Communication Information Overload
by
David J. Grimshaw
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 October 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 November 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0133

Introduction

The term “information overload” can be traced back to 2,300 years ago. In more-recent academic literature, it was used to indicate limits to information handling and processing capacities. The notion of “overload” has been expressed in the poetry of T. S. Eliot: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge, where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” In addition to “overload,” other information pathologies include infobesity, information anxiety, and information avoidance. In the early 21st century there is a consensus that information overload refers to a state where the flow of information exceeds the cognitive capacity to process it. However, some authors have introduced the notion of “perceived information overload” as a concept that is measurable. The rate of data creation is faster in the early 21st century than at any time in the past. But what is the quality of the information that is created? A Google Scholar search for “information overload” found 92,000 results, but a library search for this term within peer-reviewed journals found 1,752. The digital economy has increased the reach and richness of information because of the minimal distribution costs. Different information intensities of goods require different mechanisms for communicating their quality. This is an area that has been studied by those interested in consumer behavior. Over time, as the concept has evolved, so has the focus of academic research. Early work had a focus on cognition, and this continues as an important theme. Later work has in addition a focus on the causes of overload; for example, the ways in which social media have changed behavior relating to information seeking. The tendency for more information to come in smaller chunks (e.g., Twitter’s 140-character limit per tweet) but to be delivered 24/7 has had an effect on the brain. The notion of information overload has often been related to the notion of being disorganized. From a neuroscience perspective, overload is framed as cognitive overload. Technologies are sometime seen as causes of overload; for example, email and social media. But technologies can also be seen as ways of structuring information that help us process it more effectively—for example, writing or databases. Other key solution areas that are considered in the literature include organizational change and personal adaptation strategies, and human-computer interaction design for enabling interruptions to be a positive source of information.

Reference Works

There is no one textbook that should be consulted; rather, this section collects key books and websites that form a good starting point for reading about information overload. Grimshaw 2008 has the merit of being short, though it is now somewhat dated. Information Overload Research Group is a useful starting point for access to a range of research papers. The group has a focus on the practical issues of solving overload, and Zeldes 2014 springs from that tradition. Shenk 1998 also contains practical, useful “solutions” but also raises questions about the impact of “data smog” on society. For a more academic source of thinking, Lavenda 2014 discusses the background influences before diving into the specific area of email overload. Behavioral sciences have made important contributions to the field by increasing our understanding of how we handle interruptions. The website Interruptions in Human-Computer Interaction is a rich source of material on the interplay between technology and human multitasking. Levitin 2015 takes the study of multitasking further, arguing that a combination of that and technology addiction reduces efficiency. Beyond examining the impact on individuals and organizations, Carr 2010 argues that the Internet is shaping the process of thinking. The author raises some important questions for society to ponder, including what our close relationship to technology is doing to our humanity.

  • Carr, Nicholas. 2010. The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains. New York: Norton.

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    A well-acclaimed book that looks at the wider implications of overload. Seeks to cast light on some crucial questions for society, such as “Is technology our servant or master?” Carr’s main argument is that the media (Internet) are not just channels of information, they are also shaping the process of thought.

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  • Grimshaw, David J. 2008. Information overload. In The international encyclopaedia of communication. Vol. 5, Fi–in. Edited by Wolfgang Donsbach, 2234–2238. Oxford: Blackwell.

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    A short introduction to the subject that outlines the concept in terms of quantitative and qualitative perspectives. Grimshaw briefly discusses the consequences before he ends with some key research questions.

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  • Information Overload Research Group.

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    A group of academics, consultants, and practitioners whose aim is to reduce information pollution; started in 2007, it is now an Oregon nonprofit corporation, with the main focus is on solving the problem. The resource center is a crowdsourced collection of research papers.

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  • Interruptions in Human-Computer Interaction.

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    A repository of over two hundred research papers, all available to download in Adobe Acrobat format. The papers focus on capturing the potential information contained in interruptions, looking at the psychology of human interruption through the lens of human-computer interaction.

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  • Lavenda, David A. 2014. The impact of intra-organizational email usage on worker information overload. MSc thesis, Bar-Ilan Univ., Israel.

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    Useful for the extensive list of references and an appendix, which lists cited causes of overload during two time periods: 1985–1994 and 2000–2009. Also has a good literature review. Available online.

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  • Levitin, Daniel J. 2015. The organized mind: Thinking straight in the age of information overload. London: Penguin.

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    Provides strategies for thinking on the basis of insights from neuroscience about how the mind works. Useful for people who want to improve their ability to process information. Considers the addiction of technology and multitasking, arguing that they make us less efficient.

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  • Shenk, David. 1998. Data smog: Surviving the information glut. Rev. ed. San Francisco: HarperEdge.

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    Shenk’s term “data smog” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2004. Written in a journalistic style, the book was controversial back in 1998, but in the early 21st century, some of his warnings of impacts on society seem more believable. Worth reading for the practical proposals in the appendixes.

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  • Zeldes, Nathan. 2014. Solutions to information overload: The definitive guide. Nathan Zeldes.

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    A practical book of 120 pages that addresses key issues such as email overload. Solutions vary, from the technical ways to adapt to email clients, to the individual ways in which all of us can modify our behavior. Available for ordering on the author’s website.

