Online Information Overload -- and How to Cope

By Susan J. Ellis

In the northern hemisphere, the month of September brings the start of a new school year. As I look at the displays of school supplies, I find myself thinking about how learning has evolved. Spiral notebooks, pens and pencils, backpacks, and more continue to entice students in an array of designs and colors, but for adults, the most important tool for life-long learning is the Internet. The trouble is that we are drowning in data. What does this mean for our own professional development and for volunteer involvement?

I am totally committed to the power of online information and exchange. We opened this Website in 1997, when doing so took a real leap of faith in the volunteer field, since most leaders of volunteers were still struggling to get their organizations to put a computer into their office at all. As Jayne Cravens notes, in the early days when we presented workshops about virtual volunteering, we started by asking “who in the room has an e-mail account?” Followed by “whose organization has a Website?” In 1997, we considered it great if a third of the people raised their hands; today the questions themselves sound quaint, if not weird.

Thirteen years is really not a huge amount of time, even if we did change centuries along the way. Yet consider the ever-increasing speed of technological evolution. We’ve seen:

  • The availability of greater computing power, in smaller instruments, at less cost – smart phones, notebook (smaller than laptop) computers, etc.
  • Texting and instant messaging provide real-time communication to anyone around the globe.
  • The introduction of personal portable listening devices that have transformed the music industry and have led to podcasts of every description, recreational and professional.
  • The advent of digital cameras has spawned seemingly endless ways to share our photographs and videos (e.g., flickr, YouTube).
  • Online learning has left the old postal-mail distance learning approach in the dust.
  • Blogging allows anyone to publish. The result is often useless or mundane musings, but also sites with a wealth of intelligent and insightful points of view. That’s why, increasingly, news reporters are quoting blogs as their sources.
  • VOIP (voice-over-Internet protocol) sites such as Skype permit global conversations, for free, including seeing one another by webcam.
  • Social media has transformed the globe into an unending network of messages. Whether sites such as Facebook and Twitter irritate or entrance you, millions are communicating this way – and even, if we believe the proponents, micro-volunteering a few minutes at a time. (See what the Brits are doing right now to explore micro-volunteering.)
  • The most recent issue of Wired Magazine is declaring “The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet,” as legions of smart phone users download “apps” of every description, enabling access to an unimaginable amount of data without needing a Web browser as an interface to the Internet.

OK. You’ve lived through all this, too. Why am I taking this trip down memory lane? Because I am overwhelmed. I can’t keep up and I am one of those who really tries. Up to a few years ago I answered every e-mail within 48 hours. Today I’m lucky if I can read every e-mail I get in 48 hours. I have 47 separate folders in Outlook just for the e-newsletters I get regularly. And each of those links me to yet more wonderful information, which contains more links, ad infinitum. Of course, I confess that Energize also generates some of this electronic communication, always in the hope of being helpful yet realizing that we become part of the tsunami of more, more, more. Not to mention the challenge of separating the wheat from the chaff to find information of genuine value.

As you might suspect already, scientists are also studying the effect of “Your Brain on Computers.” This problem affects us personally, all of our organization’s employees and volunteers, and prospective volunteers as well.

I’m going to bet that most of you resonate with my words. And I thank you for choosing to read these very words when I know you had many other options for which site to visit right now. The question I pose to you is: How do we cope?

Some are calling for “digital detox” with small but significant actions such as reminding yourself to focus on one task at a time, taking regular off-line breaks, and unplugging periodically during the day so you can actually think deeply without chimes and rings calling you to new information.

We are luckier than most. We can tap the collective talents of volunteers to help tame and filter the data flood. For example:

  • Don’t have everything go to your personal e-mail box. Create specific addresses such as volinfo@, newvol@, volreports@ – whatever categories of e-mail need attention but can be delegated to volunteers willing and ready to respond on your behalf.
  • Ask all volunteers if they have a special interest they would enjoy following online for you, or create a wish list indicating what you need someone to become informed about. Things like: micro-volunteering activities; aid to the Pakistani flood victims; how to develop a better podcast or blog; new sites where you can post volunteer opportunities; sources for in-kind donations; and anything else you need. Volunteers agree to spend at least 30 minutes a week surfing the net for their assigned topic. At set intervals they report to you – orally to highlight key finds and with a written list of URLs worth visiting.
  • Create a Web Searcher position (which I’ve referred to before as a Cyber Deputy) for every unit or department in your organization – and for any project you initiate. That volunteer is charged with searching the Web for anything useful to the work being planned: trends and data, sample programs in other places, things that can be used in training for the unit/project, etc.

The members of the Energize online volunteer management training program, Everyone Ready, constantly tell us “we can’t find time” to view the materials. This problem holds for any type of professional development goal. I have only found one way to overcome it and that is: schedule your online learning time and put it in your appointment book. Hoping to “fit in” some Web reading on the fly in a super-busy day has little chance of working. But if you promise yourself to take even 30 minutes a week for online learning and write down the allocated time, you are much more likely to do it.

Even better: online learning teams. Once a month, schedule lunch with a few colleagues and use the meeting to pool your precious time. Assign topics in advance and let each person share what useful sites she or he found on that topic. Or all study something online and use the lunch to debrief and discuss it.

Collectively we must get a handle on this unending barrage of images and facts. Maybe the volunteer office can show the way to everyone else in the organization? What’s your solution?

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