For society’s sake: how to fix our information overload

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We stand in an informational downpour without an umbrella. Most of the information that overloads us emanates from digital business, including social and other media, and even online commerce. And yet digital business, which created and fuels the informational overload, is uniquely positioned also to mitigate it. What needs to change? Three steps should be taken: exclude the useless, organize the useful and inject impact

Exclude the useless. One area that digital business has largely overlooked is finding ways to avoid offering patently unusable information. That algorithms have figured out long ago all our tastes and preferences makes it all the more surprising they still have not figured out what is useless. For example, if you have a teen, you are unlikely to search items for 5-year olds. According to the World Bank, children through age 14 constitute 25% of the world’s population. But even the most sophisticated online systems still pull up search results that are not age-specific even though they supposedly allow age-specific searches. 

Buyers, sellers and digital platforms will all win from systems that help users not only find what they need, but also avoid what they don’t. 

For example, in some countries YouTube Kids excludes content for older kids from being visible to younger kids. YouTube Kids could extend this valuable feature to doing the reverse – excluding content for younger kids from being visible to the older ones. YouTube Kids might then save kids’ time and reduce their massive premature migration to standard YouTube. 

Initiatives to exclude the useless can be monetized. Customers are willing to pay to avoid ads, and many online businesses have successfully bifurcated free services with ads and paid ones without. Opportunities to exclude what is useless for a particular user extend well beyond just advertising. 

Organize the useful. Against the backdrop of information overload, another insufficiently developed opportunity is synthesizing information. Search engines, online customer ranking systems or daily media digests are all examples of powerful sorting techniques that create value for customers. Yet most of the information is still not organized in ways that would be most useful. 

Extracting meaning from the informational chaos by organizing it into rankings, lists, reviews, sorting systems, preselected preferences, prefilled lists for repeat purchases and other methods is a land of opportunity. For example, online commerce platforms could share not only customer rankings of the sellers, which are sometimes suspected to be biased, but also more objective parameters, such as the frequency of returns or repeat orders, or else synthesize these and other parameters into an objective quality scoring system. This could create additional value for both the customers and the platforms themselves, by enabling transparency, better sorting capability and trust in the platform. This functionality could even be a paid add-on, or be made available to customers in special paid tiers.

As another example, when a user does not find an exact match for a search, the digital online platform frequently will not confess and instead will just fill the screen with unsorted marginally related choices, thereby only adding to the information overload and making the customer numb. Marketing experts have established that overwhelming customers with choices does not lead to better sales. Through a more targeted categorization of products and services, the online shopping experience could be redesigned to resemble more closely the recommendation of an all-knowing personal shopper. 

From my own experience with data management, reverse-engineering the optimal customer experience to how data is collected most effortlessly in the information funnel can produce powerful results. In that process, one usually discovers that most of the relevant information is already available and just waiting to be captured. One also discovers that content creators are eager to pre-categorize the information themselves if a categorization system is available, since they are motivated for the content to be found, sorted and become as visible to prospective customers as possible. If digital business puts its mind to this issue, users will find and buy what they need faster, thereby reducing both information overload and screen time.

Inject impact. The massive proliferation of digital business gives it the ability to influence society and drive our choices and, accordingly, to make a difference in the world.

Currently, online platforms use our attention mostly to force us to spend more money on products and more time on the platform. They could also start using at least a fraction of that attention to promote something impactful, for example, by prioritizing healthful and sustainable lifestyle choices. Depending on the laws in a specific country, future digital platforms may even be able to go so far as establishing the equivalent of a tax by increasing rates for impact-neutral (or harmful) businesses and decreasing costs for impactful ones. 

Digital business has our attention. It could use it more economically and wisely.