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Journals

Information permeates all disciplines, so there is an extensive range of journals that have published papers on information overload, including specialist health journals such as The Lancet. There is no one journal or set of journals that covers the field. Also, there has not been one journal that has taken up a particular theme in the information overload field. So the list of journals here is meant as a starting point for researchers, mainly with a focus on information science, behavioral psychology, and management as the key contributing disciplines. From the information systems/science perspective, the journal containing the most papers is the International Journal of Information Management. Some professional associations have an interest in the topic, with two examples being the Journal of Information Science, published by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, and Information Systems Research, published by the Institute for Operations Research and Management Sciences (INFORMS). Psychologists with an interest in the area have published in a range of journals, and a good mix of theory and practice can be found in Human–Computer Interaction. Work that has a focus on decision making is spread among a number of journals, but one of the best is the Journal of Business Research. For coverage on some of the wider implications, see the Information Society.

Concept and Theory of Overload

The concept of information overload started with the simple notion of having more information than could be usefully processed. There are many synonyms in the literature, such as cognitive overload, communications overload, information fatigue, or data fog. Königer and Janowitz 1995 posits that there is a paradox of too-much information and too-little knowledge, and the authors introduce the notion of “structure” to account for the paradox. Most often, the context in which “too much” information is viewed is in relation to some kind of decision process. Eppler and Mengis 2004 reviews the concepts from a multidisciplinary point of view and notably provides many visual formats for presenting its findings. Those authors who write from a management, information science, accounting, or consumer research perspective have a focus on the outcomes of decision making; these outcomes have mainly been conceived in terms of the performance or accuracy of a decision. Researchers in behavioral science, notably psychology and psychiatry, take a slightly different approach, with a focus on why certain behavior patterns occur. Lipowski 1975 broadens the approach to include sensory overload and points out that there is more research in sensory deprivation. The challenge appears to be achieving a balance or enough information for the task in hand. Since tasks or decisions normally have to be made within a specific timeframe, Schick, et al. 1990 discusses overload in the context of a temporal dimension. The authors examine the critical issue of how much time an individual has for making a decision in relation to the volume of information. Large empirical studies are relatively few, but Jones, et al. 2004 is one such study that explores the impact of an individual’s behavior on group discussions. From this work the authors develop a theoretical model that takes into account the social context of decision making and the behavior of the individual within a group. A key remaining question is how information overload is measured. Jackson and Farzaneh 2012 seeks to address that question by developing a conceptual model; from this model, the authors then derive a model that can measure and predict information overload. A wider perspective on the concept of overload is taken in Karr-Wisniewski and Lu 2010, which views information overload as one of three components of technology overload—the others being communications overload (see also Causes of Information Overload) and systems features overload.

  • Eppler, Martin J., and Jeanne Mengis. 2004. The concept of information overload: A review of literature from organization science, accounting, marketing, MIS, and related disciplines. Information Society 20.5: 325–344.

    DOI: 10.1080/01972240490507974Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Four subdomains of knowledge are used for the selection of the literature: accounting, marketing, management information system (MIS), and organizational science. Contains some useful tables in which the context and definitions of information overload are set down and references to their sources are given. Causes and effects are also tabulated.

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  • Jackson, Thomas W., and Pourya Farzaneh. 2012. Theory-based model of factors affecting information overload. International Journal of Information Management 32.6: 523–532.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.ijinfomgt.2012.04.006Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Useful theoretical model that can be used in practice to calculate the amount of overload experienced by individuals and by organizations. Provides several diagrams of the factors associated with information overload and contains a well-referenced table summarizing the factors. Available online.

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  • Jones, Quentin, Gilad Ravid, and Sheizaf Rafaeli. 2004. Information overload and the message dynamics of online interaction spaces: A theoretical model and empirical exploration. Information Systems Research 15.2: 194–210.

    DOI: 10.1287/isre.1040.0023Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A large empirical study (2.65 million posts on 600 newsgroups) used to validate a theoretical model. Noteworthy because it explores the social context in which the technology is used. The model focuses on the impact of an individual’s coping strategy on group discussions. Available online.

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  • Karr-Wisniewski, Pamela, and Ying Lu. 2010. When more is too much: Operationalizing technology overload and exploring its impact on knowledge worker productivity. In Special issue: Advancing educational research on computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) through the use of gStudy CSCL tools. Computers in Human Behavior 26.5: 1061–1072.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2010.03.008Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This paper is about “technology overload,” which is conceptualized as a combination of three things: information overload, communications overload, and systems feature overload. Useful paper that explores the wider context of overload in relation to usage of technology. Available online.

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  • Königer, Paul, and Karl Janowitz. 1995. Drowning in information, but thirsty for knowledge. International Journal of Information Management 15.1: 5–16.

    DOI: 10.1016/0268-4012(94)00002-BSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Explores the paradox of too-much information and too-little knowledge. The authors argue that the reason for the paradox is structure: different media channels structure information in different ways. Paper contains mix of conceptual and practical discussion about structuring information.

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  • Lipowski, Zbigniew J. 1975. Sensory and information inputs overload: Behavioral effects. Comprehensive Psychiatry 16.3: 199–221.

    DOI: 10.1016/0010-440X(75)90047-4Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A relatively early paper, important because it is well cited and uses the lens of psychology. Considers a range both of sensory- and information-based inputs. Ends with some theoretical propositions that are a useful way of conceptualizing the data.

