How much information is just too much?

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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While this blog, on paper, has 20,000 followers, fewer and fewer are arriving and commenting.

I could take it personally, (and maybe I should!)

But I think we’re all overloaded: Twitter, Reddit, Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, et al are sucking the life out of us and reducing what little attention we have left to give —  beyond that for work, family, friends and life.

The New York Times ran two recent stories addressing this.

One, by their tech writer, discussed whether reading news in print, i.e. much more slowly and in lesser volume, was a wiser choice.

It was.

Avoid social.

This is the most important rule of all. After reading newspapers for a few weeks, I began to see it wasn’t newspapers that were so great, but social media that was so bad.

Just about every problem we battle in understanding the news today — and every one we will battle tomorrow — is exacerbated by plugging into the social-media herd. The built-in incentives on Twitter and Facebook reward speed over depth, hot takes over facts and seasoned propagandists over well-meaning analyzers of news.

You don’t have to read a print newspaper to get a better relationship with the news. But, for goodness’ sake, please stop getting your news mainly from Twitter and Facebook. In the long run, you and everyone else will be better off.

And this, admittedly by man with a highly unusual life — no need to work and no need to interact with anyone every day:

Right after the election, Erik Hagerman decided he’d take a break from reading about the hoopla of politics.

Donald Trump’s victory shook him. Badly. And so Mr. Hagerman developed his own eccentric experiment, one that was part silent protest, part coping mechanism, part extreme self-care plan.

He swore that he would avoid learning about anything that happened to America after Nov. 8, 2016.

“It was draconian and complete,” he said. “It’s not like I wanted to just steer away from Trump or shift the conversation. It was like I was a vampire and any photon of Trump would turn me to dust.”

It was just going to be for a few days. But he is now more than a year into knowing almost nothing about American politics. He has managed to become shockingly uninformed during one of the most eventful chapters in modern American history. He is as ignorant as a contemporary citizen could ever hope to be.

I get it.

I have online subscriptions to The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal — and never use them.

I read The New York Times and Financial Times seven days a week, plus about 20 weekly and monthly magazines. Plus Twitter and Facebook and some blogs.

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Plus television and radio.

And I feel increasingly angry and powerless by “knowing” about so much I can do little or nothing to change:

— that the U.S. has a President who lies every day and has sex with porn stars (and lies about that)

— that Yemeni citizens are dying of cholera

— that hundreds of Syrian children are being killed as I write these words.

There’s only so much impotence one can tolerate.

There’s only so much noise one can stand.

There’s only so much “news” one really needs.

I’m reaching my limit.

 

How about you?

58 thoughts on “How much information is just too much?

  1. Edmonton Tourist

    I have made a concious effort to unplug frequently and in a meaningful way. I purged people I would not talk to in ‘real life’ and stopped following sites that supported unkind gestures. I bought a paper journal and a fantastic pen. I make the effort to write daily and jot down meaningful things for me. I learned the hard way about private/personal information to share and things I am find with having on a public forum. I make an effort to read blogs/social items that interest me and turn off things that don’t. In short, I think I woke up. I use my blog as a way to record my touristy adventures and explore photography. It has introduced me to a local community that shares the same interests. I have turned inward. Self/family/community are now important in ways I neglected them before. I only comment on items if I am at my desktop because I fingers have a harder time navigating small buttons. I think I am at the place where you were when I first began reading your blog (8 years-ish ago). I like simple beautful things and places. Conversation and experiences are important to me. A breakfast with family in a beautiful setting is my favourite thing with sitting in nature alone is a close second. I have slowed down to breath and found joy in that. My dad gave me advice I never took until last year. “No one is forcing you to do what you don’t want to do. Say no”. So I did and it is the best thing I ever did. Thank you for you consistency and commitment to this forum. I have enjoyed the journey.

    1. Thanks for staying so long!

      And thanks for such a thoughtful comment.

