Sometimes It's Best Not To Search

by , Apr 20, 2010, 12:30 PM
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A woman I know needs heart surgery. "I was starting to come to terms with it, but then I looked up the procedure on Wikipedia," she says. "Now I'm all freaked out again."

Well, of course. This is a case where additional information doesn't offer additional comfort -- quite the opposite. When it comes to surgery, most people benefit from the initial wave of knowledge, acquiring the ability to make informed decisions. The next wave, though, "freaks you out." I don't care how many people tell you it's routine; no amount of detail will ever make you happy about people poking around in your chest cavity.

Surgery isn't the only area where further information can be detrimental. Malcolm Gladwell, in his essay "Open Secrets," describes this phenomenon as the difference between a puzzle and a mystery. "Osama bin Laden's whereabouts are a puzzle. We can't find him because we don't have enough information... The problem of what would happen in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein was, by contrast, a mystery. It wasn't a question that had a simple, factual answer. Mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information, but that we have too much."

Sometimes things that seem simple can turn into mysteries the further you dig; after all, any coastline becomes infinitely long if you measure in enough detail. Yet our culture of total information availability has led us to believe that we need more research, more knowledge, more data.

We don't. What we need is better judgments and an improved ability to assess uncertainty. We need to refine our skill at making decisions, even though we know that, not only are we operating with incomplete information, but also there exists at our fingertips a resource that can provide us with an infinitude thereof. How can we possibly reach a conclusion when there are so many blue links yet unclicked?

The challenge of managing additional information is growing, of course, exponentially. Last week, Google announced that the tweet archive would now be searchable. While Twitter missives formerly vanished after a few days, we'll soon have access to all 10 billion of them.

Danny Sullivan calls the move a "much-needed innovation," and I don't disagree. In fact, I'm delighted that this information will be available, and I can already think of lots of uses for it -- not least an improved ability for Twitter marketers to track metrics. On the other hand, we need to be aware of the increase in mystery likely to be generated by the additional data.

The fact that we can now delve into thousands of tweets on, for example, a given political issue doesn't mean we'll know any more than we did before. Gladwell, referring to financial transactions, describes the challenge in trying to comprehend complexity through detail: "You can try to make financial transactions understandable by simplifying them, in which case you run the risk of smoothing over some of their potential risks, or you can try to disclose every potential pitfall, in which case you'll make the disclosure so unwieldy that no one will be able to understand it."

When faced with a mystery, we need more than data. We need comprehension. The next time one of your searches is frustrating you, ask yourself whether additional searching is likely to solve the problem -- or whether you're just adding to the mystery.

Does more information help you make better decisions? Let me know in the comments or via @kcolbin.

0 comments on "Sometimes It's Best Not To Search".

  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited
    commented on: April 20, 2010 at 1:32 p.m.

    This is so on point it should be a prerequisite for conference attendance. Just as the assumption that people want more, there is choice aversion we have so we go back to basic vanilla. Keep writing about this Kaila. It can't be overly emphasized.

  2. Dan Ortega from Hyperdyme Systems
    commented on: April 20, 2010 at 1:51 p.m.

    I think the issue here is context and referential integrity. Too much information without structure or context is useless, but if it's well organized and correlated so you can follow new trains of thought, it becomes manageable. Putting zillions of Tweets in an on line archive is pointless unless there is some structured way to navigate all this data (and therefor turn it into information). Structured content relies on standards like DITA for referential integrity, and there is no corrolary standard for Tweets.

  3. Kate Lafrance from Hartford Woman Online Magazine
    commented on: April 20, 2010 at 1:55 p.m.

    Great piece! I had this happen myself - our family had planned a trip to Cleveland - husband said - "look at pictures of it on the internet to get used to it" - ha! - scared me worse - kept me home an extra day! lol

  4. Mark Moran from Dulcinea Media
    commented on: April 20, 2010 at 2:10 p.m.

    There are a couple of different threads here. More for the sake of more is pointless; I don't feel any need to search 10 billion Tweets, even though I actively monitor Twitter and learn a lot from it. But having more information, with, as Dan wrote, proper structure and context, will always help you make better decisions. In the case of someone facing heart surgery, having already extensively consulted with a doctor, the only to research it on the Web should have been to better understand what the doctor said, including what the doctor must have said about potential complications, and how to prepare for and recover from it - not to conjure up your own visions of what might go wrong.

  5. Iris Salsman from I. Salsman PR, LLC
    commented on: April 21, 2010 at 2:53 a.m.

    Information overload can become an addiction. At some point you have to stop searching and move on. In business, exhaustive online searches can become a time management issue. Since we bill by the hour, I keep close tabs on how much time our employees spend on research. It's easy to get immersed in looking up information that does't yield anything new or pertinent. I say: Get a life!

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