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  • Schick, Allen G., Lawrence A. Gordon, and Susan Haka. 1990. Information overload: A temporal approach. Accounting, Organizations and Society 15.3: 199–220.

    DOI: 10.1016/0361-3682(90)90005-FSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Starts from the viewpoint that organizations are information-processing systems. Previous work had led to a focus on changing organizational design to cope with overload, but this paper moves the debate toward individuals and the time they have to process information.

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Causes of Information Overload

The cause of information overload is embedded in the origin and definition of the term as outlined in the first four sections. Most notably and simply put, it is more information than can effectively be processed. Concept and Theory of Overload considers this in relation to decision making, mainly in an organizational context. The classic work here is Eppler and Mengis 2004, which states that the causes of information overload are related to the characteristics of five things: information, person receiving, tasks, organizational structures, and technology. A further way of conceptualizing the causes of overload is to consider causes by communications. The studies cited here mainly discuss the causes of communications overload, with many of them using social networking and media domains rather than business organizations (see also Disciplinary Perspectives). Lee, et al. 2016 adapts a framework from Karr-Wisniewski and Lu 2010 (see Concept and Theory of Overload) to study communications that interrupt primary tasks. Social networking is also the context for Krasnova, et al. 2013, which finds that high levels of communications lead to envy. Nelson-Field, et al. 2013 examines the role of clutter and finds that high levels of advertising clutter reduce the recall (effectiveness) of the advertisement. Hargittai, et al. 2012 studies overload in the home environment, finding that most people felt empowered, not overloaded. Causes of overload are varied and relate to the context of the studies; for example, Jensen, et al. 2014 investigates overload in the context of patient information on cancer treatment, finding that too-many treatment options lead to higher levels of stress. Home environments are less likely to cause overload compared to work- or task-based domains. Interestingly, clutter from advertisements appears to be regarded as irrelevant or ambiguous information. Ji, et al. 2014 finds that those with medium and low levels of traditional news media use are more likely to suffer overload. Improving search efficiency was helpful in reducing overload.

  • Eppler, Martin J., and Jeanne Mengis. 2004. The concept of information overload: A review of literature from organization science, accounting, marketing, MIS, and related disciplines. Information Society 20.5: 325–344.

    DOI: 10.1080/01972240490507974Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Considers the causes of information overload as being linked to the characteristics of the following: information (quantity, quality, intensity, frequency, and quality), person receiving (attitude, qualifications, and experience), the tasks that need to be completed (complexity of process), the organizational structures (centralization, teams), and how the information is used (use and misuse of technology).

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  • Hargittai, Eszter, W. Russell Neuman, and Olivia Curry. 2012. Taming the information tide: Perceptions of information overload in the American home. Information Society 28.3: 161–173.

    DOI: 10.1080/01972243.2012.669450Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Explores overload caused by media in the domestic environment, via a series of focus groups. The authors find that in US homes, information is less time critical and is an environment of relaxation, and “quality of information” is interpreted as “enjoyment.” Participants were almost unanimously enthusiastic about new media but noted some technology frustration and poor quality.

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  • Jensen, Jakob D., Nick Carcioppolo, Andy J. King, Courtney L. Scherr, Christina L. Jones, and Jeff Niederdieppe. 2014. The cancer information overload (CIO) scale: Establishing predictive and discriminant validity. Patient Education and Counseling 94.1: 90–96.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.pec.2013.09.016Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An empirical study of US adult beliefs about cancer, aimed at improving patient outcomes. The researchers noted a high prevalence of cancer information overload or CIO (71.5 percent of the public). Often, the cause is too-many recommendations for treatment. Paper concludes with some discussion of implications for practice.

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  • Ji, Qihao, Louisa Ha, and Ulla Sypher. 2014. The role of news media use and demographic characteristics in the possibility of information overload prediction. International Journal of Communication 8:699–714.

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    Investigates how demographics, news media, and searching efficiency relate to information overload, finding that searching efficiency was helpful in reducing information overload. Those with middle and low levels of traditional news media use were found to be more likely to suffer information overload.

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  • Krasnova, Hanna, Helena Wenninger, Thomas Widjaja, and Peter Buxmann. 2013. Envy on Facebook: A hidden threat to users’ life satisfaction? In Proceedings of the 11th International Conference on Wirtschaftsinformatik (WI2013)—Volume 2: February 27–March 01 2013, Universität Leipzig, Germany. Edited by Rainer Alt, 1477–1492. Leipzig: Universität Leipzig.

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    Users share thirty billion pieces of information per month, which, claim the authors, can lead to feelings of envy. A study of German students revealed envy was widespread and was caused by a combination of passive consumption of posts and a tendency to overstate experiences.

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  • Lee, Ae Ri, Soo-Min Son, and Kyung Kyu Kim. 2016. Information and communication technology overload and social networking service fatigue: A stress perspective. Computers in Human Behavior 55.A: 51–61.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2015.08.011Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Social networking has contributed to increased demand for responses from users. This can lead to social-networking service fatigue or strain caused by a high number of messages, high demand for communications, and systems that are overly complex. Some implications for software design are discussed. Available online.

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  • Nelson-Field, Karen, Erica Riebe, and Byron Sharp. 2013. More mutter about clutter: Extending empirical generalizations to Facebook. Journal of Advertising Research 53.2: 186–191.

