The impact of information overload

In my previous blog post, I took a look at the trends I thought might dominate the communications landscape in 2018, and predicted that audiences would become more discerning about the content they consume in response to the information overload that characterized 2017. I anticipated that brands would pivot towards a more nuanced kind of storytelling that resonates emotionally with audiences, as opposed to the ubiquitous click-bait that seems to lurk everywhere on the web. Now, as we approach the end of just the first month of the year, even I am surprised at how quickly this prediction is becoming a reality.

Last week HuffPost announced that it is ending its contributor platform. It is hard to imagine just how revolutionary the HuffPost platform was back in 2005 when it launched. The idea of merging editorially driven content with “opinions” from anyone with a laptop was groundbreaking, and at the time it was considered the new frontier in democracy.  

But as we have all learned, that ideal didn’t quite live up to the hype. In the words of Lydia Polgreen, HuffPost’s editor in chief: “Now, there are many places where people can share and exchange ideas. Perhaps a few too many. One of the biggest challenges we all face, in an era where everyone has a platform, is figuring out whom to listen to. Open platforms that once seemed radically democratizing now threaten, with the tsunami of false information we all face daily, to undermine democracy. When everyone has a megaphone, no one can be heard.”

At the same time, WIRED magazine published an editorial as part of its issue on online free speech, suggesting that while it still believes in “free expression and the democratic promise of the internet,” it also acknowledges we are “drowning in speech, and the best doesn't always float to the surface. Propaganda has never had a more powerful, better-camouflaged megaphone.”

But perhaps the biggest sign that we have reached a tipping point in terms of information consumption is the news that Facebook has overhauled how it ranks the content that appears in users’ News Feeds with the goal of ensuring we see more posts from trusted family and friends, and less from brands and publications. The goal, the company says, is to ensure the time people spend on its platform is more meaningful. Of course, the other less publicly stated goal is to curb the scope of fake news proliferated on Facebook. This is not exactly good news for businesses and publishers (or perhaps for Facebook’s bottom line), but clearly a shift Facebook felt it needed to make to preserve the integrity of the platform and re-engaged frustrated users.

It is clear a significant shift is under way. These developments are just the beginning of what will likely be an ongoing trend. The prioritization of quality over quantity is increasingly important in a world of fake news. As a consumer of information, I am happy to see this change; as a PR professional, I also think it will broadly beneficial. Brands can focus more on high-impact storytelling through the right channels rather than establishing a presence on social media just because they think they should. Sure, in some cases it means a few less outlets to pitch content to, but this shift will elevate the impact of a story when it lands in a publication perceived as having higher editorial standards.

There is even talk that more and more media outlets are planning a shift towards paywall-protected content, an idea once considered untenable but now under review following the success of the Washington Post.

For those of us old enough to remember a pre-Internet world, the concept of editorially controlled media platforms is nothing new. In fact, it is something to be welcomed. The past few years have been a remarkable experiment in terms of sharing information, but I think we can all agree the time has come to once again embrace accountability and rigorous standards in communication and relegate fake news to a thing of the past.