Does Your Site Contribute to Data Smog?

By: Steve Outing

I’ve had this feeling for a while, of never being able to keep up with the flow of information, news and e-mail that is “necessary” for me to function effectively in the world. But David Shenk has put it into more eloquent words. I just finished reading Shenk’s new book, “Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut” (HarperCollins), and I nominate it as required reading for anyone in the Internet news business.

The Premise of “Data Smog” is that the various technological gadgets in our lives — and especially the Internet — have created more information than we as mere humans can possibly process. Our fax machines efficiently spew out page after page of “instant” information; voicemail and cell phones mean we’re never out of touch; and e-mail continues to arrive in torrents, hour after hour, unceasingly. Many of us feel compelled to keep up with the rising waters; failure to do so might put us at a competitive disadvantage. So we keep swimming in the sea of data, but it’s threatening to drown us.

“We are designing a communication environment so swift and mighty that we increasingly find ourselves not controlling it but serving it,” Shenk writes.

The down side

We are in a period of “information proliferation” — particularly in the U.S. — caused largely as a result of the meteoric growth of the Internet and its millions of Web pages. In the last two years, we have created a global electronic library of unprecedented scope and value. But there’s a flip side.

Information used to be as precious as gold, Shenk says. But “now it is so inexpensive and plentiful that most of it ends up being remaindered and shredded, as if it is worthless garbage. With a thumb and an index finger, we effortlessly copy and paste sentences, paragraphs, books. After writing e-mail, we ‘carbon copy’ it to one or 100 others. … Only as an afterthought do we confront the consequences of such a low transaction cost.”

The result of this information glut is that consumers adapt to the situation by: Spending less time on each information input; disregarding low-priority inputs; and creating filtering techniques to keep out information that is not essential.

The impact on media of such a trend is significant. With the rise of the Internet (added to an already crowded media landscape), the consumer has thousands of choices. Each media player — be it an Internet Web site, a network TV show, cable show, radio program, magazine or newspaper — must shout as loudly as possible to be noticed in the din. “One of the most vivid consequences of the information glut is a culture awash in histrionics,” Shenk writes. “As the competition heats up, we do what we have to do to make our voices heard. We TALK LOUDER. Wear more color. Show more cleavage. Say shocking things.”

If you’ve ever wondered how in the world trash TV, “shock jocks” and hate radio could prosper, there’s your answer. Lowest common denominator media has less to do with “declining morals” than with the requirement of media to use a 2-by-4 (as in, hit consumers on the head with a 2-by-4 to get their attention) to be noticed in a glutted media market. But for Internet publishers, let’s hope there’s a better way than dumbing down Internet content to the level of “Inside Edition” or “The Jenny Jones Show.”

Less is more

The burning issue for future media, it would seem, is no longer the production of information, but rather how to help consumers reduce it. And that’s one of the foremost lessons gained from “Data Smog.”

News Web publishers intent on creating multi-thousand-page sites might want to think again. It’s not that assembling great collections of news and information is bad, but even more critical is designing an Internet news service that gets individual consumers what’s most relevant to them. Here are a few suggestions for Internet publishers on how to deal with this issue:

Change your mindset. Provide the opportunity for consumers of your service to receive LESS information from you — but make it information that they will find compelling and important to their lives. Don’t contribute to the information overload of the human brain. This is a strange concept for a society that for so long has endeavored to always offer MORE. But in the future, we need less information at a personal level. Make your home page or inside pages that visitors regularly bookmark succinct. A page with too much to choose from contributes to data smog. Remember that in an information-glutted world, journalists are more necessary. They become the consumer’s first line of defense in trying to process overwhelming amounts of information. This can be an advantage for traditional news media companies operating online. A newspaper company has considerable expertise harvesting news nuggets from vast amounts of information. It’s questionable whether non-news companies entering the Internet news and information business understand that “less is more” when it comes to presenting news. Shenk believes that e-mail is a major problem for many people, and urges limiting the e-mail you receive — by unsubscribing from low-priority mailing lists and electronic newsletters; getting yourself on no-spam lists; asking correspondents to be thoughtful in what they forward to you; etc. As Internet users get even more flooded with e-mail, they’ll spend less time on each item in their in-boxes. And this presents a problem for publishers who are now experimenting with various “push” methods where messages or Web pages are delivered to consumers. As you design digital delivery services for news consumers, make them customizable enough that users can create profiles that send them the amount of information they want. A push service that delivers too much is going to get ignored, or turned off. Edit well. Writes Shenk: “In the information society, this challenge applies to every one of us: Is that word/image absolutely necessary? Technology has given us the power to gather lifetimes of information and to broadcast the data at almost no effort or cost. With that opportunity comes the awesome responsibility of self-editing, of information restraint.” In an information-glutted society, content is of little value. But as we severely limit content in reaction to our excesses, it gains back some of its value. Resist the fragmentation of society that is caused in great part by information overload. With so much information floating about, people tend to focus on their own areas of expertise and interest — discarding much that in the past was part of the common culture. The Internet is exacerbating this societal trend. News publishers on the Internet can resist this by promoting news (and presenting it in a succinct, useful way) that everyone should know for the common good.

Do what I say, not what I do

My recent column about the importance of publications owning the “.com” domain names that include their brand names brought this response from a reader:

“I liked your piece on domain names and their importance and I enjoy most of your reporting. But reading your piece, I was reminded how difficult it was for me to find E&P Online the first time and how, even now, I’d have to look at my bookmarks to remember that the site is at mediainfo.com. What’s the deal with that?”

I’ll let Editor & Publisher Interactive’s editor, Hoag Levins, respond to this one:

“Your recent column and the letter writer are directly on target. Like many other publishers who got into the Web at a very early date, E&P chose a domain name that defined the kind of coverage it intended to provide: Mediainfo.com. Back then, the Web was so new that it was difficult to predict exactly HOW people would navigate around this strange new environment. Now that we KNOW, E&P — like a lot of other publishers — is reassessing its position. The Web is an ever-changing place.”

Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at [email protected]

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company

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