      I’ve considered dropping this blog — not because I no longer enjoy writing it, but due to lack of comments/likes and visits.

      I get paid to write for my living, so doing so without income starts to get wearying for me. I do really enjoy the interaction here when it happens…but have lost the time and patience to cajole or tweak endlessly to boost views and comments.

      I feel frustrated by this, but can’t spare the energy to fix it…so c’est la vie!

      I agree about spending time in nature. I find it so healing. 🙂

  2. Steve

    I see most of the social media as entertainment and a source of hilarity, never seen as truth. Anonymous posts are never a substitute for diligent fact finding. Thanks for this and for your thoughtful blogs.

    1. Thanks!

      It can be a real challenge (and waste of time) to determine what is truthful.

      Being a career journalist means I can’t risk losing my reputation by trading in falsehood!

  3. i understand everything you have stated here and i find that the tech/social/media all creep up on me over time. i try to make a conscious effort to remove myself from it all, even for short periods of time, to replenish and regain my sense of calm in light of all that is going on in the world. as for the blog, i find your blog very well thought-out, beautiful, and informative. i agree that it gets tiresome to work so hard for numbers, and if it has lost its enjoyment for you, then it is time to use your talents and energies elsewhere. i can honestly say that i would miss it, though.

    1. I think un-coupling is key.

      I’ve actually really begun to enjoy posting on (and looking at) Instagram (and I do admit, I enjoy the instant global likes!) more than anything word-focused.

      I don’t plan to quit the blog (and thank you!) but it’s dis-spiriting to see other blogs get 100s of comments and likes. But I am who I am and changing it to…something else…just isn’t in it for me.

  4. Caitlin, I feel the same! My blog has 11,000+ followers but we’re all busy. And a core group comments, generally. As I read your blog, I am chastising myself because today was supposed to be technology free. I feel the need to step away and be in the world, being on the computer all week. And yet . . . here I am:). How do we all connect but not be overwhelmed with the wealth of info and connections we want to keep up? I’m surprised more focus isn’t being put on this in education, business, gov’t., etc.

    1. Right?

      I want to disconnect more — but it’s also how you and I “know” and enjoy one another, as with many here! This morning I liked a very funny video from MELewis in Geneva on Instagram — and we discovered one another here.

      I tend to block out pretty much anything that doesn’t inform, amuse or connect me with smart/interesting people and ideas. That filters out quite a bit.

  5. Living far from paper sources of American publications, digital is a window to the world. But the secret for me really is small doses. And doing only one thing at time. My husband, who is French but perfectly fluent in English, enjoys his subscriptions to the NYT and the Washington Post, which he reads each day on his iPad. I scan stories online but only ‘deep read’ on paper. So if there’s a magazine I really want, I pay a premium for hard copy here in France. And now that I know that writers get nada on used book sales, I will indulge my love of good quality paperbacks guilt-free!

    1. For sure!

      I read the NYT and FT in print, and really enjoy that experience– mostly to get OFF the bloody screen! Same for our magazines, so every room (!) has stacks of unread print magazines.

      I ditched the New Yorker (no time, not enough interest) and will likely soon ditch AD. We dumped Bloomberg Businessweek and I’m ready to get rid of all the business magazines; the FT is very comprehensive, if dry.

      It’s the online Niagara one has to avoid (social media.)

  6. I get most of my news from a news app on my phone and from snippets of cable news I catch in the break rooms at work. That’s how I stay informed on most of what’s going on in America and the world. And you know what? That works for me. I just don’t want to deal with too much of that stuff, because it gets me angry and anxious and a few other things. With these small bits, I feel better able to handle the world outside my bubble, and not feel so many negative emotions.
    Besides, there are a lot of other things going on in my life right now. Adding all of America and the world’s problems is just something I’m not ready to take on all at once. I’m willing to do a bit of talking here and there, share and like articles from reputable sites, make donations to certain organizations and have a discussion with someone I know I can have a civil conversation about this stuff, but that’s about it.

