Digital Diets, Information Overload, and Your Writing

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Photo courtesy of SXC.

A lot of people resolve to lose weight at the beginning of the year, but few carry through successfully. I’ve discovered from personal experience that sustained weight loss is possible, but what works for many people is a tough, but attainable, set of practices. There’s no quick fix.

What does this have to do with writing and editing? A lot. It appears that 2009 may be the year when “info-bloat” reaches a turning point and challenges the benefits that many have seen from digital and online platforms and Web 2.0 technologies. Thinking proactively and taking preventative steps can keep your writing from suffering the effects of too much information, available too readily, with no focus to guide its usage or significance.

The incredible expanding information waistline

The fact that the digital universe is in “growth” mode is obvious to everyone, but it may come as a shock that, according to market research firm IDC, by 2011 the digital universe will be 10 times the size it was in 2006. ComputerWorld, the source for that fascinating little tidbit, ran a very good article last August about the consequences of information overload and what companies can do to avoid “data-rich” parts of their businesses becoming data dump heaps.

As reporter Mary Brandel writes,

“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 … It’s gotten to the point where information — which should be useful — has in some cases become a distraction.”

Inherent in the explosive growth of information is the rise of user-generated content. Duo Consulting, a group of web content experts, posted an article this month about digital overload, noting that “participatory media is resulting in a nearly infinite supply of content, although the increased fragmentation of attention is certainly an implication” of the shift to many-to-many, mass collaboration types of communication.

Do I look fat in this data?

Things have gotten so bad, Duo notes, that some are considering “digital diets,” limiting their intake of computer and Internet based materials to the bare minimum. Leo Babauta, creator of Zen Habits and Write to Done blogs, wrote a great post in 2007 on the Web Worker Daily, giving readers 21 tips for dealing with info-overload. Many of his tips work well for anyone considering a digital reducing program:

Map out your day. (Make a time map of what you want to accomplish.)

Allow RSS feeds to overload. (Just because it is there doesn’t mean you have to read it.)

Learn to focus. (In other words, learn to “unitask” and get one thing done at a time.)

Eliminate the news. (Believe me, as a journalist, I can vouch for this one—if something’s truly earth-shattering, you will hear about it at work or from friends.)

Read only 5 posts a day/Respond to only 5 emails a day/Write 5-sentence emails.

Beyond editorial-type content online, Seth Godin also points out that our writing has to compete against marketing in new media, which is rapidly leading to what he calls “social clutter”:

“It’s the clutter of the impersonal. Yes, you want an alert from a friend when it’s really a friend and really an alert. But what happens when it’s an ad that pretends to be an alert? Or what if it’s not an ad, but not really a totally personal tweet either?”

Seth predicts that social clutter will only get worse, so it appears the best offense against digital info-glut is a good defense. I’ve outlined a couple of steps writers can take to avoid the damage that information overload can produce, both from the standpoint of the information we consume, as well as that which we produce.

Tips for writers as information consumers

Resist the urge to try out every new social media tool that comes along. Be a mid-cyle adopter. Read about the promise of the next big thing while it’s in beta testing, sort through the hype and cautionary tales that follow the initial public rollout, then jump on board when you have reason to. Which leads us to the next tip…

Know why you’re online. The Internet is TV on steroids; not only is it possibly to surf endlessly and view passively, you have billions of “channels” to do it on. Before you sit down at the computer, or before you click the next link, ask yourself, “What am I looking for by going to this site?”

Find the 20 percent of social media/Web 2.0 tools that further your writing and learn how to use them effectively. Writers have a lot of uses for social media. Blogging can make you a better writer, Twitter can be useful for getting a heads-up on breaking news stories or doing quick fact-checks on stories and Facebook is so useful to journalists that numerous news organizations have a presence there. But to use each tool effectively, it helps to find out how your fellow writers or editors are using them.

Use content filtering to help the information you really need come to you. The ComputerWorld article offers several useful options for setting up aggregators or feed systems that provide only highly discussed and relevant content on a given topic. The article mentions using Techmeme for technology news, Blogrunner for general news and Wikio for global coverage. It also recommends customizing your iGoogle dashboard to develop a newsfeed that’s unique to your interests, something that I also recommend highly.

Another way to filter your content is to select a circle of Web 2.0 friends and acquaintances who’s online activies mesh with your information-gathering needs and following their “lifestreams” on services such as FriendFeed or Plaxo Pulse. Mark Krynsky, writing on Lifestream Blog, discusses this filtering strategy:

“I’m now leveraging the ultimate human filtering algorithm to bring me the wisdom of the masses. By selectively following those who are sharing bookmarks, Tweets, RSS shared items, and more, for my areas of interest, I am increasing the chance of having creme of the crop content delivered to me. This shift is treating people as a valued commodity ahead of the content.”

Have an “analog” workday and compare your productivity to a typical digital day. Try reporting, writing or editing “old school” style for one day. Travel back in time to, say, 1990 and work with the tools from that era: using a computer to type up your story is fine, but call sources on a land-line phone, take notes in a paper notebook and go to the library for research (it’s OK if your librarian uses the Internet to help you, but you have to interact with her face to face). Then work on a similar project in your usual digital fashion. If you save time doing it the old way, you may want to put yourself on a digital diet for a while.

Tips for writers as information producers

Think of your audience before beginning any project. What is the return on investment your reader will get for engaging with your material? How can you be of value to “digital dieters,” making their brief plunges into cyberspace worth it?

Think pull, not push. The upside of Web 2.0 is that readers can customize their content and have it come to them. Writing seductive headlines, subject lines and blog post titles is a matter of making a provocative proposition, then backing it up with substance.

Distribute your content in non-paying media (blogs, Twitter, RSS) strategically. Offering content for free is sensible if you’re building your brand, creating a platform for later revenue-generating work, connecting with people who may be important to your projects, or if your passion for what you’re doing is your overriding motivation.

Link enthusiastically, but add value. I’ve pruned several bloggers from my RSS aggregator list who simply posted links every day. While the filtering of content that they provided was useful for a while, I longed to understand their take on the topic of their blog and what they had to share with their audience. When you link online, pay at least as much attention to where you’re sending readers as if you were sourcing the material for print.

Pay attention to usability and information design when creating for online distribution. Sometimes, good online content gets buried in a 2-inch-deep paragraph, or simply doesn’t read the same way on a screen as it does on a piece of paper. Learning to optimize your writing for online display can make the difference between your audience taking the actions you want them to and your voice being ignored.

Letting Go of the Words by Janice (Ginny) Redish is a terrific resource for web content producers and is filled with dozens of before-and-after website “makeovers” that focus almost entirely on how the content is arranged, rather than the visual design or the code behind the site.

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One thought on “Digital Diets, Information Overload, and Your Writing

  1. Tammy says:

    Liz, A fantastic and timely post. I love the idea of having an “analog” work day, off-line, and comparing productivity to a “digital” work day. It is practically impossible to unitask while on the computer!

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