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Information Addiction: The Implications for Society, Brands, Advertising & Research

Researchers are going to have to define new social segmentations and build new influence models that make sense of a society that is fragmenting not by age and traditional demographic, but by political and social attitudes.

By Jon Puleston

My name is Jon Puleston and I am addicted to information. From the moment I get up in the morning until I go to bed at night, I am immersed in information gathering.

News was something I used to read once a day. Ever since I got a smartphone, my propensity to consume news has slowly increased month by month. With the ever- increasing proliferation of news aggregation apps, it’s becoming something I dip into almost every spare moment during the day. The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning and last thing I do at night before switching off my phone is check the “news”.  It has become a total addiction. In addition to news, there is social media, which I consume with equal levels of hunger, be it Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn.

Where I am foraging news information from, and the way I am processing and using news information, is changing too. And it is also fascinating to observe the changes in the news information I am consuming.

In days gone by, I would pick up a newspaper and carefully read it through from cover to cover on my commute to work. I might read 80% of the content. The news content I read in this “highbrow” paper could be likened to consuming a relatively well-balanced meal. I would get a fairly rounded picture of what was going on in the world, albeit from the probably quite biased and subjective perspective of the editor of my paper.

Now I am scanning through hundreds of headlines, from multiple editorial sources on news aggregator apps, looking scantly at the headline and pictures and making instant judgments about whether or not to read them.  My content read ratio has dropped to below 5% and what’s more, my diet has changed too. I consume highbrow and lowbrow news content side by side. I self-select news, hunting out very specific things I am interested in. And to be frank, a lot of it is cheap hits, often fairly salacious news stories that I might never have been exposed to nearly as much in the past.

With my researcher’s hat on, self-observing this change, I began to take a wider interest in understanding the character of news being consumed more generally these days by the wider public, how are people navigating through this sea of information, and what is actually cutting through. So earlier this year I got my team to scrape data on 30,000 Reddit headlines. We examined how many upvotes each headline got and how many comments they solicited, and I started to analyse them.  To understand the character of the news that was cutting through, I then creamed off the top 5% and tried to take an objective look at the content of these headlines, trying to segment and classify them.

As you can imagine, the stories that get to the top of the new pile are a real cabinet of curiosities. A heady mix of genuine news and what might be described as unbelievable truths, headlines that at first glance are so unlikely to be true that you are forced, like passing a road accident, to stop and read them e.g. “I think I found a U-Boat in Somalia” ; or of car crash observing nature e.g. “A beautician removing blackheads”. Something deep and primeval inside you forces you to click to and view. In the very process of analyzing this content, I would find myself being sucked into reading them just out of curiosity.

Amongst all these salacious stories there was, in fact, a fair amount of quite serious content.  I was surprised by the high number of health and wellbeing stories, epiphanies and home truths, self-learning and general tips for getting on in life; there were also a large number of stories of a political & social campaigning nature, and people protesting against things that they thought were wrong.

The remaining volumes, probably half of the headlines, were made up of a diverse range of headlines that are saying essentially, read this and you will be entertained. Funny, often celebrity dominated stories, and perhaps not surprisingly, a huge number of pet-related content!

I then began to think about some of the background reasons and motivations for reading all this stuff…

I observed that a lot of the successful headlines heavily relied on content juxtaposition, presenting two conflicting ideas that at first glance did not make sense, triggering a curiosity response, for example: “When your cat has a drinking problem”. I think this highlights how we process all forms of information – we are primed to notice differences and oddities. You could describe these as trick headlines.

I think this is the reason why health and wellbeing stories cut through, they tap into the basic human survival instinct.

You could describe a lot of the rest of the content as pure “information porn”, stories that deliver the reader an opportunity to feel some emotions and feelings – we are using the news as a means of getting a quick dopamine hit and so the consumption of it becomes an addiction similar to smoking.

But I think, for the more political and social campaigning content, it’s more than just getting a quick hit.

From a personal perspective, I observe myself getting so much more emotionally involved in the news these days, in the same way, perhaps, that you get hooked into soap operas if you watch them every day.

The major news stories like Brexit and the US election and more recently Trump’s antics, have all completely hooked me in. I have literally mainlined news content from these political stories.

…and how I am using and processing this information goes way beyond objective information gathering.  What I am looking for so often are arguments and evidence that support my point of view and active process of confirmation biasing myself!  I am highly practiced in SCHADENFREUDE, delighting in reading stories about the downfall of political foes, people with opposite opinions having their arguments skilfully met. I am also good at ignoring news stories that I suspect are going to say something that I don’t believe.

News stories are like picking out chocolates from a variety box, you pick the ones you know will taste nice, and rather avoid the ones you think will taste bad.

The impact of this is that find I am far more drawn into politics than I have been in the past.  The campaigning and social nature of information content is so much more significant than it once was.  Politics for me is replacing soap operas literally.  I could go as far as saying I feel like I am involved in some sort of news information war, sharing stuff I want others to see and themselves propagate out.

