Information Overload, Filter Failure and Channel Panic


I think I’ve invented a new term - "Channel Panic".

Here’s the context. I've been asked to participate in a project outside my day job. It's a loose group of people at this stage and one of the tasks is to learn how to work together as a team. Part of that is all of us using the same processes/tools and having a common place to store files. This is absolutely the same requirement as 99% of teams in the same situation. I had a vague feeling that I/we weren't being as efficient as we ought to be and it was bothering me a little by making me feel unprepared. So I stopped what I was doing and took a look to see why.

I go back a long way with these colleagues and the first problem was emails to me were arriving at two different email addresses (personal and work). The second problem was that everybody involved seems to be using a different file sharing service. So the inefficiency was down to the fact that I had too many channels open. I didn't know where the message would come from, and I didn’t know where to look for the supporting information. Once the problem was identified, the solution is pretty obvious.

We talk about "Information Overload" but this seems like a more specific problem that I'm going to call "Channel Panic". I'm defining it as the general, floating anxiety you feel because there are too many lines of communication open and too many locations to store supporting information.

I've had a rummage around the Internet and I can't find anyone talking about the same thing, so I'm claiming novelty :-)

The nearest meme is a Clay Shirky talk at the Web 2.0 expo in 2008: "It's Not Information Overload. It's Filter Failure". To paraphrase his talk, it isn't about the sheer volume of information – that’s always been the case. It’s that there’s just enough more information to break the systems we use to control it. It's the collapse of the filters ("Filter Failure") we use to differentiate good quality information from poor.

So, channel panic is the bad feeling you get when you start to become aware of impending filter failure.


Tags: Document Management and Control

Paul Walsh

Written by Paul Walsh

Paul Walsh was one of the founders of Cognidox. After a period as an academic working in user experience (UX) research, Paul started a 25-year career in software development. He's worked for multinational telecom companies (Nortel), two $1B Cambridge companies (Ionica, Virata), and co-founded a couple of startup companies. His experience includes network management software, embedded software on silicon, enterprise software, and cloud computing.

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