    DOI: 10.2501/JAR-53-2-186-191Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Does advertising on Facebook amount to clutter? The study finds that clutter does reduce advertising effectiveness, and in that sense, Facebook is similar to user recall from TV and radio. Popular brands make up a greater proportion of recalled brands in high-clutter environments.

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Perspectives on Information Overload

A useful place to start discovering more about information overload is with the idea that individuals and organizations and society generally are suffering from too-much information brought about by more channels of communications. Disciplinary Perspectives takes a disciplinary perspective with reviews of literature from the viewpoints of information science, organizational science, and management and information systems. Socioeconomic Perspectives looks at socioeconomic factors, and the third subsection explores Quantitative Perspectives. Specific issues discussed are age, geography, culture, and temperament.

Disciplinary Perspectives

The predominant contributory disciplines are library and information science, information systems, and management. The main subareas within management that have made contributions to the literature on information overload are marketing, organizational science, and accounting. Blair 2011 takes a historical perspective on the topic by discussing the earlier causes of overload, as well as solutions that have evolved over the centuries. The author reminds us that although overload has a cost, it is also a privilege resulting from the efforts of previous generations. Edmunds and Morris 2000 is the first of three papers in this section that review the literature; it builds on the historical context and introduces the notion of supply (information) and demand (human) factors. Eppler and Mengis 2004 is a more systematic review of the literature that includes a replicable methodology that could be used by scholars to update their own reviews. Melinat, et al. 2014 is a review of papers published between 2006 and 2013, although it is limited to those published at information systems conferences. From the perspective of information science, Benselin and Ragsdell 2016 seeks to understand the relationship between age and overload.

  • Benselin, Jennifer C., and Gillian Ragsdell. 2016. Information overload: The differences that age makes. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science 48.3: 284–297.

    DOI: 10.1177/0961000614566341Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Takes an information science perspective in reviewing the literature and reporting on an empirical study (also see this citation under Socioeconomic Perspectives). There are seven themes that emerge from the study, including the importance of information literacy.

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  • Blair, Ann. 2011. Information overload’s 2,300-year-old history. Harvard Business Review 89.3.

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    If you think information overload is a new problem, this article gives insights into overload caused by the abundance of books. Takes a wide perspective on the field by stepping back to review the history and relating overload to new technologies such as printing.

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  • Edmunds, Angela, and Anne Morris. 2000. The problem of information overload in business organisations: A review of the literature. International Journal of Information Management 20.1: 17–28.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0268-4012(99)00051-1Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A highly cited paper, useful for researchers in the field of information science and library studies, but some content is becoming dated. Gives a historical perspective on the development of the idea behind information overload. Considers both supply-side (information) and demand-side (human) factors in the review.

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  • Eppler, Martin J., and Jeanne Mengis. 2004. The concept of information overload: A review of literature from organization science, accounting, marketing, MIS, and related disciplines. Information Society 20.5: 325–344.

    DOI: 10.1080/01972240490507974Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This paper reviews the literature from a management perspective. Although it is out of date in terms of the literature review, the concepts are still relevant. Puts forward a replicable methodology for the review and provides a useful conceptual framework for future research.

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  • Melinat, Peter, Tolja Kreuzkam, and Dirk Stamer. 2014. Information overload: A systematic literature review. In Perspectives in business informatics research: 13th international conference, BIR 2014, Lund, Sweden, September 22–24; Proceedings. Edited by Björn Johansson, Bo Andersson, and Nicklas Holmberg, 72–86. Lecture Notes in Business Information Processing 194. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

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    A systematic review of papers published between 2006 and 2013. The focus is on seven research questions that aim to find out the level of research activity, who is active, what methods are used, the impact on enterprises, and solutions that are offered. Limited to papers presented at information systems conferences.

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Socioeconomic Perspectives

The ideas in this subsection are concerned with questions about information-processing capabilities that might differ according to some socioeconomic aspect, including cultural trait. This is an area ripe for further research, with the need to combine disciplinary domains of information science and psychology. The papers here make an important contribution to the debate; however, readers should be wary of drawing conclusions that are based on small sample sizes and a relatively small number of studies. Benselin and Ragsdell 2016 studies the relationship between age and perceptions of overload, while Dutta 2009 goes beyond the advanced knowledge-based economies to explore behavior in relation to information in developing countries. An interesting conclusion that may have some wider significance is that educational background is more important than whether a person lives in an urban or rural community. Wider questions concerning the role of temperament and culture on the ability to tolerate information overload are explored in Haase, et al. 2014.

  • Benselin, Jennifer C., and Gillian Ragsdell. 2016. Information overload: The differences that age makes. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science 48.3: 284–297.

    DOI: 10.1177/0961000614566341Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Empirical study using quantitative and qualitative tools to investigate the links between age and perceptions of overload. An important finding was that there is a connection between age and technology use: less technology use lowers overload in the older age groups.

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  • Dutta, Renee. 2009. Information needs and information-seeking behavior in developing countries: A review of the research. International Information & Library Review 41.1: 44–51.

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    Useful starting point to explore behavior associated with information in developing countries. Key finding is that educational background is more important than geographic location (rural or urban).

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  • Haase, Richard F., LaRae M. Jome, Joaquim A. Ferreira, Eduardo J. R. Santos, Christopher C. Connacher, and Kerrin Sendrowitz. 2014. Individual differences in capacity for tolerating information overload are related to differences in culture and temperament. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 45.5: 728–751.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022022113519852Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A number of statistical tools are used on a data set from 375 students at two universities: one in Portugal and one in the United States. Overload is measured using the Environmental Preference Inventory and then is related to measures of temperament.

