The Internet and social media can help us see more small things but the bigger picture is still fuzzy

On one hand, the Internet and what comes along with it allows us unprecedented access to what is going on in the world. Information galore. Bypassing the traditional gatekeepers of the media. Access to millions of stories we might not have otherwise seen or heard.

On the other hand, it is a glut of stories and information. The social media feeds just keep going. The 24 hour news cycle of cable TV news is now an up to the second compendium of events big and small. There is a lot to take in. Some of the research I’ve done with the social media use of emerging adults suggests some have a hard time keeping up with it all. What should we pay attention to?

Going forward, I fear the extra information we now have – an unprecedented amount in human history – isn’t helping as much as it might. This is the case for at least four reasons. First, even though we have more information, we still don’t have all the information. As Max Weber once said, social life is so complex that it is difficult to imagine even social scientists understanding all aspects of social phenomena. Second, we’re not necessarily good as humans or trained well in how to process all the information. Certain things catch our eye – for example, such as information that agrees with what we already think (confirmation bias) – while we see others but they don’t register at all. Third, there is simply too much. Perhaps humans were not made to think at this scale; for much of human history, we lived in relatively small settings and had close relationships with people who were pretty similar to us. See Dunbar’s Number as an example of how the limits of humans comes up against friends and followers on social media.

Fourth, and this is where my sociological perspective particularly comes in, it is difficult work to connect individual level data – what we might call microsociology – with larger societal trends – macrosociology. Take this example: we see a post of involving a person with particular traits leaving no tip for a waitperson which they have posted on social media. Unfortunately, such negative interactions happen frequently. But, are we to take this single example as just an attempt to point out a wrong done by a single customer or does this one event reflect on an entire people group? Or, is a serious weather event on the other side of the world (one we would have had little knowledge about even a few decades ago) evidence for climate change or for deniers? When we are immersed in so many small events and their immediate interpretations, how are we to form big picture understandings of patterns? It requires us to step back and try to make sense of it all rather than simply slotting each small event into our existing heuristics.

Our capacities to deal with all of this information may improve in coming years as it becomes the new normal. Or, some may go another direction – though it is hard to imagine – where they retreat from this information overload. Either way, we’ll need to figure out ways to help everyone see the broader patterns so we all don’t lose the forest for the tees.

A reminder that information overload is not just limited to our particular era in history

There is an incredible amount of data one can access today through a computer and high-speed Internet connection: websites, texts, statistics, videos, music, and more. While it all may seem overwhelming, a Harvard history professor reminds us that facing a glut of information is not a problem that has been faced only by people in the Internet age:

information overload was experienced long before the appearance of today’s digital gadgets. Complaints about “too many books” echo across the centuries, from when books were papyrus rolls, parchment manuscripts, or hand printed. The complaint is also common in other cultural traditions, like the Chinese, built on textual accumulation around a canon of classics…

It’s important to remember that information overload is not unique to our time, lest we fall into doomsaying. At the same time, we need to proceed carefully in the transition to electronic media, lest we lose crucial methods of working that rely on and foster thoughtful decision making. Like generations before us, we need all the tools for gathering and assessing information that we can muster—some inherited from the past, others new to the present. Many of our technologies will no doubt rapidly seem obsolete, but, we can hope, not human attention and judgment, which should continue to be the central components of thoughtful information management.

As technology changes, people and cultures have to adapt. We need citizens who are able to sift through all the available information and make wise decisions. This should be a vital part of the educational system – it is no longer enough to know how to access information but rather we need to be able to make choices about which information is worthwhile, how to interpret it, and how to put it into use.

Take, for example, the latest Wikileaks dump. The average Internet user no longer has to rely on news organizations to tell him or her how to interpret the information (though they would still like to fill that role). But simply having access to a bunch of secret material doesn’t necessarily lead to anything worthwhile.