Social media not overwhelming to Internet users, Northwestern study finds

Daniel Schlessinger, Reporter

Last month, a team of researchers led by a Northwestern professor found that the majority of Internet users are not overwhelmed by the vast amount of online news and social media outlets. 

Many pop culture references have recently depicted social media and online news outlets as overwhelming, antisocial and even addictive, the authors wrote in the study. Some critics, they wrote, believe that, “it is not just a quantitative trend of more media in more contexts, but a fundamental and disturbing qualitative shift in the character of public culture.”

However, previous research on information overload largely focused on people in stressful, life-or-death situations, such as fighter pilots, soldiers on the battlefield or surgeons in the operating room — all very foreign to simple Internet users.

Communication Prof. Eszter Hargittai interviewed 77 vacationers around Las Vegas in a series of focus groups. The demographics of the participants were similar to the average profile of Internet users: about half used the Internet on their mobile phones, and the majority used it on their computers.

Although some participants were disturbed by the amount of “fluff” information on TV news stations, the majority of participants were enthusiastic about Internet news outlets and social media sites.

“Nowadays you can jump on the Internet, read in German, you know, French or whatever else you want,” one participant said. “So you’re definitely better informed with an extra sort of different point of view from that side.”

Medill sophomore Stephen Autar said that he trusts news that comes from social media more than TV news.

“Personally I hate TV news, like a lot of local news panders and I don’t care as much about every human interest story they show,” he said. “On the Internet you can pick and choose which stories you read and they have to work harder to keep my attention.”

Study participants embraced the recent development of everyday people blogging their own views, and many remained positive about Google and Facebook  as common sources of information. Twitter uniformly annoyed participants.

“(To participants,) Twitter was a service that allowed self-absorbed people to chronicle the details of their lives at the expense of others,” the study authors wrote.

Autar said he checks social media outlets about every 10 minutes. Even though he agreed there is a great deal of information available, the ability to filter out information is helpful for controlling quality, he said.

Katie Zhu, a junior in Medill and Weinberg, said she appreciates the balance of professional and personal information, especially from Twitter. On the other hand, she said her professional interests are so tied to the Internet that she feels she is missing out when she takes a break.

“Sometimes I feel overwhelmed, sometimes something big happens and there’s a lot of stuff constantly updating,” Zhu said. “There’s so much going on online, and people are posting things on their Twitter, so I definitely feel it if I’m not online.”