How to Engage With An Overwhelming World

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

What’s the best way to navigate a world of infinite information? Should we manually create highly curated informational ecosystems for ourselves or should we dip in and out of the overwhelming stream while trusting algorithms to surface the interesting, relevant, and necessary? Is there a clear best answer for everyone or is it a matter of personal taste? Does it hold true across all types of information, or can you vacillate between these two approaches depending on the source?

When thinking about different ways to engage with the world I think you can plot them on a 2x2 graph where the two axes are Algorithmic Curation to Human Curation and Few Sources to Many Sources. The Algorithm/Human axis describes the way in which you decide what to engage with. On the Algorithm end of the continuum you’re relying on recommendation algorithms to learn your preferences and serve up the most relevant and interesting content automatically. These are things like following people Twitter recommends to you, using the first-party Twitter app with it’s algorithmic (rather than chronological) timeline, and letting YouTube recommend the next video you should watch. On the Human end of that continuum you have the individual practice of deciding what to engage with and how. This is things like using a third party Twitter app (like Tweetbot) that allows for a purely chronological timeline, being extremely selective about who you follow, and having only a set number of news sources that you turn to for information (like a home delivered newspaper or a specific magazine).

The other axis describes the amount of informational sources you will consider when designing your informational ecosystem. Folks on that end of the continuum are simply interacting with very few sources of information whereas folks on the other end of the continuum tend to surround themselves with many different sources of information or interaction.

You can then take the 2x2 chart and describe each of the quadrants: The Surfer (Algorithmic & Many Sources), The Minimalist (Human Curated & Few Sources), The Uninformed (Algorithmic & Few Sources) and The Overwhelmed (Human Curated & Many Sources).

To better understand to more interesting Minimalist and Surfer approaches, let’s take a quick detour into The Uninformed and The Overwhelmed, first.

The Uninformed

The Uninformed has the mindset of The Minimalist but the approach of The Surfer. They have a small number of sources that they don’t ever really engage with and haven’t really curated. They mostly go through the world without really thinking about the informational ecosystem around them and without having ever made deliberate decisions about what to pay attention to and what not to.

The Overwhelmed

On the other hand, The Overwhelmed is interested in many different sources of information but they try to engage with them on a purely human curation level. Meaning, they probably spend most of their time being distracted and deathly afraid of FOMO. They don’t want to miss out on anything so they are constantly engaging with everything all the time to make sure nothing slips through the cracks. It looks manic and desperate and is a guaranteed path to burnout.

The Minimalist

The Minimalist practices extreme curation around the information she lets into her life. She’s generally not interested in having algorithms provide recommendation or curation. It’s all about reducing the sources of information as much as possible and keeping the vast majority of the noise outside of her well-curated cocoon. It’s all about engaging deeper with fewer things and doing everything within her power to not be distracted by anything new and shiny. Occasionally a new source of information may wiggle its way into her consciousness, but that is a relatively rare occurrence.

This approach gives you an intense sense of control. Since your informational ecosystem is so limited it’s easy to feel like you’re “caught up” or “up to date” (as long as you don’t think too much about all the potential sources of information that aren’t part of your system). Distractions tend to be fewer and infrequent which allows for a narrower or deeper appreciation for the sources of information and topics you follow (e.g. reading The Economist from cover-to-cover versus browsing your Twitter timeline).

On the other hand, though, it can be surprisingly easy to get obsessive about curation. Since the larger informational ecosystem is outside of your control you’re constantly having to re-evaluate whether something new could or should become part of your limited suite of information. Additionally, even if you only follow a select few sources of information it can be surprisingly easy to get overwhelmed (how many people have died under the ongoing crush of a single New Yorker subscription?)

The Minimalist approach often means forgoing the potential for new connections (both in terms of people and ideas). It’s not about looking widely at all the available sources of information or potential connections. It’s about figuring out the bare minimum of information you need to get by and then basically ignoring everything else.

The Surfer

The other approach to navigating our overwhelming world of potential information is to embrace the immensity of the situation and deliberately “surf” along the top of it. The Surfer embraces algorithms as the best way to surface relevant and interesting information. He may follow thousands of people on Twitter or Instagram but doesn’t worry about being any sort of “completionist.” They dip into the stream from time to time as the situation dictates it.

The Surfer commits to nothing. Everything is potentially available to him and he trusts the algorithms and AI to show it to him at the right time, regardless of the source. He wouldn’t subscribe to The Economist, but he would read an article from The Economist that someone recommended on Twitter or showed up in Apple News.

This approach has less overhead than the Minimalist. He doesn’t have to spend time evaluating and vetting and testing various sources for inclusion into his highly curated life. He just has to occasionally push the Like/Dislike, Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down buttons to feed the algorithms along the way. He’s constantly being exposed to new things (well, within the confines of his specific filter bubble) and can more easily make new connections between ideas and people.

The Surfer, however, is at extreme risk of getting distracted and sucked into unproductive uses of time. The algorithms he trusts to elevate the relevant and interesting can often easily overcome his willpower. The services who provide and design these algorithms are not interested in giving him just the right of information and sending him on his way. They want to consume as much of his attention as possible and will do anything to get it.

In addition to a real sense of “playing with fire” The Surfer is at risk of creating a filter bubble around himself. The algorithms that are trying to extract as much of his attention as possible aren’t interested in showing him things that might turn him off or cause him to do something else. The Minimalist, on the other hand, can deliberately choose to incorporate sources of information that run counter to her general inclinations or beliefs in an effort to have a more well-rounded view of the world.

I’ve tried to write about both of these approaches in a very even-handed way because I actually think both can be incredibly valid ways of interacting with the world. They each have pros and cons (probably more than I’ve described above) and they both can be used productively and successfully. If that’s the case, though, how do you choose which one is best for you?

I’ve found myself vacillating between the Minimalist and Surfer approaches over the past few weeks and I’m planning on diving deep into the pros and cons of each of these approaches in future articles. In the meantime, though, I’m curious about how you think about creating your informational ecosystem. Is this framework interesting? What would you like to see me (or someone else) explore with it?

Hi. I’m Sam and I write about attention and work and organizations. Follow along on Twitter and maybe subscribe to my newsletter, The Deliberate?

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Organization design guy at The Ready.

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Sam Spurlin

Sam Spurlin

Organization design guy at The Ready.

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