How real people approach the information challenge

Since about 4th grade we’ve all had the sender/message/receiver communications graphic etched in our Big Brain. In thinking about the path between sender and receiver we have focused mainly on the sender and on how to evaluate the content and validity of a message.  Though we’ve parsed the sender and the message, we have paid less attention to the intangible characteristic of the receiver.

In olden times, before the digital engulfed the information environment, we took for granted that the path between source and receiver was marked by guiderails and a variety of filters.   Research about end users focused on user skills rather than on the unique characteristics of the receiver.  Very little attention has been paid to the complexities that surround the conditions – particularly the attitudes of information consumers.

Clearly, social media has totally disrupted the paradigm. The challenge of the digital age is to think about the delivery system that links source with users, to reassess the role of filters, to address the unencumbered flow of disinformation and misinformation (which are not synonymous terms).  Today the spotlight is shifting in subtle ways to focus on the ways in which the receiver perceives and engages with the unfiltered message – and on how the source embraces the power to pre-determine not only the message but the target audience.

The time has come to take a close look at the characteristics of the receiver.

To some extent the library world has taken a lead in highlighting the power of the receiver, the ultimate information filter.  For decades librarians and educators have underscored, identified, and worked diligently to inculcate the skills and attitudes of information users.  >>>

A recent article published by the Pew Research Center suggests that we need to be thinking now not only of the skills but the attitudes of the receiver Though I am not inclined to test out the latest self-examination tool, what got me thinking is a simple test to determine ‘How People Approach Facts and Information.’

To be honest, I had not thought much about the reality that “people deal in varying ways with tensions about what information to trust and how much they want to learn.  Some are interested and engaged with information; others are wary and stressed.”

Pew researchers created what they called an “information engagement typology” that highlights the differing ways in which Americans deal with cross pressures.  The typology identified five broad dimensions of people’s “engagement with information on a scale ranging from “eager and willing” to “wary”. Researchers concluded that identifiable elements stand out when it comes to the enthusiasm of information gatherers – their level of trust in information sources and their interest in learning, particularly about digital skills.”

Noting that, to date the focus has been on critical thinking skills, information literacy, how to assess both the source and content of the information – not so much on “their interest in learning” the Pew researchers observed:

There are times when these factors align – when people trust an information source and they are eager to learn, or when they distrust sources and have less interest in learning.  There are other times when these factors push in opposite directions: people are leery of information sources but enthusiastic about learning.

The typology has five groups that fall along a spectrum ranging from fairly high engagement with information to wariness of it.  Roughly four-in-ten adults (38%) are in groups that have relatively strong interest and trust in information sources and learning.   About half (49%) fall into groups that are relatively disengaged and not very enthusiastic about information…, especially when it comes to navigating digital information.  Another 13% occupy a middle space: They are not particularly trusting of information sources, but they show higher interest in learning than those in the more information-way groups.

Briefly, their conclusions are these:

  • There is no such thing as a ‘typical’ archetypal information consumer – as with any human activity, “one size does not fit all.”
  • Those who focus on digital divide and information literature also face a mighty challenge reflected by the fact that “about half of adults fall into the groups identified by the researchers as Doubtful and Wary.” These are the individuals who have lower interest in getting assistance to help them get to more trustworthy material.
  • There is a need for “trusted institutions helping people gain confidence in their digital and information literacy skills.”  Noting how this relates to libraries and librarians the researchers observe: “Libraries might be relevant here.  Library users stand out in their information engagement.  Overall, about half (52%) of adults have visited a public library or connected with it online in the past year.  Those library users were overrepresented in the two most information-engaged groups.  Some 63% of the Eager and Willing were library users in the past year, while this is true for 59% of the confident.  Additionally, both groups are much more likely than others to say they trust librarians and libraries as information sources.”

Though the researchers are upfront about the limits of their study, their perspective is fresh. My appreciation of their approach increased after I took a very few minutes to study the “information disposition” of the participants.  Needless to say, I found myself firmly planted in two categories!   You might want to take a few minutes to find out where you find yourself in this typology. It’s simple, fun and really does jump-start a new and nuanced analysis of information seekers, a way to move from critical thinking skills to more attention on the deeply-rooted attitudes of information seekers.

Thinking about attitudes adds a powerful human dimension to the challenge of how we as humans engage with information.  (Who knew information literacy could be so complicated….)

Read more here – and check your own information proclivities against the typology suggested by the Pew researchers: http://www.pewinternet.org/2017/09/11/how-people-approach-facts-and-information/

 

 

 

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