Tackling Social Media Overload Before it Eats Us Alive

3 years ago

It's no secret our lives are becoming increasingly more intertwined with digital media. As bloggers and blog readers, we spend a great deal of time online—sometimes to the point it becomes overwhelming. I've been online now for more than 30 years, working in tech for 20 years and blogging for 12 years. That's a lot of time. In 2011, I had an a-ha moment where I realized many people are still struggling to make sense of the digital world and what it all means to their everyday lives, so I decided to write a book about it. The book is called The Digital Mystique: How the Culture of Connectivity Can Empower Your Life—Online and Off.


I asked Elisa Camahort Page, co-founder and COO of BlogHer, to write the foreword because I knew she deeply values helping others grapple with some of the challenging sociological questions we face for the future and because BlogHer has been such an integral part of my digital experience for the past eight years. I hope you enjoy and benefit from the excerpt below.

Excerpt from The Digital Mystique

If You're Overstimulated and Overloaded, You're Not Alone

For almost everyone I know who has complained of info-glut, social-media overload, data deluge, or any other form of overstimulation or overload from digital technologies, something tipped the scale. It happens easily enough. One week, you're on top of your e-mail. The next week, you're buried under a mountain of 35,000 messages. Maybe you took a vacation, perhaps a work project kicked into high gear, maybe a family member got sick and you didn't check messages for a few days. Whatever happened, you crossed the point where you were previously comfortable managing your information flow. Now you feel stuck.

This point might be different for everyone. If you live in a small town and one hundred cars come for a car show, you probably consider that a lot of traffic. If you live in a big city and one thousand cars are stuck in gridlock, perhaps that's your definition of traffic. We all have unique levels of tolerance. (It's best not to mock someone else if they complain about “all of their e-mail” and it's 50 messages to your 5000.) According to a stat from the Digital Life Design (DLD) 2013 conference, “The average person today is exposed to more info in a day than someone was exposed to in an entire lifetime in the 1500s.” Just think for a minute about what that means for our brains alone.

I recall Xeni Jardin, founding partner and coeditor at Boing Boing, posted on Twitter: “At dinner, a friend couldn't remember the name of someone we'd met once; Instagram became a memory bank. Scroll, find snapshot, tagged names.” Enter the Web, our backup brains. I think this is a great example of how all of the extra information, data, and images we collect, curate, and log online can be put to use. The deluge of information is only as overwhelming as we let it become. I'll let the neurologists, psychiatrists, sociologists, and other researchers debate what all of this information is doing to our brains and the way we think and act. For now, I say use it to your advantage.

In order to save time, I'm combining all of the problems related to overuse, overstimulation, overload, dependence, depression, anxiety, addiction into one term for our purposes: SMOD, for Social Media Overuse Disorder. Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, writes, “It's not information overload. It's filter failure.” Keeping that in mind, how will you change the filters you put on your time, your habits, and your use of online tools, web- sites, and mobile apps?

Here are some ways to tackle SMOD:

  • Selective avoidance: Decide that you cannot manage all of the information coming at you, so you will have to avoid some of it. Select some parts to deal with or respond to directly, and let the rest slide by (I do this with Twitter, for example—I can't possibly read tweets from the 4000-plus people I follow, so I don't try; instead, I consciously check the stream whenever I can).
  • Quit cold turkey: Completely stop using applications that take too much of your time without providing enough benefit (games, for example, are easy to stop playing cold turkey, although more people are deciding they want off social networks now).
  • File it away: Put whatever information is overwhelming you some- where to deal with it later, aka temporary avoidance (this works with non-urgent e-mail messages, Facebook requests, LinkedIn invitations, and such).
  • Take a break: This can mean a short break, like the phone-stack game, where everyone stacks their phones on the table for dinner, taking a whole day off once a week and engaging in a weekly “Technology Shabbat,” as Tiffany Shlain calls it, or taking a weekend digital detox retreat. Share that you're unplugging via #unplug so you have accountability.
  • Forced moderation: Apps that take control of your computer or device, limiting the amount you can use them . . . under your control, of course; you can always disable the apps (this is good for work environments where you don't want to get sidetracked spending too much time on social networks).
  • Timer method: This one works for kids, so why not for adults? Give yourself a finite amount of time to do a task online, and stick to it (works well for dealing with important e-mail and daily checking of social networks).
  • Find an antidote: For me, the antidote is nature—getting outside and taking a walk, generally alone. This allows me to recharge. I'm an introvert, so that works for me. If you're an extrovert, maybe your antidote would be going out with friends and leaving your cell phone in your handbag.
  • Rein it in: This is where filters come in. You can start controlling your information by changing the way it comes at you, by reducing the number of mobile alerts you receive, turning off notifications within apps, filtering e-mail, and changing e-mail list subscriptions to batch mode (several delivered at once vs. each sent individually) so you deliberately curate your information flow.
  • Choosing the winners: Taking a strategic approach, you can actually analyze your return on investment (ROI) of your time, looking at what you spend your time doing online and seeing how much of that time turns into positive experiences, professional opportunities, etc., and you can choose only to participate online in the places where you have the greatest return.
  • Attack: For those brave souls who want to face their problems head- on, “Climb Every Mountain” style, you can just decide to take action and dive into your data deluge, only taking deep breaths until you get it under control (I do this periodically with e-mail, but it requires reserving a big chunk of time).
  • Dump it: Trash. Delete. Do what you must. Get rid of it. Life is short.
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