The fragmentation caused by abundance is creating societal problems.
The fragmentation caused by abundance is creating societal problems.

What do I know about it? All I know is what’s on the Internet.
— Donald Trump

The quote above comes from a campaign moment in which the President-elect defended promulgating misinformation about terrorism during the election cycle. In defending another instance when he was caught sharing incorrect and racist information, Trump claimed there was no way to know from the “millions” of messages he sees which one is true.

He’s correct on that last point, at least.

We now live in what Clay Shirky has called the “age of abundance” — a time when information is so plentiful that the economics of scarcity have been overturned, the social narrative has been imperiled by rapidly shifting news feeds, and truth and fiction have in some cases become indistinguishable. We have news, information, and opinions pelting us like a steady rain. As David Smith described yesterday, we have misinformation competing effectively with actual facts and informed opinions — so much so that voices actively disrespecting and attacking expertise have gained hegemony among some major slices of the population. As Andrew Hoffman wrote recently:

Social media is perhaps one of the most disruptive forces in society today, and academia is not immune to its impact. Society now has instant access to more news, stories and information, including scientific information, from more sources and in more varied formats than ever before. . . . other interests are beating us to the punch, publishing their own reports, often with a political agenda, and using social media to have far more impact on public opinion. Add to this changing landscape a rise in pseudo-scientific journals and we must face the reality [of becoming] relegated further to the sidelines.

Social media-fueled political agendas have risen to the level of nation-state activities, with social media being appropriated as a tool in the propaganda dimension of the invisible cyberwar many nations are currently fighting. As the head of the NSA recently said about the US presidential election, social media was used as part of “a conscious effort by a nation-state to attempt to achieve a specific effect” — namely, the election of Donald Trump. Seventeen US government agencies agree on the source of these efforts being Russia.

Information abundance, its enabling forces, and its effects have become so pernicious that the most powerful nation on Earth just elected a President whose views have largely been shaped by troll-infested news outlets, misinformation, dog-whistle (and plenty of human-audible) hatred, political influence from abroad, and outright lies. In a recent 60 Minutes interview, President-elect Trump admitted to not knowing much about the nationwide protests and marches sparked by his election. Clearly, his filter bubble was not allowing this information to find its way to him. He truly represents the modern media space.

Maybe this “abundance” thing isn’t working out as well as we’d hoped.

Years ago, abundance was viewed as something to cultivate and celebrate. In the late 1990s, we thought the Internet would provide us with only more good stuff — more articles, more news, more voices, more perspectives, more scientific reports. We took for granted the quality that coalesced under conditions of relative scarcity, and we thought it was scalable. The Internet would be the democratization of information, letting users take it back from the elites, giving the common person the same power as the media mogul.

Despite these hopes, we’ve instead seen the emergence of a new set of media moguls — Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and others — who are barely accountable for the information they purvey and who are susceptible to promulgating misinformation, while being protected when doing so. (Thank you, DMCA Safe Harbor provisions.) Their behavior varies from the largely passive deployment of flawed algorithms that can’t distinguish truth from fiction, to actually allowing readers and users to be mislead by propagandists and demagogues.

At the societal level, abundance seems to be a root cause for a number of surprising problems — more fragmentation and polarization, fewer stable and trusted information landmarks, unreliable sources competing for attention, the decimation of professional and investigative journalism, the emergence of soft news and clickbait, chilling floods of backlash aimed at any perceived slight, lax editorial standards for a new breed of scholarly journals, predatory publishers hijacking articles and brands, commercial leakage for existing publishers as pirates and others use the infrastructure of abundance against them, and problems with reproducibility in published scientific studies.

One pernicious effect of so many web sites, cable channels, and news sources is that the abundance has grown far faster than media spending, which means that slightly more money is spread across many more outlets. In the face of expectations of free information, subscription revenues have fallen or vanished, leaving advertising dollars and other conflicted sources of funding (political groups, for instance) to shoulder the load.

The upshot of the incipient funding crisis is that each outlet has less or insufficient funding to do a really good job creating original content, whether that’s original or investigative journalism, thoughtful editorials and perspectives, or (for us) well-vetted scientific reports. Newsrooms have been gutted. As editors and reporters retire, they are often not replaced. Journals are facing similar stresses, seeking to cut costs, not corners — but that can only last so long. Already, some journals have been reduced to skeleton crews as finances force their hands. University presses are under incredible pressures in some cases because of funding difficulties.

In the face of abundance, we’ve come to accept less vetting of research by promulgating preprint servers, journals with reduced editorial footprints, and so forth. While the effects in our industry are less extreme, we are also being whipsawed by the forces of abundance.

For journalism, the problems are front and center every day. Consider how many times morning news teams read the newspaper from their desks rather than going to a paid television journalist who is breaking or covering an original story. The newspaper publisher doesn’t get paid for the distribution of information via television, meaning their funding is further imperiled because television just gave it away for them. John Oliver covered this brilliantly this summer:

Funding deficiencies lead to fewer reporters covering the state house, local issues, scientific findings, or the federal government. The Fourth Estate is a shadow of what it once was thanks to abundance. This was not what we thought would happen.

