Information overload, social media and the Internet

Today is Information Overload Awareness Day, the day attention is focused on the crazy state of information overload existing in the world, thanks to ‘the Internet’ (a concept that is becoming more abstract and hazy by the day), social media, blogging, cloud computing, you name it.

And, by writing this blog entry about it, I am of course adding yet another drop to the ocean of information, contributing knowlingly to the ever rising levels of useful and useless information that is threatening to engulf every remaining bit of ‘dry land’ of the world.

It was estimated as long ago as 2008 that information overload is costing the US economy around $900 billion a year, through lowered employee productivity. When numbers get that big, I’m always unsure what they’re called – that’s almost $1 trillion, right? And that number is probably a lot higher by now. The average ‘knowledge worker’ (itself a term that didn’t really exist before the unbounded proliferation of data and information) is said to spend at least 50% of his day ‘managing information’ – sifting through emails, finding and validating ‘facts’, etc. And that is just the productive side of things – even more time is spent lost in the bottomless depths of facebook, twitter, youtube and the like.

If you can’t beat them, overload them…
While we complain about information overload, we all contribute to the problem – me possibly more than many. But at the same time, social media can be an important and effective tool for marketing and communication. I guess it will always be a careful balancing act between too much and too little.
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The sad thing, of course, is that among the dirt there are some real diamonds. There are blogs and opinion pieces, both online and in print, that I try to read on a regular basis, and that I really feel poorer for not having read for a few days due to some work deadline or other crisis. But finding these among the thousands upon thousands of blog posts generated daily can be a real challenge. Even just trying to keep up with WordPress’ daily Freshly Pressed list is an almost impossible task.

I’m sure no amount of awareness creation about the problem of information overload is going to change things – we have gotten too used to having pages upon pages of information on any and every topic we can possibly think of, at our fingertips. And in many ways it’s good. There’s no way I would have been able to do this blog if there wasn’t all kinds of arbitrary facts floating around to tap into. But at the same time, I guess the responsible thing to do is to at least try and limit the amount of data we push out on a daily basis. Which is one of the reasons I prefer blogging to twitter, for example – in compiling a blog post, I like to believe people at least invest a little thought. Tweeting is just too easy and immediate, resulting in the masses mindlessly excreting an ever-growing pile of data-dung (my personal view, of course).

On the topic of excrement – when did Facebook change from being a place where people actually sort-of talked to each other, to a platform where all people do all day are to share ‘cute’ photos and cartoons, and resend arbitrary ‘amusing’ status updates? Facebook used to be a platform I found quite useful to keep in touch with friends and family when we moved to another country, but over the last couple of years the signal to noise ratio has fallen so low that it is hardly worth facebooking anymore.

Oh well…  There I go – one rant about information overload, and I’ve contributed a few hundred more words to the problem.  I think for the rest of this Information Overload Awareness Day I should just switch off all computers, smartphones, TVs and radios, and go mow the lawn or something.

Luv or h8 it, txting is gr8 4 literacy

Today, 8 September, is International Literacy Day – the day the world’s attention is focused on literacy as one of the fundamental human rights, and the foundation of all learning. In the words of UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova, “Education brings sustainability to all the development goals, and literacy is the foundation of all learning. It provides individuals with the skills to understand the world and shape it, to participate in democratic processes and have a voice, and also to strengthen their cultural identity.”

In the information age, literacy is a more critical basic requirement than ever. The literacy landscape is also rapidly changing – children’s reading and writing experience is changing from a paper-based to a digital context. Many kids’ primary exposure to the written word is through texting – SMS, instant messaging and Twitter – thanks to the global proliferation of mobile phones and internet connectivity.

Texting teens may have a literacy edge over their non-texting peers.
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Texting has long been blamed for being one of the main causes of decreasing linguistic savvy among children and teenagers, with parents and teachers fearing that texting shorthand (incorporating linguistic shortcuts, weak grammar and little or no punctuation) was destroying their ability to write ‘properly’.

While it’s true that these teenage ‘textisms’ drive most people over thirty up the proverbial wall, it may in fact not be quite the scourge it was thought to be at the turn of the century. New research is showing that, while it may not promote perfect grammar, text messaging may in fact have a positive impact on basic literacy. For one thing, there is no arguing that it is increasing young people’s level of interaction with the written word. Instead of speaking, kids are very likely to communicate via text messages, even when they are in the same physical location.

As reported in an article in the Telegraph, researchers are suggesting that using a mobile phone can boost children’s spelling abilities. In a research project at Coventry University in the UK, 114 children aged 9-10, who were not already mobile phone users, were split into two groups. Half were given handsets and encouraged to text often, while the control group remained without mobile phones. After 10 weeks, both groups were subjected to a series of reading, spelling and phonological awareness tests, and the researchers claimed they found that texting made a significant positive contribution to to children’s spelling development during the study. According to Professor Clare Wood of the university’s Psychology Department, they also found “no evidence that children’s language play when using mobile phones is damaging literacy development.”

Similar sentiments have been expressed by Professor David Crystal, honorary professor of linguistics at Bangor University, who says it’s an urban myth that text speech are taking over childrens’ regular writing. He considers it “merely another way to use language”, and suggests that the use of textisms and shortcuts is exaggerated: “If you collected a huge pile of messages and counted all the whole words and the abbreviations, the fact of the matter is that less than 10% would be shortened.”

So, while language may be changing in the age of texting, the undeniably positive part is that it is exposing children to the written word, in both the traditional and the abbreviated sense.

And that, as they say in the classics, is gr8 4 literacy.