —Study: Information Overload - An Overview
Info-anxious students often sacrifice their information seeking (by ending their research with minimal or poor resources) or sometimes abandon it altogether (Blundell & Lambert, 2014, p. 263). Study: A Generation of Information Anxiety: Refinements and Recommendations


Technological Coping Mechanisms


  • Summaries of texts
  • Lists of collection holdings

Medieval / Manuscript

  • reference works
  • compilations
  • concordances
  • structured design of text
  • Silent reading
  • Punctuation
  • Codex format

Printing Press

  • skim reading
  • browsing
  • cutting and pasting
  • annotating (Blair 2003, 2010).
  • Reference books
  • Bibliographies
  • Note taking

18th Century

  • Encyclopedias
  • Dictionaries
  • Better Indexes
  • Periodicals
  • Greater use of summaries, criticisms and reviews
  • This century also saw the beginning of a much criticized trend, a reliance on skim reading: “the late eighteenth century boom in the number of publications … encouraged rapid scanning and skimming rather than intensive study of a few” (Secord 2014, p.128).

19th Century

  • , and the widespread adoption of newspapers and magazines, learned journals, textbooks, and other new formats (Edmund and Morris 2000)

20th Century

  • the documentation movement, and the development of tools for bibliographic control, such as abstracts, bibliographies, subject indexing, cataloguing rules, and classification schemes for the paper-based world reached its peak (Csiszar 2013, Wright 2014).
  • Around the mid-twentieth century, complains about overload in dealing with scientific information in particular reached a peak. Vannevar Bush's influential 1945 Atlantic Monthly article noted that scientists were bogged down by a growing mountain of research.
  • Overload was explicitly acknowledged (though not under that name) at the Royal Society's Scientific Information Conference in 1948, which was highly influential in dictating the pattern for academic and professional information services at the start of the digital age. At that conference "not for the first time in history, but more acutely than ever before, there was a fear than scientists would be overwhelmed, that they would no longer be able to control the vast amounts of potentially relevant material that were pouring forth from the world's presses" and that "torrents and rivers of current literature pour themselves into libraries, adding, without cease, to what is already there" (Bawden, Holtham and Courtney 1999; Bawden and Robinson 2009).
  • Information overload first became noted as a potential problem for business and government in the 1960s, summed up by Wilensky (1968, p. 331): "Information has always been a source of power, but it is now increasingly a source of confusion. In every sphere of modern life, the chronic condition is a surfeit of information, poorly integrated or lost somewhere in the system"
  • Alvin Toffler's influential book Future Shock (1970) first brought the phenomenon to wide attention. He described overload as causing both physical and physiological distress due to overloading of perception, cognition and decision-making process, by the technological advances transforming industrial society.
  • By 1984, the leading scientific publisher Eugene Garfield was writing of "the already well-defined disease information overload".
  • Up to the 1970s, overload was largely a matter of journal and report literature for academics and professionals, and of consumer choice for the general public. It became a major and general issue of concern and focus in the 80s and 90s, with the widespread adoption of digital sources and then the internet. It was realised a transformation had occurred; the fundamental 10 problem was no longer finding information, but filtering and controlling it (Tenopir 1990). As Popova (2011, p. 5) put it: "While the old media fought against the scarcity of information, new media are fighting the overabundance of information."


  • Google Search
  • Curators
  • Filtering Algorithms
  • Good UX: "Minimise the chances that the user will be subjected to, particularly on a single screen, too much information (too much text, too many images, too many messages, etc.) or too much choice (too many features, too many options)"
  • Interactive Dashboard
  • Info Architecture (signposting, taxonomies)
  • Teaching digital literacy (aka - information literacy)


Web 1.0

  • Links
  • Information

Web 2.0

  • Likes
  • Connection


  • Hear from way more voices
  • Hear from super smart people
  • Go around mainstream media


  • Clickbait
  • Newsfeeds
  • Polarization
  • Everybody has there own publishing house
  • Pandering to one's tribe
  • Cancel culture
  • Lots of distractions

Web 3.0

  • M
  • Ownership
  • Crypto oracles??