    1. I think it’s wise.

      One of the things I have come to really loathe about nightly “news” (ABC, NBC, CBS) is how they almost completely ignore anything but the U.S.– and now include, almost every night, some example of terrible police-crime-related violence.

      It’s cheap and stupid.

      I try to catch BBC news on radio and TV for some balance.

  7. Jann Jasper

    I really hope you don’t stop writing this blog, Caitlin, because I’d really miss it. I always greatly enjoy reading it – You have such a broad range of experiences and an intelligent, interesting perspective. But if time pressures force you to stop, of course I understand. You seem to have a small number of regular, even loyal commenters. But I could understand if that’s disheartening given it’s a small percentage of your total subscriber number.

    The only social media I ever use is Facebook. I’ve always seen social media as a big time sink, though I know there can be benefits. I’ve never even looked at the others (Twitter, Instagram, etc). About a week ago I cut way back on my Facebook use. Due to their “People You May Know” feature, I already knew FB had accessed my Outlook contact list – apparently I permitted that when I signed up, unaware of what I was doing. It really creeps me out that FB accessed my thousands of Outlook contacts. The more I learned about how they violate our privacy, the more annoyed I got. But nothing compares to the incredibly damaging role Facebook played in the presidential election. Also, I’ve noticed that of all the many times I’ve “shared’ important news articles from credible sources, very few of my Facebook “friends” have commented, which I assume means almost nobody reads the useful things I share on FB. I often tout on FB non-profit organizations that I support, but i don’t know if anyone has made donations to them based on my mentioning them. What’s left, then, is that FB is a device for procrastination. That some people use FB to plan their social get-togethers seems pathetic to me, especially given that it further violates the privacy of your friends, plus it tells would-be thieves when you won’t be home. So I’ve cut way back. I’m fortunate that I don’t use FB for networking or generating business, so stepping back is not hard for me. I’ve probably saved myself over one hour per day.

    1. Thanks for the kind words. Much appreciated! Generally feeling a bit weary these days.

      I hear you loud and clear re: Facebook. I’m not enjoying it much, but I do use it daily because I now belong to a dozen on-line FB writers’ groups, and I get a lot of work/tips/insight from them.

      Instagram is my new favorite because of its crazy diversity.

    2. Hey Jann,

      I just read your comment about the invasive practices of FB – I had signed up gosh 12 years ago and at that time it said it was free and always will be. But then about 5-6 years later there were adverts and suddenly if you wanted to reach all of your friends with a post you had to pay actual money to do so.

      I quit using the site then and it has not hindered my social life at all. It did help that my partner quit at the same time – and now 5 years later I keep seeing/hearing others lament about how much they dislike it and feel so grateful to not be exposed on it anymore or exposed to it! I think more people in time will leave it as well. Our life is fuller without.

  8. Jann Jasper

    I got off on a rant about FB, but I did not miss your larger point. Yes, it is incredibly dispiriting to read the news. I’m reading it less for that reason. I try remain informed in a general way, so I can make a couple calls to my elected representatives each week. I’ve stopped signing most petitions I receive by email because I don’t know if they’re effective – I suspect some of these organizations just want to collect email addresses. I also read that article by the guy who went to only reading the news in print – it’s at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/07/technology/two-months-news-newspapers.html – and i found it very thought-provoking. More carefully reported and vetted news is certainly more worthwhile than the latest half-baked piece of info, dozens of which fly past every day. But even credible news organizations can report things that aren’t true. We’ve all heard of the recent “statistic” on the shocking number of shootings since 2018 began, but it turned out that high number included guns found in school parking lots that were not fired.

    1. It’s a growing challenge to decide what energy to spend on what…IRL and online. The amount of data we now try to process every day is orders of magnitude beyond what it was a few years ago. We think of it as normal — not overwhelming

      But the cognitive load is.

