The Information Tsunami Shows No Sign of Letting Up

If you feel you’re being overwhelmed by information overload in the digital realm, you have lots of company.

A survey conducted last month of ~200 adults who are online “content consumers” found that the largest proportion reports being online essentially their entire waking day. The survey, conducted by content publishing platform company Magnify, was made up of executives, professionals, entrepreneurs and technologists.

It’s a small survey sample to be sure … but who could really argue with the results it uncovered? When asked to what degree they were connected to the Internet, here’s how these respondents answered:

 From the moment I wake up until the moment I go to bed: ~50%
 Most of the workday: ~28%
 9 am to 9 p.m.: ~17%

But here’s the even bigger kicker: A large majority of the respondents reported that the quantity of information being received today had grown by 50% or more compared to last year:

 Information flow has doubled or more since last year: ~26%
 … Has increased by ~75%: ~10%
 … Has increased by ~50%: ~28%
 … Has increased by ~20%: ~25%
 … Has stayed essentially the same: ~11%

How are people dealing with processing the additional information? See how many of these “coping mechanisms” reflect your own actions or behaviors:

 Reading/responding to e-mail on evenings and weekends: ~77%
 Never turning off the mobile phone: ~57%
 Unable to answer all e-mails: ~47%
 Missing important news: ~41%
 Ignoring family and friends: ~40%
 Answering e-mails even while with children: ~35%
 Checking e-mails in the middle of the night: ~33%

The question is: Have we finally reached a critical-mass state where the law of diminishing returns kicks in?

Well, we might have thought that one year ago … before the latest torrential increase in volume happened!

Mere Words? Google’s Library Project Speaks Volumes

Google Library Project
Google's Online Library Project: 5 million+ volumes and growing.
An article published recently in Science magazine provides fascinating sociological findings based on researching the content of the growing number of books in Google’s digital library.

Google has amassed a database of some 2 billion words and phrases from more than 5 million books published over the past 200 years. Much of the news coverage about this project has been focused on the intense criticism of some publishers and authors who are concerned about copyright protections and Google’s alleged knowledge “power grab.”

But a more interesting and useful result of Google’s library project has been that linguists have been able to use this trove to measure information and trends based on the language in the books and the people and concepts that are referenced therein.

By analyzing the digitized text of the books in Google’s database in relation to when they were published, the researchers found that they can measure all sorts of trends – such as changing tastes in foods, ebbs and flows in relations between countries, and the role of religion in the world.

For example, references to “sausage” peaked in the 1940s and have dropped off dramatically since then, whereas references to “sushi” began to appear in significant volume in the 1980s.

It’s also interesting to see how references to certain “personalities” grow or decline over the decades. Revolutionary leader Che Guevara was covered widely in the 1960s but has receded since then, whereas Hollywood actress Marilyn Monroe has seen a slow, steady increase in references even decades following her death.

References to “God” have declined steadily since its peak usage in the 1840s, which likely comes as no surprise. More interestingly, references to “men” far outpaced women all through the 1800s and 1900s … until the 1980s when the two were at parity. And by 2000, references to women surpass those of men.

When evaluating emotional concepts, the researchers have found that concepts like “empathy” and “self esteem” have exploded since the 1940s and 1950s … while those of “will power,” “self control” and “prudence” have all declined.

Commenting on the importance of this academic research, Mark Liberman, a computational linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, said, “We see patterns in space, time and cultural context on a scale a million times greater than in the past.”

It turns out that Google’s digital database of books is but a small fraction of the total number of volumes published since the invention of the printing press; that figure has been estimated at ~129 million. But Google’s 5 million+ books are giving us a much more precise view of trends than what’s ever been possible before.

And an interesting ancillary finding of the research is realizing the number of completely new words that have come into use in the English language. It turns out that more than 500,000 new English words that have made their “debut” since 1950.

Google is making this data available at a time when it continues to face criticism about its online library endeavor. The initiative has faced copyright disputes, lawsuits and charges that Google is attempting to create an “information monopoly” (some of which have been sort of settled). But over the long haul, I think it’s a pretty safe bet that people will view the pluses as outweighing the minuses in Google’s library project.

Not All is Well in the World of Wikipedia

A few months ago, I blogged about “Wikipedians” – the hordes of people around the world who write and edit for the online encyclopedia sensation. In the “free information” world of the Internet, in just a few short years Wikipedia has effectively knocked the more traditional encyclopedias like World Book and Britannica off of their perch as the denizens and purveyors of broad knowledge.

With its self-described goal to be “the sum of all human knowledge,” Wikipedia has become the world’s fifth most popular web site, attracting more than 325 million visits per month – a 20% increase in traffic from a year ago. All this success, even as there have been well-publicized incidences of “rogue” information incorporated into Wikipedia article entries, either through honest error or deliberate insertions of false material; the report on Ted Kennedy’s Wikipedia entry of the senator’s death months before its actual occurrence is but one recent example.

Indeed, among the strengths of Wikipedia’s information model has been the idea of crowd-sourcing, with its legions of editors who have kept an eagle eye on Wikipedia entries to police them and aggressively remove incorrect, non-cited or otherwise suspect information.

But just last week, The Wall Street Journal published a front-page story reporting that Wikipedia is losing its volunteer force at a much steeper rate than ever before. Writers and editors have been departing Wikipedia faster than new ones joining – and the net decline has become particularly pronounced in 2009, to the tune of a net loss ~25,000 editor volunteers every month.

What’s causing this? A few reasons that have been suggested are:

As Wikipedia has grown, the number of topics not yet covered has diminished, making for fewer opportunities for new writers and editors to come on board with entries or to improve on existing articles.

Well-publicized problems with the veracity of some articles have caused Wikipedia to tighten its editorial and submission guidelines. The not-for-profit Wikipedia Foundation has adopted a plethora of rules (spelled out over dozens of web pages) that make it much harder for editors who are less familiar with the software to successfully post new stories – causing some articles to be removed within mere hours of being posted. It’s no secret that the burnout rate for writers is going to be higher when they have to continually debate and defend the content and format of their articles.

A reduction in the “passion” factor – Wikipedians are a bit of a different breed, driven as much by altruism as a generous dose of ego (“I’m better than the rest of you”) when it comes to information knowledge. They’ve even created their own special social world, with the Wikipedia Foundation hosting annual get-togethers of volunteers in such exotic locales as Buenos Aires where they can collectively bask in the aura of their shared “specialness.” But, people being people, over time the thrill abates except for the most passionate contributors.

The downturn in the economy probably doesn’t help, either. More free time might be available to devote to Wikipedia for those newly out of work … but in such times, more attention and effort is understandably going to be placed elsewhere.

Recognizing the need to reverse recent trends, the Wikipedia Foundation is working on creating streamlined instructions to help novice editors contribute articles that adhere to the proper submission guidelines more successfully. It is also working to actively recruit writers and editors from the scientific community, a historically soft spot in terms of Wikipedia’s information coverage.

Whether these steps will be enough to make a difference is an open question. Encouraging more volunteers from the world of science for what is essentially a volunteer mission with little or no peer recognition has been (and likely will continue to be) a tall order. And the jury is still out on the potential effectiveness of the new streamlined submission guidelines, because they haven’t been put into practice yet.

Still, there’s no denying that Wikipedia has had a major impact on the way people research information … and it has accomplished this over the span of only a few short years.