And it’s not just me, the high number of posts of a social campaigning nature cutting through on Reddit seem to support this idea.  There is further evidence of this in a poll we conducted of 1,000 consumers in the US to understand how they processed news information during the US election, which could be described as one of the greatest political soap operas of all time.

During the election, over 80% of the electorate we polled used online new sites in supplement to traditional mainstream news, the majority (55%) on a daily basis. So many expressed their frustration at not being able to access the right type of news they wanted to consume in conventional new media such as TV, radio, and published newspapers. Over 75% believed the mainstream media to be biased.  Over 55% said they used alternative news sources to get their news fix, but also to help readdress the balance.

We are picking up and running with this news information.  We are socially sharing what we consume en masse, what we think is important. Politics, as a result, is becoming a whole lot more resonant with elements of our social discourse. Once upon a time I might have discussed a news story I read in the paper over a pint in the pub with one or two friends, now I share a news story with across a social network that reaches hundreds of people.

For many, Facebook is becoming one of these primary battlegrounds for news sharing and delivery. During the election, the average Facebook user in our poll estimated that they saw between 50 and 100 political news stories shared by their friends.

The level of self-selecting of news stories was also very apparent from this survey. The chart below illustrates this beautifully we asked how many of the news stories they saw were positive about the candidate they also supported and both sides had a completely myopic viewpoint on the election.

As Adam Curtis, the filmmaker has observed in his compelling documentary Hypernormalisation, we are using online as a refuge, a place where we go to get our ideas re-assured. The chart below illustrates the tribal nature of this discourse during the Brexit vote. This is a map of news stories distributed on Twitter:

This clearly has some profound implications for society. What we are witnessing is social cults emerging, communities isolated not by geography but by opinion. We are all essentially preaching to our own converted communities.

The force behind this is the strong desire to belong. Research conducted by The New York Times exploring the psychology of sharing highlighted how news stories were being treated as a currency for building our social status: if I share this then people will like me!

New morality frameworks are emerging. Where once we were morally led by religious leaders and our family, we are now lead by a new form of social based morality – what is right or wrong not being reinforced in churches and temples for most people but by our friends on Facebook.

Where this could lead it potentially quite worrying.  Emergence potentially of social cults and warring communities made up of opinion tribes does not seem like a big imaginative stretch.

There are important implications in the commercial arena too.

Brands and business are going to have to be increasingly wary of these emerging tribal social communities which are a lot more politically motivated and easily mobilized and cross connected globally. Woe betide the social crowd’s outrage, the power of social campaigning will present a real threat to brands in the future. Brands are going to have to build stronger social consciousness to protect themselves. You might also imagine brands in the future becoming more political to appeal to different social tribes.

Advertisers are going to have work out how to cut through all this sea of information – they are going to have to build their own carnival floats to stand out and get noticed.  They are going to have to become more entertaining, and I see a return to a lot more old school feature benefit advertising.

Researchers are going to have to define new social segmentations and build new influence models that make sense of a society that is fragmenting not by age and traditional demographic, but by political and social attitudes.

Are you addicted to information?

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3 responses to “Information Addiction: The Implications for Society, Brands, Advertising & Research

  1. Thanks Jon, a great descriptive piece, definitely informed by good data at different steps of a consumer’s journey. I would have taken a more interpretative angle to this one. I think you touch on the key fact here: “heavily relied on content juxtaposition, presenting two conflicting ideas that at first glance…”. This is the same conflict which is meant to attract people to a boxing match. The audience is at its highest when the contest is more equal and the outcome most unpredictable. It hits right at the incapacity of people to deal with uncertainty (and I suppose that curiosity is a form of that). It aligns with what you are describing about the impulse of curiosity being something more brutal or primal. Where I disagree is that this is going to generate a moral framework. What it is going to do is force people to form their morals in unstable and relative ways. The moral or philosophical discussion is only ever going to become apparent in its conflictual value, and the attention it can bring. If I had to describe that phenomena, I would not hesitate to invoke the theory of social order based on scapegoating and scandals ( What does become apparent though in what you are saying, is that an idea or a moral is respected by its power to attract attention through people’s instincts. So perhaps people preach to their own crowds, but at the end it’s the conflict that generates attention, and what also seems clear is that the only thing that keeps this instinct from crushing the gates of morality, is simply the fear of being the subject of the scandals (in its strict definition see the link above) through which the whole system keeps perpetrating itself. When the impulse ceases to be philosophical but primal, then we are talking about Nietzsche beyond Good and Evil, where there is no morality but the will to power, and we are dealing with people for whom the power to force the attention is all that matters, and that’s what they find important. I just wanted to make that point, if there is a moral system, it will be hated and by definition constantly challenged for clicks.

  2. Mickael I really, really these thoughts! Especially the idea that conflict sparks attention and people having the power to force attention.

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