Information Overload

When is too much just too much and when does access to more make us better? It all depends on how we use the information—and time—we are given.

Information Overload
Image Courtesy Adobe Stock

Between text messages and video chats, lengthy email threads, TikTok challenges, and hours-long doom scrolling sessions on Twitter, the term “information overload” has reached new heights in the digital era.

As one wag in a viral tweet said, “I wake up and mainline the internet for half an hour. I’m sure that’s healthy.”

But is it detrimental?

It’s an idea explored by SCU’s departments of Sociology and Communication, Latin American Studies and its partners, the Brazil-U.S. Colloquium of Communication Studies and the Brazilian Society for Interdisciplinary Studies in Communication.

Laura Robinson, an associate professor of sociology at Santa Clara, delved into the effects of endless information with Pablo Boczkowski, author of Abundance, in fall 2021. They were joined by Professors Sonia Virgínia Moreira of Rio de Janeiro State University and Danilo Rothberg of São Paulo State University in Brazil, who are studying the concept of abundance in their home country. In his book, the Northwestern University professor examines the consequences and benefits of living in a society brimming with massive, sudden amounts of information, or digital data.

The effects of having access to endless wells of information depend on how people process it, what it signifies and how it makes them feel, Boczkowski argues.

“Is it optimal to doom scroll for two hours in the middle of the day, or is it really a waste of time?” pondered Boczkowski. “When the new season of our favorite show is released on streaming, is it bad to binge watch that and go through the entire season in a couple of days, or is it an interesting way to entertain ourselves? That all depends on the individual and the situation at hand.”

The idea of information abundance is more neutral and ambiguous than the assumption that large amounts of information are detrimental, argues Boczkowski.

He grounds his book in extensive fieldwork and survey research from his hometown— Buenos Aires, Argentina. It examines how cultural and structural factors affect the availability of information and the consequences for media, politics, and society.

Boczkowski found that many surveys signaled a growing devaluation of facts and an appreciation of fantasy or fiction—as respondents expressed a growing disinterest in the news or media and greater appreciation for entertainment, including shows watched on streaming services.

He highlights this shift with a striking anecdote: On Instagram, soccer superstar Lionel Messi posted a series of photos celebrating his first goal for the team, Paris Saint-Germain. The post garnered nearly 14 million likes in just 5 to 6 hours.

Boczkowski compared it to the New York Times’ latest 20 Instagram posts, which garnered less than 10% of the likes on Messi’s single post.

“Do we really think that the media sets the agenda, at a time in which the New York Times needs over 200 posts to get the same level of engagement of one footballer scoring the second goal in a fairly inconsequential game?” he asks. “I don’t think so.”

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