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Quantitative Perspectives

The very possibility of information overload appears paradoxical, in the sense that conventional wisdom has it that more information leads to improved decision making. So just what are the dimensions of the problem of information overload? One perspective is to examine the growth of information (Lyman and Varian 2003). Before the start of the 21st century, humankind had generated about 5 exabytes (5 billion gigabytes) of information. Now this is generated in a matter of days. If you find it hard to visualize such growth, see Understanding the Growth of Information on Jellyvision. The pattern of information generation has an important geographical dimension, illustrated in the statistics in International Telecommunication Union 2014, which shows that large parts of the world still do not have access to information. A good world map from the BBC (BBC 2009) shows the geographical growth of the Internet. When considering the quantity of information, Simpson and Prusak 1995 points out that it is also important to consider the quality. Browning 2015 adds to the debate by raising questions about so-called big data. Our ability to capture and store data has outgrown our ability to analyze it.

Consequences of Information Overload

The literature goes back to the 1960s, when psychiatrists became interested in the notion of “input overload,” which includes both sensory and information loads. People tend to seek more information than is required to make a “good decision.” Both for the individual and the organization, it may be useful to distinguish among information overload, communications overload, and technology overload (see also Potential Solutions). The four subsections in this section discuss the consequences of information overload for Individuals, Consumers (although consumers are individuals, this subsection contains important considerations in relation to Internet shopping), Organizations, and Society.

Individuals

The papers in this subsection are concerned with the impact of information overload on the individual (rather than on the organization, the consumer, or society). The individual living in the early 21st century has more information available for the purpose of making choices than at any other previous time (see also Quantitative Perspectives). Paradoxically, more choice does not always lead to greater well-being—sometimes we may be trapped into the tyranny of small decisions. An alternative way of looking at this can be to ask: “How much information do we need?” O’Reilly 1980 questions the assumption that more is better within the context of decision making. This theme is also taken up in Bawden and Robinson 2009, which suggests that from the point of view of the individual, a satisficing approach may be the best. But it is not just a question of volume of information leading to stress. Farhoomand and Drury 2002 suggests that some information might be irrelevant. This paper includes a useful taxonomy of information overload derived from an empirical study of managers. If information can be irrelevant, then it implies that sometimes the processing of such information can be described as “wasteful”; Brennan 2011 applies the concepts of lean manufacturing to help understand the stress resulting from “unnecessary processing” of information. Weil and Rosen 1997 takes up the theme of stress but stands back from the narrow concept of information overload to consider other aspects of stress caused by the use of information technology. Contributions from the domain of psychology offer important insights by focusing on “perceived information overload.” Misra and Stokols 2012 develops a tool for measuring perceived information overload that could be useful for those undertaking further empirical studies. Those concerned with human-computer interfaces have studied perceived overload in terms of how it is affected by the level of interruptions experienced and how those interruptions are managed. Perceptions of overload can be negative for the individual and positive for the organization, as McFarlane and Latorella 2002 finds (see also Consequences of Information Overload: Organizations).

  • Bawden, David, and Lyn Robinson. 2009. The dark side of information: Overload, anxiety and other paradoxes and pathologies. Journal of Information Science 35.2: 180–191.

    DOI: 10.1177/0165551508095781Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Traces some of the history of overload and its relationship to the quantity of information available. Discusses the paradox of choice. Suggests that a satisficing approach, which means having just enough information to meet your need, may be the best strategy for the individual.

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  • Brennan, Linda L. 2011. The scientific management of information overload. Journal of Business and Management 17.1: 121–134.

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    Takes the concept of “waste” from lean manufacturing and applies it to help understand the effects of information overload. Examples of stress on the individual include “unnecessary processing” and “waiting.” Discusses mitigation strategies for these and other effects of overload.

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  • Farhoomand, Ali F., and Don H. Drury. 2002. Managerial information overload. Communications of the ACM 45.10: 127–131.

    DOI: 10.1145/570907.570909Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A well-cited paper that reports on a study of 124 managers. Taxonomy of information overload, on the basis of responses, includes volume of information, irrelevant information, time constraints, and multiplicity of information channels. Concludes with a discussion of techniques to manage information overload.

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  • McFarlane, Daniel C., and Kara A. Latorella. 2002. The scope and importance of human interruption in human–computer interaction design. Human–Computer Interaction 17.1: 1–61.

    DOI: 10.1207/S15327051HCI1701_1Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A long and well-referenced article that is a good starting point to explore the area of interruptions and the impact on overload. From the point of view of the individual, interruptions at work can be perceived as negative; however, from the organizational point of view, they can be positive. Available online.

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  • Misra, Shalini, and Daniel Stokols. 2012. Psychological and health outcomes of perceived information overload. Environment and Behavior 44.6: 737–759.

    DOI: 10.1177/0013916511404408Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A sample of 484 undergraduate students is used to test a tool that measures perceived information overload both from “cyber-based” and “place-based” sources. Contributes evidence for the assertion that stress is heightened by information overload and that cyber-based overload can reduce well-being.

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  • O’Reilly, Charles A., III. 1980. Individuals and information overload in organizations: Is more necessarily better? Academy of Management Journal 23.4: 684–696.