  9. Yup. I understand. I have had to narrow things down as well to things I want to read (your blog is one of them 🙂 ). I have an online Globe and Mail subscription. I’ve cut tv news to CBC and BBC although I now and then watch CNN to see what that orange buffoon is upside down to. I just find American news so frenetic, loud and over the top – there’s no one else but them/their problems/their effect on the world. I do hope that there’s a learning curve around #45 (the world can function quite well without you/ you’re not indispensable). I find a lot of the whole social media merry-go-round to be very flavoured by American beliefs around money, power and competition. And in the end, most of it is dominated by speculation, gossip and fabrication.

    Great post. 🙂

    1. You said it!

      It’s really interesting to watch or listen to a BBC news broadcast — a story can run 3 or 4 minutes on TV and even 15 minutes on radio. Unheard of for American broadcasting. It’s ridiculous.

  10. I’m a watcher of documentaries, ancient, archaeological and such, which is actually how I found one Timothy Snyder, and his book ‘On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century’. He’s a scholar of Eastern European History, a Professor at Yale, and he has a unique perspective.

    Here are a couple of quotes.

    “Post-truth is pre-fascism.”

    “History does not repeat, but it does instruct.”

    If nothing less, the information he gives helps me to feel less helpless.

    In his last short video (he’s been doing a series since before Christmas) he spoke of journalists as heroes, as the ones that go out into the fray to find truth, and bring it back with them. It is the institutions that are the most fragile, and so I suppose how we interact now with them is definitely changing. He mentioned finding them, following their work, and when you do use social media, use it to spread their truths.

    Anyways, thank you for what you do.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing this. I would like to find out more about him and his work. My fear is that too few people, esp. Americans, have very little sense of historical patterns and how they play out.

      I tweet and re-tweet (albeit with only 2745 followers) journalism work I think worth reading and watching.

      1. Definitely. “Can’t happen here”. Which is another point he’s made concerning the rise of fascism in the early 20th century, and the parallels to now. Anyways, these small seeds can grow… you never know.

        May the force be with you ; )

      2. I wonder, if you polled 100 Americans (or Canadians) on some basic history how many of us would know it or what happened next.

        In Paris in December 2014 we stayed in a friend’s apartment and on her bookshelf was a phenomenal history of the Weimar Republic (which I had always wanted to better understand, and all I knew of it (!) was loving the film Cabaret…

        https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/weimar-germany-eric-d-weitz/1101639383?ean=9780691016955

        This is the book….I checked on Barnes & Noble and there were 20 pages (!) of books just on that topic.

        People often think history is boring (and some historians are pretty dry) but I often find British writers really make it come alive.

      3. Thank you : ) I designed sites for a few years back in the late 90’s, taught myself to code, so this blog gives me the opportunity to play.

  11. I think at one point a crap tonne of people started blogs, heard if you followed other sites you’d get popular and then gave up in the rise of more instant forms of social media! I have near 3k followers too and limited engagement. It’s either that or an algorithm for fake sites crept into WordPress (I reckon that was about 3 years ago) as I had on average 10 new followers a day at one point but wasn’t posting that much content. Anyway I totally understand the more instantaneous appeal of Instagram. I do love it for the niche pockets you can discover very quickly and connect with like minded people or just your friends/family. I’m still working out a balance between private and public content as I would hate to overshare my life… in a world that is all about oversharing for likes. Yuck!

  12. Studies show that people retain more when they read a printed page than when they read the same text online or on a hand-held electronic device. While you are reading any electronic media, the text seems to be surrounded by a ghostly halo of distraction, as if voices were whispering about all of the other things you could be reading or seeing. Both attention and imagination are better engaged by non-electronic text. Also, afterwards you can better visualize fragments of the text afterwards.

  13. I don’t read the news, cancelled the paper subscription years ago. Disconnected the television and check in to any news that affects me only when it trickles down via blogs or Instagram. But, 99% of the time, it is completely irrelevant to my life so I never really miss anything.
    It’s probably myopic but I’m content and anyways all I can do is within my tiny orbit of family and friends. If I can manage being of some happiness there, I’ll consider mine a life well lived.

