Information Overload is a Cop-Out

Clay Shirky has fired a shot across the bow of every person who ever complained that they couldn’t get things done because of information overload. He suggests that our current approach to the Internet has infantalized users. As he points out, there have always been more books in any given bookstore than you can read in one sitting. So how do you deal with it? You make choices based on quality, price, needs, interests and personal taste. Now contrast that with the multitude of materials to read on the Internet? Do we make intelligent choices? More often than not, we abdicate personal responsibility and resort to complaining about information overload. The main difference between the bookstore and the Internet is the price of the information presented. Now that we have access to a vast array of free information, we can’t use the price filter. However, there is nothing about the virtual information source that relieves the consumer of the necessity of making choices based on the other filters of quality, needs, interests and personal taste.

For some, law firm knowledge management’s answer has been to spoonfeed the lawyers by using administrative staff and tech tools to scour the resources, make editorial choices, and then pass on the cream of the crop to the lawyers. And, we lawyers have enjoyed the service, while complaining when those editors don’t quite make the right choices. However, the minute the editor (virtual or real) disappears, the lawyers find themselves on the wrong end of the firehose of information with no personal tools for managing the flood. This creates a class of people who know how to consume fish, but haven’t been taught to fish. That’s failure of knowledge management and information technology training. It’s a place where basic instruction in personal knowledge management can yield great dividends.

Continuing the fish metaphor, Clay Shirky says, “we are to information overload as fish are to water. It’s what we swim in.” So, from his perpective, it’s time we stopped bemoaning the existence of our information environment and started paying closer attention to the filters we use. His advice: whenever it feels like you’re drowning in information, stop and take a look to see if you can identify which of your information filters just broke. And, my advice? None of this works if you don’t have a sensible set of personal information filters. So the onus is on you to find and use tools that tailor the information to your interests, needs and tastes. While law firm knowledge management can provide lawyers with some basic personal KM training and help identify useful tools, each individual lawyer has got to quit the moaning and start taking personal responsibility for the quality and quantity of information they process daily.

You can’t (and probably don’t want to) stop the information flow. All you can do is manage it effectively so that it doesn’t wrestle you to the floor every day. Good luck!

For more on this topic, see the video of Clay Shirky’s presentation.

[Thanks to Gina Trapani for pointing out this Shirky presentation.]

8 thoughts on “Information Overload is a Cop-Out

  1. Thanks for summarizing Clay’s point. I agree with him and you. I process loads of information and I’m loving it. Indeed, you have to put some good filters in place to help you process info. What I’m seeing in my work is that if info is not RSS-ified I’m not processing it. I want to aggregate the info as much as possible in my feed reader.

  2. Mary I’ve started using a tool called Feedhub this tool looks at your RSS Feeds and creates your own personalised feed out of them, with a litle bit of help from the user of course. This personalised feed becomes more valuable as it information/posts you want to read.

  3. My issue is I like too much stuff…so it’s not just about filter failure for me

    Interesting comment about the lawyers reaction when their librarian is no longer their to filter, but yet complain about the tuning of the filter when they are there…I find the same with “communication”…like “we need more communication as not everyone is in the loop in our organisation”, then in comes activity feeds, and it’s “there’s too much communication” WTF…but they have a point, activity feeds need to improve filtering and sorting.


    Yikes I didn’t realise this is an old post!

    1. Thanks very much, John. Perhaps the answer is that we have to become better at fine tuning our results. Another way of thinking about this is that some feeds may need to be carefully targeted to help address a specific business issue, while other feeds might benefit from casting a wider net to help with innovation. As long as there is clarity about the business purposes, agreement about methodology and effective execution, would there be any valid grounds for complaint?

      – Mary

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