    DOI: 10.2307/255556Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An early, well-cited paper that questions a basic assumption about information; namely, that more is better. Individuals appear to have higher satisfaction (but lower performance) when in a state of information overload. Good review of literature on information and decision making. Available to read online after free registration.

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  • Weil, Michelle M., and Larry D. Rosen. 1997. TechnoStress: Coping with technology @work, @home, @play. New York: John Wiley.

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    Goes beyond the ideas of information overload to explore what the authors refer to as “technosis.” People become machine oriented and less responsive to the needs of people, including themselves. Some good checklists to work out if you (the reader) are in danger of suffering this condition.

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Consumers

Information about a product or service is undeniably part of the input to the choice process that every consumer makes. With more products being information intensive and more products being purchased online, these notions take on an increasing significance in our society. Questions arise: How much information is enough? Is the information relevant? Do consumers pay more attention to incongruent information? A key emerging theme is the effect of overload on the quality of the decision versus the ability of consumers to process information. The main contributing disciplines to the debate are business and psychology. Braun-LaTour, et al. 2007 provides a good review of the literature and then explores the effect of the consumer’s state of mood on processing information. Jacoby 1984 is a good starting point; this well-cited paper also provides a thorough review of previous research. In the other papers in this subsection, the impact of the Internet on consumer behavior takes center ground. It might be supposed that greater information available to Internet consumers would lead to better-quality decision making (see also Consequences of Information Overload: Individuals), but Chen, et al. 2009 challenges this notion with an empirical study of consumer behavior. Sicilia and Ruiz 2010 provides further evidence, albeit with a limited sample of three websites, of behavior changing with different information loadings. A much-larger sample of 1,400 online consumers is taken in Soto-Acosta, et al. 2014, which explores how consumers are affected by the various ways in which information is organized on a website. Glückler and Sánchez-Hernández 2014 argues that the cost of making choices online increases in cases of information overload.

  • Braun-LaTour, Kathryn A., Nancy M. Puccinelli, and Fred W. Mast. 2007. Mood, information congruency, and overload. Journal of Business Research 60.11: 1109–1116.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.jbusres.2007.04.003Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A useful review of previous research from the fields of psychology and business. One of the key findings, from two experiments, is that for those in a low mood state, processing incongruent information is more difficult. The paper discusses the implications for marketing practitioners.

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  • Chen, Yu-Chen, Rong-An Shang, and Chen-Yu Kao. 2009. The effects of information overload on consumers’ subjective state toward buying decision in the Internet shopping environment. Electronic Commerce Research and Applications 8.1: 48–58.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.elerap.2008.09.001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Tackles the notion that Internet shopping provides consumers with more information and therefore will lead to better decision making. Applies the theory of decision making to study the outcomes of various information loads on the quality of the decision both for novice and experienced shoppers.

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  • Glückler, Johannes, and José Luis Sánchez-Hernández. 2014. Information overload, navigation, and the geography of mediated markets. Industrial and Corporate Change 23.5: 1201–1228.

    DOI: 10.1093/icc/dtt038Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This paper looks through the lens of economic geography to argue that the cost of making choices is increased by information overload and that navigation can moderate these costs. Uses stock photography and wine to illustrate the discussion.

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  • Jacoby, Jacob. 1984. Perspectives on information overload. Journal of Consumer Research 10.4: 432–435.

    DOI: 10.1086/208981Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Review of previous decade of research into the question of information overload on consumers during the process of choosing products. Good introduction to the topic, with the terms defined. Researchers will need to update with more-recent papers, especially those that study the effect of the Internet on consumer information.

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  • Sicilia, Maria, and Salvador Ruiz. 2010. The effects of the amount of information on cognitive responses in online purchasing tasks. In Special issue: Theoretical and empirical advances in electronic auction research. Electronic Commerce Research and Applications 9.2: 183–191.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.elerap.2009.03.004Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An empirical study based on three versions of a website, each with different levels of information. Findings suggest that customer satisfaction increases with more information but that quality of decision making can peak earlier.

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  • Soto-Acosta, Pedro, Francisco Jose Molina-Castillo, Carolina Lopez-Nicolas, and Ricardo Colomo-Palacios. 2014. The effect of information overload and disorganisation on intention to purchase online: The role of perceived risk and Internet experience. Online Information Review 38.4: 543–561.

    DOI: 10.1108/OIR-01-2014-0008Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An empirical study of nearly 1,400 online-shopping customers using the top-ten e-commerce sites in Spain. Introduces the concept of information disorganization to explore how the organization of information (on a website) affects decision quality. Data are used to produce a model that is validated by statistical analysis.

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Organizations

Organizations can be seen as information-processing systems. This view suggests that the organization needs to match information-processing capabilities with the information load (O’Reilly 1980) (see also Consequences of Information Overload: Individuals). In the literature on organizations, the term “communications overload” is often used, and Meier 1963 is a classic article in the field. The author writes about how a university library responds to information overload with organizational restructuring. More-recent dependence of organizations on information technology as channels to support decision making has moved the debate onward to considerations of how the type of decision might affect overload (Bettis-Outland 2012). The key themes here are organizational learning and the management of individuals within organizations. It is generally recognized that tensions arise between the individual motivations of a well-networked “star” employee and the need to share information within an organization to promote learning (Oldroyd and Morris 2012). The award-winning Lechner, et al. 2010 examines the positive and negative effects of intergroup relationships in organizations, stressing the importance of the organizational and task contexts (see also Concept and Theory of Overload). The last theme in this subsection is the conceptualization of how information is shared within an organization. A legal viewpoint is included (Germain 2007) because the work highlights generic issues concerning the importance of open access. Wilson 2001 applies concepts of “managerialism” to the health sector, but this view is contested in Hall and Walton 2004. Wilson 2001 suggests that there is a choice between the organization “pushing” information to people and the individuals choosing to “pull” the information they want. Do people perceive a greater overload in situations where the organization is “pushing” information at them?

