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Sometimes, a thought strikes you as important even though there isn’t much obvious precedent for it. Robin Hanson on the Overcoming Bias blog has an interesting post comparing information browsing to information searching while adding a fascinating alternative — information chasing:

In searching mode, readers tend to be less critical. If a source came recommended, they tend to keep reading along even if they aren’t quite sure what the point is. Since authors tend to be more prestigious than readers, readers tend to feel reluctant to question or judge what they’ve read.   They are more likely to talk about whether they enjoyed the read, than whether the author’s argument works. In chasing mode, readers are naturally more critical.  When you are looking for something particular, it feels less presumptuous to stop reading when your source comes to seem irrelevant.  After all, the source might be good for some other purpose, even if not for your purpose.

Browsing is a mode of information intake that’s largely passive, creating at best an awareness of the delta in knowledge that may exist while filling that gap with little else. Searching is usually focused on finding information around a specific question, but as Hanson says, readers can still be less critical. Once they find what they’re looking for and which satisfies an information expectation, the search is over. Seeking is getting closer to chasing, but there isn’t the full engagement I derive from chasing. Seeking also has a cliche quality to it. It’s a little tired as a phrase.

However, chasing is something altogether more intense. As Katja Grace writes on the Meteuphoric blog:

I think Robin’s dichotomy goes a long way to explaining why reading is disappointing relative to thinking. In thinking it’s much easier to chase. Refraining from following a line of inquiry, and filling in gaps, and jumping to conclusions, can be harder than doing these things. There is usually some interesting path open to chase down. You don’t have to page through all your memories and concepts to catch a glimpse of your prey.

My personal experience with information chasing behavior comes from writing this blog. When I pick up on a thought I want to pursue, I usually have a short time to compose a coherent piece. I need information fast, and I have to chase it down. I devour links, run various searches, and write, edit, revise, reject, and polish until the piece resembles a complete and lucid sequence of thought, and I also feel that I’ve exhausted the topic, or at least one perspective on it.

With the read-write Web allowing more of our users to submit online comments, online letters to the editor, and write blogs and posts themselves, information chasing might be an increasingly familiar style of thinking.

I think this is an important concept for publishers to absorb, a new way to capture an especially intense and perhaps common dimension of reader behavior.

My experience is that we think the most intense behavior is either searching or seeking. Given the level of specialization and research activism our audiences possess, I think some of their behavior is actually information chasing, which is much more akin to thinking than to merely answering a superficial search query.

Embracing this concept has important information design implications. Links, lookups, and broad relationships of information sources all become more vital to the chase. Google’s solutions aren’t sufficient for information chasing. Articles aren’t sufficient for information chasing. Recognizing this legitimate and common specialist information need — to pursue thinking through a thread of information, conduct a chase — can be important to remaining relevant and useful.

So, I’ll be adding this term to my user behavior description vocabulary. I’d suggest we all do.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


7 Thoughts on "Information Chasing — a New Addition to Browsing, Seeking, and Searching"

Your point (if I understand it) is central to my research, so I will steal your word “chasing”.

Technically us folks in the search technology community usually use “browsing” to refer to link navigation and “search” to refer to using a terminology search box. But you are talking about different goals, not different methods (if I understand you). This distinction is not normally made but it should be.

Sometimes we are looking for broad understanding, such as of an issue, a body of work, or a community of thought. We typically use word search to find a neighborhood and link browsing to explore it. If we find better language we may search again, then browse some more. Specific pages or authorities may not be important, since we are feeling our way in.

But sometimes we need a specific, authoritative fact or answer. I think this is your “chasing” and it is a very different search problem from understanding. It calls for very different tools, but the search technology community generally does not even recognize this distinction, and the different markets it suggests, so the tools are not there.

What you call chasing I have been calling a “point solution problem” (based on problem solving theory), which is as techie a name as one can imagine. Chasing is better.
See for example:

The search industry in general does not make this distinction, between browsing for understanding and chasing information, so neither do their tools. Interestingly, the field of artificial intelligence grew out of the point solution model for problem solving. What is arguably the first AI program, by Simon and Newell, was called the General Problem Solver. Maybe AI is the place to look for solutions to the chasing problem.

Am I on the right track here?

I think you’re on the right track. I find myself doing this kind of chasing when I’m putting together a presentation or writing a blog post. Those might be chasing in the sense of herding information. When there is specific prey, I think that’s closer to you point solution problem. We’ve all had that moment when we recall something specific and want to chase it down again.

From what I’ve seen of specialist information users, they browse for awareness and when they want to recall something specific, or organize a broad understanding, they chase.

I’m not sure I like this term.

“Information chasing” is metaphorical. No one stalks and runs down a bit of information “prey” that attempts to elude our grasp. After consuming that bit of information, it is still available to others to consume, and we may be even hungrier after our meal.

Pirolli and Card from the Xerox PARC in Palo Alto began using the phrase “information foraging” [1] in the mid-to-late 1990s as a metaphor how we develop information seeking behaviors. It was a metaphor taken from animal ecology, and while it works in some respects, it also fails in others.

Searching for information is not like chasing gazelles or foraging for berries.

Pirolli, P., & Card, S. 1999. Information Foraging. Psychological Review 106: 643-675.

The “chase” metaphor worked for the 1973 film, The Paper Chase, where legal documents were physically housed in the Harvard library and archives.

We live or die by our analogies, that’s for sure.

I use a social search method that entails finding groups. I can’t think of an analog. Maybe the Country Club Method? 😉

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