The information loop

March 25, 2018

We live in a society dominated by an almost limitless amount of information loops that are always available. An information loop can come from any medium that you (re)visit frequently (and at a certain point, mindlessly browse) because there could always be something new and exciting to see.1

Historically, consuming information at regular intervals makes sense from a practical point of view: it’s reasonable to expect to be aware of information that is relevant to you and your loved ones. For example: following the news every day so you know important regional and national information. Another example is talking to your closest friends every now and then, to hear how they are doing and what’s keeping them busy. It makes you a better person, a better friend, and it keeps you aware of interesting information and opportunities.

But the rise of social media, online newspapers, and platforms such as Reddit and Twitter have made it much easier to cause information overload: there’s a constant information stream available for consumption, 24/7. Consider how the immediacy of social media like Twitter or Facebook has influenced our information acquisition cycle.

Previously, news would get printed in the newspaper, and you’d get a physical copy delivered to you every morning, assuming you paid for a subscription. Perhaps you’d watch the news at 7 PM each day to learn what happened since last night (which is when the newspaper was printed), but for the most part, you would not be taking in new information on a minute-to-minute basis. To learn what nice holiday your friends had, you had to talk to them about it.

Not much so in our new society. Social media makes interaction easier, faster, but less personal and honest. We often get incorrect impressions through social media as well, due to algorithms deciding what posts should be seen first, or appear on our feeds. Because of this, we are more likely to see highlights of our friends’ lives on our newsfeeds. It’s not surprising then, that people get depressed: they don’t feel like they lead fulfilling lives, or live comparably inferior lives. (We don’t usually share our grievances, troubles and issues on social media, after all. And if we do, this content will probably not be very popular for consumption. These are the kinds of things you discuss face-to-face with very good friends, and even then, these can be uncomfortable.)

We’re not only seconds away from learning what’s going on right now, but we are also hounded by notifications from messaging apps, social media, and, if you’re unfortunate, work mails on the go. It’s easy to lose yourself in the maddening amount of information that is out there. It seems to me, that our brains were not made for this.

One of the main facilitators of this phenomenon is the smartphone, with all of its notifications and badges. Allow me to propose turning your smartphone into a dumb phone again. Here’s a few (hopefully) helpful tips:

  • Delete all social media apps (Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.)2
  • Delete all but the most important communication apps3
  • Turn off notifications and badges for all applications, except perhaps for your text messages and actual phone calls
  • Delete all email accounts from your phone4
  • Move all apps that could potentially distract you, or want you to keep coming back at regular intervals 5

If you need to visit social media on your phone or message someone, use your browser, and do not permanently sign in.

Personally, I do not follow all of these rules, but they can be a nice starting point. The most important change you have to consider is turning off push notifications and badges. This makes the biggest difference, and the best course of action is to disable notifications on an app-to-app basis, which is something you can do on any modern iOS or Android device nowadays. It decreases the need for an immediate (re)action — or as I call it, a distraction from something that you’re currently doing (or should be doing).

The other problem that I have personally experienced is one that is rooted deeper, and perhaps a harder one to break: it’s a habit that has formed — where I will open up an app frequently, and just browse for content. This is mainly a process where there’s only consumption of information. I don’t usually contribute or do something creative while I’m in this process, so to speak.

In reality, all I’m doing is consuming mostly irrelevant or inconsequential information, most of which is quite mundane once you get past the top (most upvoted) posts. The easiest way to break this habit is to just uninstall the app, but if you don’t want to do that… I’ve heard a colleague recommend moving apps on your phone to harder to reach places. Put them in a folder on the third page of your home screen, for example. Your won’t find the app in the usual location, and this way you can break your habit.

Of course, the way I’m representing all of this is rather simple. You can’t just disconnect from the internet and turn off all your messaging applications, since those are used very often for communication that is important. It’s also quite unfeasible to just get rid of all social networks you use. It is, however, quite essential to find a balance in life: that’s just the way it is with most things.

It’s important to be aware of when you end up in such an information loop, where you are just continually consuming more and more content, and to be aware of the fact that you are losing precious time to an irrelevant activity (a realisation most often come to, after the fact).

The worst part about all of this? Well, it’s that some of these companies that offer these services actually employ certain techniques to make people come back to their applications, to keep them engaged. Sometimes, there’s algorithms involved with serving you “addictive” content (that you want to keep consuming), sometimes it’s just the UI made in a specific fashion (dark patterns to keep you from leaving the service). Sometimes there’s a mechanic that just explains it wants you to keep coming back (like streaks, or dailies).

User engagement is an important metric for the people who analyse the app’s data and performance, since you get more information from recurring visitors. This information is valuable to those companies, more info means that your service is worth more for partners and advertisers, who can put that information to use.6

It is in the company’s best interests then, to have people coming back for more as much as humanly possible, in order to (among other things) collect more data on them. Unfortunately, it is in your best interest not to come back quite as often, and not to give them all that information.

So keep that in mind when you see some service that wants to to keep coming back every day (or more). Don’t let these companies rewire your brain, so that it desires continual consumption of information, and take care of yourself.

Don’t turn continual consumption of information on a specific platform into a habit. It’s probably not good for you.

  1. Often, this is the case, too, if you’re good at tailoring your information channels. There’s literally more great content out there than you could ever consume. It’s best to keep this in check. 

  2. You can always consult them via your browser in certain cases, or if you need to install the app, remove it after consuming the information that was urgent. Consider abandoning services you don’t need or that add extra stress to your life. 

  3. You have to decide what channels you want to keep open for direct and urgent communication. In this example, turning off e.g. WhatsApp or Telegram’s notifications is a good idea. 

  4. Or, at the very least, disable push mail and choose fetch, so that all messages come in a 3-hour intervals, for example. 

  5. I recommend moving them from your home screen to a different location (you can put them on other pages, inside folders, or hide them if you’re using Android with a custom launcher). 

  6. It’s a good thing GDPR is becoming enforceable this year, because the way some of these companies handle your data… shudder

Tagged as: Tech