I can’t keep up with YouTube videos—over 100 hours of new video is uploaded every minute. I can’t keep up with Twitter—there are 58 million new tweets per day (at 140 characters each, it would take the average reader 12 years to get through a single day’s tweets). I can’t keep up with Facebook—every hour three million links are shared, and nine million messages are sent.
Those three sites are just the tip of the iceberg. Wikipedia’s list of social networking websites lists more than 2,000, and new ones are created each day.
Nobody can keep up, but that doesn’t keep us from thinking we should. We feel guilty if we haven’t found time to “like” our friend’s photo on Instagram, or read a sibling’s latest post on Facebook. We long for a simpler time, when it was possible to keep up. But that time never existed.
Even before the Internet tossed information production into high gear, there was more media available than one person could consume. When I was a boy in St. Paul, our TV got three network affiliates, one independent channel and the educational station. (That’s quite a change from today, when the average home receives more than 100 channels. There’s still often nothing good on, but it takes a lot longer to find that out.)
Information overload isn’t unique to the electronic age. Even prior to the invention of the printing press, the legendary Library at Alexandria contained over 500,000 volumes. And before that there were clay tablets—22,000 of which were found in ancient Nineveh. (No word on how many of those clay tablets contained drawings by Mesopotamians of what they had for lunch or of something cute their cat did.)
We can’t keep up. And we never could. So how do we deal with the torrent of information that floods past us each day? Here are some ideas:
- Tame the monster with a social network aggregation service. One popular tool is “NutShell Mail.” This free tool sends you an email digest of your social media world at intervals you specify, from daily to hourly, and can put Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and more all in one convenient place for you.
- You can “unfollow” without “unfriending.” If you don’t want to lose touch with an old friend but also don’t want to hear about it every time they think about making a sandwich, tell Facebook you want to “unfollow” them. You’ll still be able to visit their profile and see what they’ve been posting, but you’ll have to go to them—their news will stop automatically coming to you.
- Then again, you can “unfriend.” I used to think that a person couldn’t have too many friends, but Facebook has changed all that. Now and then, you need to pare down your contacts. My basic test is to look at the person’s name and see if I can picture their face or remember my last meaningful interaction with them. If it’s a “no” on both counts, they’re off the list. I also drop people who are constantly inviting me to tend an imaginary farm, or telling me that a simple online quiz told them which root vegetable they are (“I got ‘rutabaga.’ How about you?”)
Anthropologist Robin Dunbar says we can only maintain 150 stable social relationships, and yet I have more than 500 Facebook “friends.” Time to prune! (And if somebody you dropped later asks to reconnect, you can always bring them back.)
The battle against media overload is never-ending, and eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. But even as you fight the good fight, be sure to find a bit of time now and then to step away from the clamor completely. Some of the most important things you need to hear tend to be spoken only in a still, small voice.
— by Doug Trouten
Trouten is chair of the Communication Department at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul.