Information overload: Is it time for a data diet?

CIO Jeff Saper drives a hybrid car, favors service providers that use alternative energy and has launched many green IT initiatives at his strategic communications firm, Robinson Lerer & Montgomery LLC in New York. But he's also concerned about a type of pollution that even Al Gore has yet to tackle: digital pollution.

The recent growth of information sources such as blogs, social networks, news aggregators, microblogs like Twitter, instant messaging and e-mail has been exponential. And with broadband penetration among active Internet users expected to break 90% this year, according to Internet marketing firm Website Optimization LLC, there aren't many people today who haven't experienced some form of information overload.

"On the positive side, there's so much more information available," Saper says. "But it becomes overwhelming, especially for those unfamiliar with the tools to filter through it."

The idea of "information overload" has been discussed for decades, but never before has it seemed so relevant. Today, ideas and discussions are broadcast not at a prescribed time on a specific channel via a single medium, but all the time, on millions of forums, discussion groups, blogs and social networks. And they occupy a growing piece of our consciousness, thanks to RSS feeds, Twitter messages, mailing list and newsletter subscriptions, instant messaging, e-mail and Web surfing.

According to market research firm IDC, by 2011 the digital universe will be 10 times the size it was in 2006.

It's gotten to the point where information — which should be useful — has in some cases become a distraction. According to New York-based research firm Basex Inc., information overload is the "problem of the year." Basex claims that disruptions caused by e-mail, text messages and other incoming data cost large organizations billions of dollars annually in lower productivity and hampered innovation.

Disruption comes in many forms. There's the urgent e-mail that arrives when you're heads-down on a project, the scads of stuff to browse through to make sure you're not missing anything relevant, and the temptation to scan your RSS feed during conference calls.

"For so long, companies have preached the importance of multitasking," says Michael Fowler, IT director of risk, compliance and change management at Constellation Energy Group Inc. But now, he says, the pendulum has swung back: "What happens when you're too multitasked?"

Many worry about missing out on something. "People fear a disruptive technology or business model will come on the scene and they won't have time to act," says Steve Borsch, CEO of Marketing Directions Inc., a consulting firm in Eden Prairie, Minn. "It's becoming exponentially more difficult to tap into the collective consciousness and stay on top of changes in an industry or area of interest, or even stay relevant in the workplace."

He admits to struggling. "I now am skimming and reading articles on dozens of news sites and technology journals, clicking on sources linked to by a blogger, and a whole lot more," Borsch says. "The river of content is turning into a flood, and my instinct is to get to higher ground."

IT professionals and information management specialists say that higher ground can be reached. Some use technology to combat the information overload, while others suggest putting yourself on an information diet and taking control over how much you allow yourself to be exposed to.

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