    1. Interesting.

      I wonder, though, if being that disconnected allows you to make smart decisions if/when you vote? Much as I applaud the idea, I also think knowing what’s happening politically (even in small doses) is important.

      1. Valid point. Thanks to time with friends and family who are insatiable consumers of news, I am lucky to witness interesting discussions. It allows me to then read about things that are relevant/ interesting in detail and I’m spared much sensationalism.

      2. Interesting — and I think I do this quite a bit as well. I trust my friends (mostly fellow journalists, globally) to see interesting stuff.

        It’s the endless ranting and opinions I have no energy for.

      3. Jann Jasper

        I agree, Caitlin. It’s important to know what’s going on, tho most of us don’t need to spend hours every day at it. Not only is being informed essential for voting, but i believe we can have some effect by calling our Representatives and Senators. I also like to read about progressive candidates and i donate a bit of money to some who seem to have a chance of getting elected. While many of us are understandably tempted to shut out the news and withdraw to the circles of our own lives, families, and friends, it is very dangerous for society if too many people do that. For one thing, there is very little news that doesn’t affect us one way or another, even if indirectly or in the long term. I feel we all have responsibilities as citizens to keep participating, fighting back in what ever way we can. Hunkering down at home and tuning out the world won’t cut it.

      4. It’s finding the balance that I think is difficult — those who are truly passionate about politics or the environment or whatever topic can now drinl 24/7 from a firehose. When to stop?

  14. I can’t handle too much news / current events on social media (Twitter), it’s overwhelming especially politics. CNN seems to be more and more “trashy” with so many guests. I do watch PBS & CBC if I want to get caught up on the news plus the Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star. I also check the NYT and the Washington Post online.

    Your blog is a great resource. It’s informative, educational (everything from writing to decorating) – I like the perspective you bring to your readers. The comments are also very good to read.

    1. You sound like you’re consuming a lot of news! I was a Globe reporter in the 1980s before moving to the Montreal Gazette then to NH and NY. I tend to avoid all the “hot takes” — which are basically just 10000s of opinions and why do I care?! I also weary of friends freaking out on Facebook (hello, Doug Ford?!)

      Thanks! I really appreciate hearing that. 🙂

      I so enjoy the people who make time to comment. Never dull and very rarely (almost never) uncivil.

  15. Limit reached. Feel completely impotent to the extent that my mental health took a dive so serious it required medical intervention. Funny enough this was about twelve months ago…around the same time many of my like-minded friends were suffering a similar affliction. In the end, what helped pull me out of despair was the reminder that the small, real, eye-to-eye interactions I have with students (I teach yoga to individuals in chronic pain) can also be a catalyst for change. I wish sometimes I had a big voice, big power and the strength to move mountains but I’m learning that even the tiniest voice can be heard if she’s persistent.

    1. Wow…So glad you are feeling better now!

      Not surprised to read this, unfortunately. One of the sequelae for journalists, cops, chaplains, healthcare workers is secondary trauma — we can be deeply affected (wounded emotionally) by the misery we witness and listen to. I wish more news consumers understood this as well! We’re not made of metal…we absorb toxicity, and if we expose ourselves to too much of it (emotional, not just physical, which is more obvious) it takes a terrible toll.

      Your work is SO important! As someone who suffers pretty much daily/chronic pain (arthritis in right knee and it’s now causing altered gait/pain in right foot and ankle) I know how incredibly valuable your work is!!! I have custom $500 orthotics for my shoes — which only fit (of course) my hideous hiking boots, so I end up not using them all the time. 😦

      I like the starfish analogy — the guy who was picking up starfish one by one stranded on the beach and returning them to the water. Someone watching says…how will this make a difference? It’s only one starfish. But, aaaaaah, the difference it made for that one starfish.

