Notes on Content Overload: Whose Filter Failure?

[I have updated this post after some revisions].

Cartoon by Mark Anderson © Mark Anderson All Rights Reseved.

“Here’s what the Internet did: it introduced, for the first time, post-Gutenberg economics. The cost of producing anything by anyone has fallen through the floor. And so there’s no economic logic that says that you have to filter for quality before you publish… The filter for quality is now way downstream of the site of production.

What we’re dealing with now is not the problem of information overload, because we’re always dealing (and always have been dealing) with information overload… Thinking about information overload isn’t accurately describing the problem; thinking about filter failure is.”

-Clay Shirky, “It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure“, Web 2.0 Expo, New York, Thursday, 09/18/2008

‘Content’ is not what it used to be.  I started blogging around 1999. I was an earlyish adopter of MySpace and then Facebook and Tumblr, but I did not get a Twitter account until 2008 and didn’t start a personal Twitter account until 2009. It seems unnecessary to say  but since then blogging has been significantly superceded by social media, and user generated content is now the default in today’s mediascape. Boy, do I sound ‘old.’

Times have changed significantly. We no longer need to advocate (at least not in the same way) for the need to promote and/or disseminate information online.  The relative popularity of a platform like Medium seems to demonstrate the nearly-total blurring between web publishing and social media, at least for long and, er, medium-length forms. But we don’t need to look at the most sophisticated online publishing examples to get the feeling that, if you are, say, on Twitter, everyone is now pushing content. It’s not just a buzzword and I’m not saying anything new: the multiplication of user accounts means the customisation of personal profiles which turns all users, even the least experienced and humble ones, into brands producing content as commodities. Your profile picture is your logo, your online persona is the result of a conscious or unconscious public-facing strategy. The products are not just each individual output, but your whole process of being online; the whole ongoing process. It’s outward thinking, an exercise for reaching out, publicly, to others, continuously.

In the 21st century all media means publishing, the making public of packaged information (dear reader, please be kind: I am acutely aware that we still need professional publishers in the publishing industry). All publishing means ‘social’, at least in the sense of necessitating networks (of users, of data), programming interfaces and algorithms to create, maintain and develop those networks. Like commuters in packed rush hour trains, social media users share a common space where time, space and attention are scarce. Social media users become part of the crowd as a unit, as a whole, but the crowd is composed of individuals at odds with each other, often algorithmically thrown in together, and tensions, misunderstandings arise.

If you have ever taken public transport during the morning or evening rush hour, you understand how the laws of capitalism turn space, and yourself, into commodities. Space is scarce (so are seats, table seats, power plugs, air, floorspace). You are time-poor and your time is money.  You are unique, in the infinite mass (‘the mass is matrix‘). The commuting train (thinking of the UK here) is a type of panopticon (be ever vigilant; report anything suspicious). On the one hand it promotes solipsism (headphones, personal devices, reading material), but on the other hand it requires a constant periphereal awareness. Other bodies are always around you and signals are everywhere. Bodies clash with each other and it takes concentration to avoid it. Two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time, but yet the rules of capitalism would like to deconstruct the law of physics and get us all in there at the same time, knowing it is not possible, creating desire and aspiration for the non-graspable; as an ecosystem it generates its own social classes, hierarchies, winners and losers, satisfaction, tension and frustration. It seems to me this is also the logic of today’s social media.

Attention Economy: London Bridge Station, evening rush hour. Pic CC-BY Ernesto Priego
Attention Economy: London Bridge Station, evening rush hour. Pic CC-BY Ernesto Priego

The binding tissue of social media communities is not necessarily commonality, but competition (there is commonality, but it’s conscious or unconscious competition, for attention, for presence, for space, for recognition, which drives it forward). The social media arena enables the production of content (defined as information purposefully packed for its dissemination).  This is a rhetoric I used to resist, a semantic field favoured by self-fashioned, opportunistic social media gurus. However social media can only be fully, ethically theorised in practice, over time, and experience (my experience at least), shows that today’s social media has managed to transform publishing into the condition sine qua non of being online. Even so-called lurkers create content (their accounts as data points and their associated metadata). Like a car parked on a road, the lurker’s social media presence also contributes to pollution, takes up space, pays taxes, alters the configuration of the city, needs to be eventually moved around, might be eventually towed away, stays in the way of things and people, is exposed to environmental conditions, communicates things (class, taste, income) etc.