Challenges To Reducing Overwhelm


A little like recovering addicts, senior executives must labor each day to keep themselves on track by applying timeless yet powerful guidelines: find time to focus, filter out the unimportant, forget about work every now and then. The holy grail, of course, is to retain the benefits of connectivity without letting it distract us too much. —McKinsey

The Costs

Misinformation, Filter Bubbles, And Fake News

  • Pandemic
  • War
  • Polarizaiton
  • Filterbubbles
  • Takes more time to decipher what's true
Arguably the main difference between the influence of overload in the 21st century and in previous times is the way in which overload is now perceived to cause problems for social cohesion and political action, including loss of social social cohesion, political polarization, and a loss of vitality of the public sphere (Hargittai, Neuman and Curry 2012). There is a particular issue with people finding reliable information from news sources, when there are so many more online and social media sources, many of dubious validity, competing for the limited time and attention of their users (Kovach and Rosenstiel 2011, Anderson and Raine (2017), Schmitt, Debbeit, and Schneider 2018). Popkin (1993) found that voters in US elections used a variety of shortcuts in obtaining and evaluating news and information about parties, candidates and issues, even in pre-internet days. The same applies even more strongly in the age of the internet and social media, with simple and unreliable rules for selection being applied, and with information being avoided through filter bubbles, in which people seek only the political information and news which confirms their existing views (Cooke 2017, Case and Given 2016 pp.115-116). Overload also leads to unhelpful communication behaviour, such as sharing information, and links to information, without reading it carefully, if at all: TLDR (too long, didn't read) has become a popular acronym. —Study: Information Overload - An Overview


  • Continuous partial attention
  • Less time devoted to contemplative activities


  • Mental health problems associated with overload, which may cause physical symptoms, include attention deficit trait (Hallowell 2005), and cognitive overload (Kirsch 2000).
  • Kominiarczuk and Ledinska (2014) : people with a high level of information overload will experience lowered well-being, and the more information stress someone feels the less happy they are with their life.
  • The idea of information anxiety was introduced by Wurman in 1989; for later treatment, see Wurman (2001), Girard and Allison (2008), and Hartog (2017). It is a condition of stress caused by worries about the ability to find, access, understand, or use necessary information.
  • Poor physical health, high perceived stress (e.g., Misra and Stokols, 2012)
  • Poor memory recall (Peavler, 1974), among others.
  • Impaired decision making
Hierarchical regression analyses indicated that higher levels of perceived cyber-based overload significantly predicted self-reports of greater stress, poorer health, and less time devoted to contemplative activities, controlling for age, gender, ethnicity, and baseline measures of stress and health status.
Consequences of overload have been enumerated by many writers. Eppler and Mengis (2004) give a detailed list of observed consequences in management disciplines to the early years of the millennium, categorized as: limited information search and retrieval strategies, arbitrary information analysis and organization; suboptimal decisions; and strenuous personal circumstances. They will now be summarized under three headings: effects on health; inefficiency; misinformation and fake news. —Study: Information Overload - An Overview

Nassim Taleb has good writing on how more data can lead to more bias (mainstream news) and also how big data can lead to more misleading patterns.

Another is Spier (2016), who examines overload using the ideas of Horkheiner and Adorno, concluding that overload is a feature of a capitalist culture industry, whereby "the increase in standardised cultural messages in the media leaves individuals with fewer capacities for reflection and critical thinking" (p.394), and whereby individuals are active agents in their own overloading, in that they actively consume more information artefacts than they can interpret or understand.

Overwhelming people and causing them not to pay attention to media

Reinventing the wheel rather than building on top of other people's knowledge

Various psychological conditions have been described associated with this, such as

  • Continuous partial attention [12], a focus on being “in touch” and “connected” which results in stress
  • Atention deficit trait [13], a distractability and impatience due to too much mental stimulus.
  • Kirsch [14] identifies a condition of cognitive overload, when information overload is added to multitasking and interruptions, while West [15] identifies overload as a contributor to technostress in library settings.