  • Bettis-Outland, Harriette. 2012. Decision-making’s impact on organizational learning and information overload. Journal of Business Research 65.6: 814–820.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.jbusres.2010.12.021Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Discusses the impact that the type of decision making has on the level of information overload. Concludes that information overload is less likely to occur in an organization that uses incremental decision making. More-empirical work is needed to test such propositions.

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  • Germain, Claire M. 2007. Legal information management in a global and digital age: Revolution and tradition. International Journal of Legal Information 35.1: 10.

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    Written by a law professor and librarian, the paper discusses the impact of Web 2.0 on the management of legal information, as well as the importance of open access beyond the legal profession. Highlights the dilemma of the professional in a world where everyone might have access to the same information.

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  • Hall, Amanda, and Graham Walton. 2004. Information overload within the health care system: A literature review. Health Information & Libraries Journal 21.2: 102–108.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1471-1842.2004.00506.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Builds on the work in Wilson 2001 by challenging the view that work effectiveness is reduced by information overload. Reviews the literature relating to overload by clinicians (excludes patients).

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  • Lechner, Christoph, Karolin Frankenberger, and Steven W. Floyd. 2010. Task contingencies in the curvilinear relationships between intergroup networks and initiative performance. Academy of Management Journal 53.4: 865–889.

    DOI: 10.5465/AMJ.2010.52814620Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that groups have more processing capacity than individuals; therefore, information overload is an inadequate explanation for decreasing performance. Uses the notion of “structural holes” to account for reduced performance.

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  • Meier, Richard L. 1963. Communication overload: Proposals from the study of a university library. Administrative Science Quarterly 7.4: 521–544.

    DOI: 10.2307/2390963Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    One of the earliest references in the field: a classic. Discusses the way in which organizational structure responds to information overload. Looking back from the early-21st-century Internet-intensive communications overload, it is salutary to realize the longevity of some key issues. Available to read online after free registration.

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  • Oldroyd, James B., and Shad S. Morris. 2012. Catching falling stars: A human resource response to social capital’s detrimental effect of information overload on star employees. Academy of Management Review 37.3: 396–418.

    DOI: 10.5465/amr.2010.0403Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This paper takes a human resource (HR) perspective to develop a theoretical model. The model highlights the tactics that might be employed by HR to manage the upward spiral of star employees. Some useful suggestions for further research are made, and over 140 references are listed. Available online.

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  • O’Reilly, Charles A., III. 1980. Individuals and information overload in organizations: Is more necessarily better? Academy of Management Journal 23.4: 684–696.

    DOI: 10.2307/255556Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Takes an information-processing view of an organization. The basic assertion here is that the organization needs to match information-processing capabilities with the information load. Reports on two empirical studies that investigate the relationship among information underload/overload, performance, and satisfaction. Available to read online after free registration.

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  • Wilson, Tom D. 2001. Information overload: Implications for healthcare services. Health Informatics Journal 7.2: 112–117.

    DOI: 10.1177/146045820100700210Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Despite the title of the paper, most of it is about the impact of information overload on organizations. Contains some useful, practical advice about reducing overload and discusses the roles of “push” and “pull” on information pathology.

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Society

What is the overall effect of information overload on society? There is currently a dearth of research in this area. Selected in this subsection are two themes that can be read as signposts to future work. The first theme points toward research on the impact that technology has on large groups of people, with a focus on their behavior. Some measure of that impact can be gleaned from new vocabulary; for example, “crackberry.” Although the BlackBerry is no longer a major force in the smartphone marketplace, Middleton 2007, a study of the way in which people used this device in the workplace (also see Consequences of Information Overload: Organizations) and the way in which its use affected their work-life balance, has a message for society. Wiredu 2014 also explores mobile technology in terms of social impact. The second theme is potential technology solutions, and Vetter and Murugesan 2015 discusses the evolution of the web into the “web of things.”

  • Middleton, Catherine A. 2007. Illusions of balance and control in an always-on environment: A case study of BlackBerry users. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 21.2: 165–178.

    DOI: 10.1080/10304310701268695Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examines the smartphone as an artifact that embodies cultural and organizational norms. Concludes that the always-on nature of the technology blurs the boundaries between work and home. Raises important issues about who is in control.

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  • Vetter, Ron, and San Murugesan. 2015. The web: The next 25 years. Computer 48.5: 14–17.

    DOI: 10.1109/MC.2015.151Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The evolution of the web into the web of things (or Internet of things) may allow some automation of information-processing tasks, thus releasing some cognitive power and reducing information overload.

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  • Wiredu, Gamel O. 2014. Mobility and mobile ICTs. In Mobile computer usability: An organizational personality perspective. By Gamel O. Wiredu, 17–36. Progress in IS. Heidelberg, Germany: Springer.