      We’re all one starfish. 🙂

  16. I just read those two articles you cited. I admit to feeling blah and trying to build in little resting periods from all information thrown at me on a daily basis. Regarding the guy willfully not reading anything, a part of me felt angry at him. Trump may have thrown me for a loop too but the answer is not willfully ignoring everything. We do, and I know I do, have to take a step back before taking part in whatever does on. I noticed the writer emphasizing immigrants and African-Americans do not have that luxury, it’s literally life or death for these groups.

    I feel like a hamster on a wheel and stepping back makes me engage in this lunacy better.

    1. I agree with you about totally ignoring the world. It may seem soothing but I’m not persuaded it’s smart.

      Thanks for reading the two links…I sometimes wonder if anyone does!

      I just lose heart when I read some of the news — hell, much of it — whether racism, violence, famine, war. It isn’t that I don’t care because I do. But I feel powerless and that makes me crazy. What, really, can any of us do about the insanity in Syria? And yet, we see images and stories and…nothing changes. Nothing improves, no matter how much we care.

      1. We can’t improve the larger picture but we can improve our day to day. Every time I hear this snarl on social media, it makes me want to be more compassionate, more kind, more empathetic. We are experiencing a paradigm shift and a lesson in not acting complacent about those issues. They never went away, they went underground, and people forget evil didn’t show up overnight in Germany, it showed up in the everyday beliefs and interactions of the people, and that period also brought out the most heroic acts of compassion and heroism.

  17. I agree – I think we are all being overloaded with information. I limit the number of blogs I follow to the ones really I enjoy (yours is one of them!) but in recent years it’s been hard to find time to read even those and interact properly with their authors. Time seems to be a diminishing commodity these days – a combination of work pressures and life circumstance in my case, which WILL resolve, but it’s meant I have had to ration my leisure, reading and social time.

    Meanwhile social media – Twitter, Facebook etc – seems to be overflowing with what, to my mind, is the raw effluent of the human condition – polemic masquerading as fact, cyber-bullying and hate. I think the arbitrary frameworks of communication that social media creates lend themselves to this behaviour above others, framing the events of the world in a particular way when they are ‘reported’ there (I have to use such a word with caution – the people writing social media are not true reporters…) Because social media is so ubiquitous, I worry that this will then act as a ‘permission’ system to leak it into general society. And it may already have happened. Ouch.

    1. I’m glad you still carve out time to read and comment here!!

      I limit my time (mostly) to Twitter (hard news and some pals there I enjoy chatting with) and Facebook, which I find increasingly dull. Twitter is my go-to source for breaking news and I tune out most of the opinion because…why do I care? I know, that sounds arrogant (and here I am stating my opinion!) but…time?!

      I also read books for pure pleasure and now look at all our stacks of unread magazines with something close to resentment.

      I have no interest in “reporting” from people who I know have no training and no ethical framework, so that clears out my inbox quickly.

      I suspect that some readers here keep returning because I am a reporter and my work is solid and trustworthy.

  18. Don’t you feel we’re not encouraged to have filters anymore. Over the years it seems more things and less real information. You mentioned the BBC, yet here in the UK my wife and I still find that there is not enough depth to the stories, and it is getting harder to dig out and through the filters and algorithms that techno’s hold in such high regard. I’m just coming back to my blog, and to all the people I read and looked at to find such a spread of information from all over the world.

    I lost the will to try and post, to interact with readers and with other peoples blogs. I’m coming back to it slowly. 🙂

    1. I mostly get my news in snippets off of Twitter — and then decide how much deeper to dive from there back to the original sources/outlets. The NYT and FT every day is a lot already.

      Good luck with the blog. It’s all time and attention, of which we have limited quantities.

  19. Recently i have noticed my time slipping away due to information overload, so iam working on limited screentime and be productive on self awareness. And I’m more interested in like minded bloggers and women entrepreneurs in my part of the world and beyond.

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