A widely-noted Reuters report, based on a survey of 1,300 business managers worldwide, and dramatically entitled Dying for Information, revealed a number of startling statistics (Lewis 1996). [17]: • two thirds of managers believed information overload had caused loss of job satisfaction • two thirds believed it had damaged their personal relationships • one third believed it had damaged their health • nearly half believed important decisions were delayed and adversely affected as a result of having too much information

Study: The dark side of information: overload, anxiety and other paradoxes and pathologies


It slows us down The root of the problem is that our brain is best designed to focus on one task at a time. When we switch between tasks, especially complex ones, we become startlingly less efficient: in a recent study, for example, participants who completed tasks in parallel took up to 30 percent longer and made twice as many errors as those who completed the same tasks in sequence. The delay comes from the fact that our brains can’t successfully tell us to perform two actions concurrently.4 When we switch tasks, our brains must choose to do so, turn off the cognitive rules for the old task, and turn on the rules for the new one. This takes time, which reduces productivity, particularly for heavy multitaskers—who, it seems, take even longer to switch between tasks than occasional multitaskers.5 In practice, most of us would probably acknowledge that multitasking lets us quickly cross some of the simpler items off our to-do lists. But it rarely helps us solve the toughest problems we’re working on. More often than not, it’s procrastination in disguise. It hampers creativity One might think that constant exposure to new information at least makes us more creative. Here again, the opposite seems to be true. Teresa Amabile and her colleagues at the Harvard Business School evaluated the daily work patterns of more than 9,000 individuals working on projects that required creativity and innovation. They found that the likelihood of creative thinking is higher when people focus on one activity for a significant part of the day and collaborate with just one other person. Conversely, when people have highly fragmented days—with many activities, meetings, and discussions in groups—their creative thinking decreases significantly.6 These findings also make intuitive sense. Creative problem solving typically requires us to hold several thoughts at once “in memory,” so we can sense connections we hadn’t seen previously and forge new ideas. When we bounce around quickly from thought to thought, we know we’re less likely to make those crucial connections. It makes us anxious and it’s addictive In laboratory settings, researchers have found that subjects asked to multitask show higher levels of stress hormones.7 A survey of managers conducted by Reuters revealed that two-thirds of respondents believed that information overload had lessened job satisfaction and damaged their personal relationships. One-third even thought it had damaged their health.8 Nonetheless, evidence is emerging that humans can become quite addicted to multitasking. Edward Hallowell and John Ratey from Harvard, for instance, have written about people for whom feeling connected provides something like a “dopamine squirt”—the neural effects follow the same pathways used by addictive drugs.9 This effect is familiar too: who hasn’t struggled against the urge to check the smart phone when it vibrates, even when we’re in the middle of doing something else? —McKinsey
  • Information overload is a decisive factor driving negative “work environments [that] are killing productivity, dampening creativity, and making us unhappy” (Dean and Webb 2011).
  • Losses arising directly or indirectly from information overload are estimated at $650 billion worldwide each year (Lohr 2007)—an amount that equals the gross domestic product of Switzerland in 2015 (United Nations Statistic Division 2016).
  • However, a quarter century after interest in information load research peaked, the information load of managers in day-to-day operations has quadrupled.
  • Shenk (1997) described this phenomenon as data smog, the “muck and druck of the information age” (Shenk 1997, p. 31).

Visual Representation

Solutions To Overwhelm

  • Build up a base of knowledge like a top performer does so new information feels less complex.
  • Turn data into wisdom
    • Information architecture is the way that we arrange the parts of something to make it understandable as a whole.
    • image
  • Certainly more reliance is placed by academic and professional readers on abstracts and summaries, as opposed to a reading of the full document; see, for example, Nicholas, Huntington and Jamali (2007). Whilst a reasonable, and long-standing, way of coping of an excessive number of potentially useful things to be read, this is potentially troubling, as studies have shown that typically 20% of abstracts contain significant inaccuracies (see, for example, Hartley and Betts 2009); usually presenting the subject matter of the main document in an unreasonably positive light. the same must surely be true of policy makers and administrators.

Personal Reflections


How To Digital Garden Better

  • I notice that I create really long pages (book summaries, topic pages) and then they naturally begin to splinter as the page gets longer.
  • I'm still figuring out how to do it

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