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    Good literature review and clear conceptual writing about the nomadic behavior of those who use mobile technology. Considers both impact on society and “social shaping” (the sociocultural structures and assumptions built into the technology).

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Potential Solutions

There is agreement about what constitutes information overload. The proposed solutions are more contested, with approaches coming from specific disciplinary areas such as neuroscience, information systems, and organizational studies. However, the solutions can be broadly grouped into those that have a technological focus and those that primarily consider management factors. As Melinat, et al. 2014 (cited under Disciplinary Perspectives) points out, there is a scope for more research leading to a more comprehensive model (pull and push?). If you are a busy executive there are three sources offering practical advice. Start with Dean and Webb 2011, which offers a way of reframing your thinking to improve information-based communications in teams and organizations. In a complementary vein, Hemp 2009 approaches solutions in terms of technology and changes in mindsets. A third and more comprehensive overall guide to solutions is provided in Zeldes 2014 (written by the founder of the Information Overload Research Group; see also Reference Works), which provides a well-categorized set of practical solutions. An often-quoted source of information overload is email. If you are seeking further solutions to consider as you ponder your inbox, read Kimble, et al. 1998, which emphasizes the importance of changing media when considering a response. A similar but more generic approach is advocated in Fukukura, et al. 2013, which discusses the notion of “psychological distancing.” The authors’ work is in the context of overload in decision making. A further related theme—interruptions—and the effect they have on decision making and on productivity, are explored in McFarlane and Latorella 2002. These latter two papers take a perspective that is based on psychology and the examination of the human factors at work. The issues regarding productivity and overload have also been studied by management; Brennan 2011 applies lean production ideas to help develop a set of suggestions for managing overload. Finally, Karr-Wisniewski and Lu 2010 takes a slightly different approach. The authors’ starting point is to explore the relationship between productivity and overload. They conceptualize technology overload into three components: information overload, communications overload, and systems feature overload. Thus, the paper concludes with potential solutions aimed at systems developers much more than individual workers.

  • Brennan, Linda L. 2011. The scientific management of information overload. Journal of Business and Management 17.1: 121–134.

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    Applies the principles of Frederick Taylor’s thinking (lean production) to the information overload of knowledge workers to derive a set of propositions for the scientific management of information overload. Useful conceptual study that could be a starting point for empirical research. Includes many practical suggestions for managing overload.

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  • Dean, Derek, and Caroline Webb. 2011. Recovering from information overload. McKinsey Quarterly 1:80–88.

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    Useful, no-nonsense guide for the busy business professional. Clearly written but draws on sound academic references. Discusses the anxiety and addictive nature of technologies and reframes new thinking for the individual, the team, and the organization.

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  • Fukukura, Jun, Melissa J. Ferguson, and Kentaro Fujita. 2013. Psychological distance can improve decision making under information overload via gist memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 142.3: 658–665.

    DOI: 10.1037/a0030730Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The main conclusion of this empirical study of decision making under overload is that in situations of overload, a focus on the gist of the matter leads to better decisions. The key notion is “psychological distancing” or removing oneself from the detail to consider the choice from an abstract level.

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  • Hemp, Paul. 2009. Death by information overload. Harvard Business Review 87.9: 82–89.

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    Practical solutions discussed for the individual and the company. Solutions are categorized into technology and “changes in mind-set” and are sprinkled with welcome humor.

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  • Karr-Wisniewski, Pamela, and Ying Lu. 2010. When more is too much: Operationalizing technology overload and exploring its impact on knowledge worker productivity. In Special issue: Advancing educational research on computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) through the use of gStudy CSCL tools. Computers in Human Behavior 26.5: 1061–1072.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2010.03.008Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Explores the productivity paradox: that productivity slows down as information technology (IT) investment increases. The authors attribute this to a combination of three things: information overload, communications overload, and systems feature overload. A measurement instrument of technology overload is developed by using empirical data. Offers some solutions relevant to systems developers. Available online.

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  • Kimble, Chris, Paul M. Hildreth, and David J. Grimshaw. 1998. The role of contextual clues in the creation of information overload. Paper presented at a conference held 15–17 April 1998 at the Univ. of Lincoln, Lincoln, UK. In Matching technology with organisational needs: Proceedings of the 3rd UKAIS Conference. Edited by David Avison and Denis Edgar-Nevill, 405–412. Maidenhead, UK: McGraw Hill.

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    An empirical case study of a large international organization grappling with perceived information overload from email. Paper argues that the context of the message is key to understanding. Media that lack information richness and social presence do not provide the contextual cues necessary for “quality” person-to-person communication.

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  • McFarlane, Daniel C., and Kara A. Latorella. 2002. The scope and importance of human interruption in human–computer interaction design. Human–Computer Interaction 17.1: 1–61.

    DOI: 10.1207/S15327051HCI1701_1Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Suggests approaches to user interface design that will help people manage interruptions. Solutions are classified into three phases: before the switch (from current task), during switch, and after switch. In the last portion of the paper, the authors introduce a process model of interruptions management. Available online.

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  • Zeldes, Nathan. 2014. Solutions to information overload: The definitive guide. Nathan Zeldes.

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    Solutions are categorized into five key areas: inbox processing, reducing quantity of emails, improving quality of emails, mitigating interruptions, and modifying organizational culture. Suitable for professionals looking for practical solutions; especially useful for email management. Available for ordering on the author’s website.

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