Dealing with information overload

Author: Andrea Friedmann Rozenbaum, MSc, Anthropologist, University of Amsterdam alumna

Field site: In isolation, on the north-coast of São Paulo (Brazil), in the hinterland of a sea-side town called Camburi. I consider my field site as being both the neighbourhood I am at and the people with whom I am interacting online.

I arrived on the outskirts of this little town when the lockdown guidance had just started being issued in São Paulo and some other Brazilian states. It is important to note that here, the lockdown is still viewed as a recommendation by governors and mayors since the Brazilian president doesn’t recognise the WHO’s authority when it comes to implementing these measures, as well as not considering the pandemic as a real menace. Despite that, I came to this town initially to spend a few days, but as everything happened so fast, I ended up settling here for an indeterminate amount of time.

When I previously conducted ethnographic research in the field of digital anthropology, I focused on understanding how people are affected by the way they relate through and with digital devices.[i] Now, finding myself in physical isolation with few opportunities to interact with others in person, I consider my fieldsite amplified by digital technology.

The examples and thoughts I am contributing here developed from conversations I had with people in the past few weeks – either by phone and video calls, or through online messaging, and group messages. Additionally, I have also gathered observations of online behaviour that I witnessed and participated in this period. The main tools used to collect these were Instant Messaging (IM) apps (mostly WhatsApp), video call apps (Zoom, Houseparty, Google Hangouts, Facetime, WhatsApp calls), and e-mails.

A screenshot of the author’s phone with 393 unread Whatsapp messages.

Collective sharing and personal discussions

The first aspect that my attention was drawn to is that most of the content sent – and forwarded – through online channels regarding the current situation is shared through instant messaging groups. It was rare for me to receive a ‘news’ link, a meme, or a video via a one-to-one message. When talking about this with others, they shared the same impression. So, why are people sharing this information on a more collective basis? Maybe because in this turbulent moment of uncertainty, many individuals are undergoing similar experiences, facing the same questions and insecurities about the future. As nobody feels they have a concrete answer or a way of dealing with this, perhaps this collective sharing has become a way of spreading information and supporting each other.

However, while a large amount of information is shared in groups, I rarely experienced a proper discussion arising from such contributions. One could comment “thanks for sharing”, or “yes, I read that, it is indeed important”, or “this reminded me of that”, followed by them sending another piece of content. While the frequency and volume of group dissemination of messages is rising, at the same time, the collective instant messaging chat does not seem like an appropriate arena for discussion. Sometimes, in groups I participate in, a topic first introduced through a message was later brought up on a video call gathering. However, it was also difficult to go in-depth. The only moments where I had such an opportunity was through one-to-one conversations. Other people also shared a similar reflection. For instance, a friend mentioned, “only when I talk to just one person at a time do I feel comfortable to really sharing and developing a thought”. Among the vast quantity of messages popping up in group chats, personal interaction is needed as a space for thorough discussions. This negotiation between the different media channels might be happening without people necessarily acknowledging it. The further implications of this could add to a broader understanding of the way humans interact with and through digital technology.

Screengrab of a video chat with friends, where discussions could be further developed

Discerning information and reassuring the veracity

Moreover, with regards to the content shared online, I’ve noticed that the journalistic news gets mixed with other types of information. Among these are opinion articles, memes, cartoons, videos, advertising, guessing games, jokes. Since everything arrives through the same channel, and the message overload is only going up, on many occasions people don’t have the time to discern, or even to understand that there is discerning to be done. Thus, all the incoming content might end up being absorbed as ‘information’. How can one separate between material relevant to a topic, material worth reading and material that one can skip reading? How can one be selective in such turbulent times, when people also feel they must be well-informed at all moments of the day?

To give an example, I recently received a video in which an unknown person filmed a square full of people in São Paulo.[ii] Most of them were not following social distancing rules, and only a couple were wearing masks. On the same day, a relative told me she passed by the same square and also saw many people there. I crossreferenced both what I had watched and what I had been told, and I sent the video to some IM groups. Many people reacted sceptically, not believing that people were gathering despite the recommendations to undertake social isolation. However, a friend responded, saying, “do you know who filmed this? This could be fake news, and it could just be an old video”. Before I replied, other members manifested, “I saw it on the TV news earlier today, it’s true”. Having the TV as a “trustworthy source” that supports a fact brought a sense of relief to the group. I added that although I didn’t know who had created the video, I knew that the information was accurate, since a relative had confirmed it.

I interpreted my friend’s reaction as a way of encouraging the group to verify the credibility of the shared content. Somehow, she was acting as the moral police, giving citizens the responsibility of fact-checking. Even though it could be false information, since there was no way of tracing the source, by watching the whole video one could realize that it was not. There were a few people wearing masks in the video, a sight uncommon outside of a hospital in Brazil before the pandemic. In this case, looking for signs as reassurance was what viewers needed to trust the information they had been sent. In addition, checking the content in all its visual details before drawing conclusions is an important outcome when it comes to the way in which people are dealing with incoming ‘news’.

Screenshot of a group conversation with friends, where the author shared the link to the video – photo by Andrea Friedmann Rozenbaum

Reflections

While it is still too early to draw conclusions, I would like to reflect on these observations and experiences.

  • IM groups are – as perhaps they already were before – a channel through which people share information collectively. This might be a way in which individuals are dealing with collective struggles.
  • While sharing content online works as a way of spreading information, it doesn’t seem to be an appropriate arena to develop in-depth discussions. Simultaneous and face-to-face encounters – through video or phone calls – appear to be a more suitable ground for that.
  • It is possible that the amount of information circulating through online platforms is increasing at a pace which makes it difficult for people to make sense of that information. Thus, it is essential to remember to spend some time taking into consideration different types of content, discerning between what is worth accessing, and what isn’t.
  • Self-regulation among instant messaging group members with regards to what might be (or not) a safe source of information could work as a reminder for checking its veracity before sharing.

What I shared here were only some first impressions of what I’ve been able to observe and experience in these first weeks of physical isolation. I hope this information can inspire people to reflect on their own and other online interactions on the topic of finding and sharing information online.

[i] See Rozenbaum, A. F. (2020). “The Condition of Constant Connectivity: Dealing with reciprocity in a context of continuous expectations,” UvA Scripties, at https://scripties.uba.uva.nl/search?id=707875, accessed 18 April 2020.

[ii] This is the video that I sent: https://www.facebook.com/1222942028/posts/10222796250914516/?d=n