Clay Shirkey on Information Overload as a Filter Problem

February 19, 2010 at 4:30 pm | Posted in Attention Management, email, Information Work | 10 Comments

Jacob Ukelson of Actionbase recently had some good comments on my posting “Information Overload as Evolutionary Maladaptation“:

Clay Shirky’s take on it is that the information overload problem (at least as it pertains to email) is an email filtering problem, not an information overload problem. His video can be seen here:

I hadn’t seen that video before, so I watched it and think it’s very good.  In particular, the parts that stuck with me from Clay’s presentation were:

  • We’ve lost our filter for quality.  It used to be book publishers.  Not anymore.  So how will we now design the filters (rather than thinking about how to control the flow of content from the source)?
  • Solutions are temporary and need to be continually adapted
  • He applied a great quote to information overload.  It’s from Yitzak Rabin: “If you have the same problem for a long time, maybe it’s not a problem – it’s a fact.”
  • When you think about information overload, think instead about what changed – where the filter broke

I think he’s half right with his thesis.  Defining information overload as a filter issue captures half the problem according to my Enterprise Attention Management model. It captures the “pushing information back” (attention shielding) part, but not the “pulling information forward” part. Unless he means the filter is applied in both directions, which didn’t come out in this speech.



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  1. It’s a great keynote, but I differ with the conclusion that there’s no Information Overload problem, only filter failure. There is both, and the former is far wider than the second can explain. I believe Mr. Shirky’s definition of IO (“more info gets published than a person can read in a lifetime”) is not the one of interest to knowledge workers, nor to enterprises.

    I analyze this in more detail at .

  2. Very good points and I love your posting. In fact so much, I’ll do a referencing post here.

  3. […] posted previously on Clay Shirkey’s assertion that there is no information overload, just filter failure. I […]

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  5. i agree with nathan. There are so many information being blasted in the internet today that it is difficult for readers to know what is truth and what is pure garbage. Come to think of it, the competition sometimes got unruly and dirty tricks are being practice.

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  7. If fault is to be found with Shirky, as well as almost all other internet pundits on information overload, it is in their premises, not their conclusions. Almost all hold the implicit assumption that humans are sensitive to information as static facts. However, if informed by the most recent findings from affective neuroscience on human decision making, this position cannot be true.

    Specifically, Shirky (and nearly all of his peers) hold to positions that are not neurally realistic, and would have to abandon much of their opinions (and specifically the reality of information overload) if they were informed by the recent findings in affective neuroscience on how human minds actually process and choose information. Surprisingly, this argument can be made quite simply, and is made (link below) using an allegory of the Boston Red Sox pennant run over the years.

    (Alas, my argument at three pages is a bit long for a comments section, but perhaps not as a link.)

    A. J. Marr

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