I write these paragraphs, paradoxically, as a way to frame my recent reasons to resist being on social media as I used to. There are other reasons apart from a perceived content overload, but in this case, this post was motivated by my experience of witnessing web publishing and particularly Twitter microblogging evolve (or devolve) towards pitch-perfect free market capitalism, where becoming a commodity through the production of content as a commodity is the ontological condition.

It is true that every Twitter user experiences Twitter differently. However recent changes in the Twitter API (including an aggressive imposition of ‘promoted’ tweets, inclusion of gif search, allowing all users to see tweets staring with a mention etc.) mean it is becoming very hard to filter information as before: it no longer suffices to be a good curator, because curation is not fully customisable at an individual user’s level, in terms of what content a user is exposed to and when.

Clay Shirky’s “it’s not information overload. It’s filter failure“, worked well for 2008, and it might still be insightful in 2016 if we redefine whose reponsibility it is to filter and if we think hard whether it is really possible to filter successfully these days. There’s also I think a distinction to be made between ‘information’ and ‘content’: one can argue information can exist independently from its packaging (the way it is disseminated, how it is wrapped with other data, phyisical or digital). Content is the paradigmatic shape in which information is transformed into a commodity, and content is composed of different bits of information. We no longer search for isolated bits of information, but for data and metadata wrapped in specific languages and interfaces (we don’t just search for a location, we search on Google Maps, expecting to find other locations apart from the one we were looking for, and information about those locations). We then share what we retrieved, which is a whole mini-package of code, with others, expecting them to have access to the same technical affordances (software, hardware, connectivity) that we do.

Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat encourage the transformation of anything into shareable content, not just from professional publishing organisations but from absolutely everybody (dear reader, please be kind: I am acutely aware of the digital divide). This is, of course, not new, and once upon a time we used to celebrate the fact ‘the people formerly known as the audience’ (Rosen 2006) were becoming content producers as well. The leveling of the playing field etc. I remember 2006 well: online, those were exciting yet innocent times. Ten years later, the attention economy is (or is determined to be) more than ever before the only economy, at least in the developed world. The people formerly known as the audience remain the audience, even if they become audiences by endlessly sharing content, and therefore by distracting each other’s attention. The overlords are still the overlords. Perhaps paradoxically, the only way for the regular user to produce more meaningful content (define meaningful etc.) is to spend significant time away from the endless whirlwind of voices sharing content of all types at all times.

There’s been discussion of how the “rise of social media content is overwhelming consumers“, but interestingly there is no doubt in those reflections that social media users are de facto consumers, and suggest that it’s the digital marketers (professionals employed by commercial entities), not the users, who can do something about it. Users are just the target. But don’t we as users have a responsibility too? Because being online is only possible through the creation of content and a digital footprint, (even if one never posts anything, even if one only lurks sites from a Tor browser), it seems logical that there should be a feeling of content overcrowding. Filtering the content one thinks one  needs or expects to discover  has become increasingly difficult, and often sources will equally post something really useful than something completely inane: it is way easier to filter what one posts before it is posted. Some will say posting inane content is an important requirement for the quality content to get eventually an audience at all, but for the experienced, busy user the proliferation of unfilterable chaff renders the social media experience totally frustrating and time-consuming. (Often chaff is in the eye of the beholder, but, one would argue, not always).

