IBM is trying to encourage employees to use social media for many forms of communication which were previously done by email. As you can imagine this is getting a mixed reaction from different employees. For example Luis Suarez is leading the way in trying to eliminate use of email almost completely, but many other employees rarely use public social media sites or even the IBM internal implementation of Lotus Connections.
Recently we had a training session where the speaker was explaining how to use the various tools and enthusiastically extolling the benefits of using them. Some of the more reluctant participants raised a few issues that they had encountered and we had a lively discussion on whether these new tools actually helped solve the problem of information overload or if they actually made the problem worse because now people are expected to read a selection or blogs and keep up with activity in various Lotus Connections communities as well as reading their email.
I did some thinking about this issue afterwards and I came to the conclusion that social media tools do not inherently solve the problem of information overload, but they do transfer control of the information flow from the sender to the receiver. This is a very significant change, but in order to take advantage of this it is necessary for the receiver to put some thought into what information they actually want to receive and then they also need to put a little bit of work into implementing a process of receiving information which works for them.
Prior to the invention of the internet, people used to communicate via physical letters and newspapers. With letters the sender used to decide whom they would send the letter to and with newspapers the reader would decide what newspapers they wanted to read. There was a cost associated with sending a letter and also a cost to purchase a newspaper so this acted as a natural limiting factor on the amount of information that anyone received. Once the internet was invented, email replaced letters and web sites replaced newspapers.
Since the cost of sending an email is virtually zero people have a tendency to send copies of their emails to more people than just the people who really need/want to receive the information in the email and this leads to information overload. Automated SPAM filters can deal with the really obvious abusers of the email service, but it still is not feasible for most people to read all of the emails they receive each day. If you really want to be in control of your information inflow you need to establish some procedure for deciding what emails you will read (personally I like the GTD system, but I am sure there are many alternatives).
Nobody should limit their information inflows to just the information that other people decide to send them. Therefore you ought to regularly spend some time seeking out new information. Each person will find a different system that works best for them e.g. reading the daily newspaper, reading a series of favourite blogs, logging into Facebook etc. Since everyone has different preferences there is no one system that will work for everyone, but you ought to make a conscious decision about how to go about seeking "news" because the sources of information you rely upon will have an important effect upon how successful you will be in life.
Needless to say another important factor in reducing information overload is that people need to feel empowered and confident enough to tell people "no I didn't read your email". If you do not feel personally empowered to take control of your own information inflow, no tool can help you.