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Facebook Overload: Just Getting Worse

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Active Facebook users are more likely to complain of information overload--and to believe it's gotten worse in the past year, according to a study published in the Association for Information Systems.

In particular, the study looked at whether the Facebook news feed has become more or less overwhelming since the formula for displaying posts changed in September 2011. By default, Facebook now displays a filtered feed of "top posts" to occasional visitors rather than just displaying the most recent posts. However, the feed structure is a little more complicated than that.

As the paper explains, "If a user has been away for a week, it provides a summary of posts; if the user visits Facebook every hour, it provides the most recent stories. These changes have resulted in a constant stream of information on the News Feed, generated through posts shared not only by friends but also through the posts shared by friends of friends." In addition, the increased volume of posts from other highly active users "may be irrelevant to many of those who receive them. Because of these profuse unstructured posts, many Facebook users are overwhelmed and frustrated with the large amount of information, experiencing the problem of information overload."

The study, "Facebook News Feed: Relevance or Noise?", is based on a university survey of 117 people--32% undergrads, 51% grad students, and 17% staff and non-academics--that piggy-backed on a study professor Catherine Dwyer of Pace University was conducting on the use of Facebook's privacy tools. The other authors, from the New Jersey Institute of Technology school of Information Systems, were professor Starr Hiltz and graduate students Harshada Shrivastav and Regina Collins.

"The whole idea of information overload is a long-term theme in the work of Dr. Hiltz," Dwyer said. "She first wrote about it in the 1980s--although it seems kind of quaint to think of the 1980s as a time of information overload--and it's a very relevant question to ask about Facebook."

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Overall, 48.2% of survey respondents reported they felt more overloaded with information from the Facebook news feed, and active users had more complaints: 53% of users who logged on several times a week said that Facebook had grown more difficult to use since the news feed change, and 16% said it was now easier to use. Another 30% said they either saw no change, or had joined Facebook too recently to be able to say. A majority (62.5%) of those who visited Facebook once or week or less reported no change, or had joined too recently, while 18.7% thought it was now harder and an equal number thought it was now easier.

In other words, even though the "top posts" mechanism displays a filtered sample of posts, the throttling mechanism seems to more than make up for it, so that the harder we try to keep up with the stream, the farther behind we fall.

"Frequent visitors have to process a lot of information to find relevant posts," said Shrivastav, the lead author of the study. In an interview, she agreed strategies for coping with the deluge, or getting your message through to other overwhelmed users, could be topics for further research. This study did not address those questions.

In addition to frequency of use, the study seemed to show a gender difference, with 64.9% of women saying Facebook had gotten harder to use and 39.7% of men complaining about news feed overload. However, Dwyer said the sample size might be too small to draw conclusions from that result, given that more men than women were included.

Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr. The BrainYard is @thebyard and

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