Fear of missing out means many of us feel we need to keep an eye on social media to be mildly aware of what’s happening in our fields and in the world, but the illusion created by what looks like everyone actively broadcasting how hard they are at work (or having fun taking planes to exotic conference destinations) can also have a paralyzing effect. Moreover this broadcasting of information related to professional activity does directly contribute to the larger market itself, promoting competition (and its anxieties). The multiplication of channels disseminating professional activity paradoxically yet successfully benefits the perception that jobs are scarce, and the convenient delusion that some candidates will just never be good enough.

Social media is about content and the more users there are the more content there is. The more content there is the harder it is to be heard, and to find and discover relevance. The algorithms will make sure you cannot avoid the content they want you to see, no matter how savvy you think you are, in order to ensure network growth and income. Like overcrowded trains in the morning rush hour, we can argue platforms such as Twitter are quickly suffering from content overcrowding, even if Twitter itself would think they are always underachieving in terms of user base. If there is content overload, whose responsibility is it to filter, and is filtering, as we have traditionally defined it, still really possible under the current infrastructures?

If contemporary algorithms are designed to force users to see as much as possible in spite of their filtering efforts, perhaps we will (hopefully) see a growth of user self-filtering: do we as users really need to post all that? Do users find the time to ask themselves that question? Certainly this is something many if not most users already do up to a certain extent. Eventually, even if everyone became more selective about what they post, wouldn’t we end up in the same overcrowded place, if the intention is for everyone everywhere to be members of the online social arena, the market in the cloud?*

Or maybe it’s a question of a transformation of our ‘modes of perception’, and even the most sophisticated information retrieval specialists will need to consciously adapt their strategies to market-driven discovery systems. At this stage  I personally wonder if the only successful filtering technique would be not to be here/there at all, or at least for considerable periods.

So I’ve been quiet on the blogging front. It took me ages to gather the courage to write this text and finally post it. It goes in various directions, and it might not mean anything to anyone at all but me (deep down my suspicion is someone out there might care). Maggie Nelson writes that

‘most writers I know nurse persistent fantasies about the horrible things -or the horrible thing- that will happen to them if and when they express themselves as they desire’ (The Argonauts, 2015: 114).

For all the social media content overload I increasingly perceive, I paradoxically feel social media is also promoting self-censorship and fear. It also promotes a particular type of writing, specially crafted to maximise sharing. Devising strategies to ensure content is shared in current infrastructures can be a very good thing, as I have said throughout my career, particularly when what is needed is to communicate the value of a certain type of humanities work. But quick sharing also has a counterpart, quick reactions (which, depending on the case, are not always bad!). However one sees plenty of quick, uncharitable reactions to unread content; unfriendly public attitudes to others’ work; virtual mobbing from people who one thinks would never do the same in a professional context like a conference or a lecture, the immediate, context-poor critique of those who dare to express themselves.

Usually it’s minorities and under-represented users who suffer the most and therefore lose terrain in the battle for representation. The widespread adoption of social media in professional contexts has led to self-censorship on social media, even in the lands of the free. When self-filtering becomes self-censorship is a topic that deserves more time and thought. This tension between the need/pressure to disseminate and the need/pressure to remain silent in order to be safe is one of the tensions at the core of this new economy as a way of being with others, a kind of mal d’archive where two opposing forces are at play.

Taking the time to write this and to reflect on the reasons to publish has made me reflect on both the ideas and practices that motivated it and the mechanism and strategies for its eventual dissemination. It may be that the best filter is to take time out all together, in order to keep perspective. Stepping away from a social media platform such as Twitter may remind us it is not an end in itself nor a community of communities disconnected to the offline networks that sustain it. Taking this time to reflect  may help us to reassess what it is that we really want to get across, when and to whom. I suggest that this distance is healthy, even if I recognise that taking this route may mean that some people never read the content we do eventually share.

*Another important aspect of this discussion, which I did not mean to cover here, would be online harassment and bullying. Danah Boyd’s work may come handy in this context.

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