Scientific and scholarly journals are suffering from similar woes, with articles published without context or even relevance to any audience, more journals with a lack of editorial or review content, and a pace of publication that is simply impossible to sort through and consume thoughtfully. Not only is this a problem for working scientists and medical practitioners, it is creating a black eye for science in the public sphere, as our inability to drink from the firehose becomes more and more obvious with stories of retractions, conflicts of interest, fabricated studies, and conflicting scientific information. It leaves the credibility of science up for grabs, a new vulnerability that is being exploited. As Smith wrote yesterday, the entire concept of “an expert” has lost traction in the age when the barrier to appearing to be an expert via the media is so low.

Another sign of our compromised state is that the volume of information is celebrated instead of the quality, as illustrated by the release of PLOS’ corpus of articles for download:

When we celebrate how much disk space a journal consumes rather than its importance, relevance, or quality, we’ve slipped into a netherworld in which quantity is valued over quality. This is the strange world of abundance.

Another effect of the thin economics of abundance is the rapid updating and shifting of information, meaning that news stories, studies, and findings are treated superficially and headlines are rotated quickly, limiting their effect while feeding the click-monster. You wake up with news about an earthquake in Italy. Thirty minutes later, he said what?! Another hour, and there’s a shooting dominating the news feeds. Forty-five minutes pass, and the divorce of two famous people replaces it all. In the midst of this, you had to take a quiz to see which Hogwarts house you belong in, respond to a bothersome comment on Facebook, and check how many retweets you’ve had. When you turn on the television news, you mostly see angry people yelling at each other because now every opinion is falsely equivalent — James Lipton might give the collective noun as “an abundance of pundits.”

Within a single day, each of us is exposed to an incoherent litany of events, with no prioritization, narrative, or interpretation to give even a context of emphasis. Worse, because of the incessant voicing of opinions, there is no consensus. Jake Tapper can only do so much.

To deal with abundance, we created personalization, a technique applauded for increasing relevance and slowing the news flood to a drip. But with the kaleidoscope of news and research individualized, there is less of a shared social story to provide coherence about what is important or relevant. Worse, fabrications and lies redounding inside these individual echo chambers can become self-reinforcing, as algorithms continue to reward clicks, even if the information on the other side is false. Personalization’s problems are baked in — self-referential, vicious cycle information that creates barriers to serendipity and exposure to surprising ideas or shared experiences. Personalization’s premise isolates each of us — there is no single Facebook experience; rather, there are millions of disparate experiences, none observable.

As if this weren’t enough, abundance has fractured the concept of living in the same moment, as it’s not only fragmentation across too many options, but also across time.

To deal with abundance, we created the DVR, which means that even “live” sporting events can separate people, with fans urging other fans to keep the score of a game secret until the other person watches the recorded version. Instead of a conversation based on one person sharing irretrievable knowledge with another, we have people protecting their selfish experience, as they are now curating themselves for themselves. So, rather than one fan and another sharing the excitement of a shared moment, you have a uniting event becoming a dividing event. Similar things happen with binge-watched shows, with people warning “no spoilers” and so forth, again cutting off conversation for the sake of personal curatorial integrity. This is division through time-shifting. Social media has also adopted this, with feeds that re-sort and re-shuffle unpredictably to keep us guessing. The result is disordered and irretrievable information.

The abundance of devices and screens also means that people in the same room are often not experiencing the same information — whether it’s a family with each child on their own device and app, while Parent 1 is on Facebook, and Parent 2 is on Twitter, or a meeting where the speaker faces an audience with heads down in laptop screens and smartphones, there are few events people actually share these days. Shared experience cures fragmentation, and its absence is meaningful.

To deal with abundance, we’ve had to create additional infrastructure, none of which seems to be helping — from DOAJ to Beall’s list, nothing seems to be stemming the tide of predatory, exploitative journals, which now pollute Google Scholar and other discovery systems, creating false equivalency both accidentally (search) and purposefully (stolen articles, copycat journal titles, and fake editorial board affiliations).

To cater to the forces urging abundance, we had to lower the barriers to entry. As Angela Cochran wrote about earlier, these lower barriers to entry have led to a lack of trust in the scholarly ecosystem, affecting editors, researchers, and readers alike. With spam emails, stolen articles, fake editorial board involvement, and appropriated reputations, the new environment is alienating everyone from researchers to reviewers to editors.

We’ve also had to adopt a more vulnerable infrastructure that’s easy to exploit. From Russian hackers and astroturf campaigns influencing the US Presidential election to stolen credit card numbers and personal information, the safest password remains the one on the Post-it note under your mouse pad. Physical space and physical goods impose security that the infrastructure of the Internet cannot match. To achieve abundance, we’ve had to make ourselves, our political bodies, our financial institutions, and our children and loved ones susceptible to remote attacks by thieves we cannot trace.

In addition to these burdens around security, the shift from scarcity of information has placed the burden on individuals to manage their attention, and this is proving difficult and, as noted above, carries societal prices itself. As one cartoon recently noted, “I went on Facebook, and now I’m in an argument.” Inside our well-curated experiences, we are easily provoked, over-stimulated, and diverted. Part of effective curation and editing is to remove the extraneous and help the reader or user focus their mind on what’s important. Abundance leaves that task in the hands of amateurs who have no path to training and nobody telling them they’re doing it wrong. The only teacher becomes consequences, and we’re seeing ugly lessons emerging.

I’ve given a few talks recently to some thoughtful boards of directors and editors in scholarly and scientific publishing, and nobody seems to have any answers, while everyone sees these and other problems. Abundance seems to be a one-way change, with no going back. After all, to propose scarcity is to invite accusations of being reactionary or oblivious. But perhaps what’s needed isn’t information scarcity, but economic scarcity. This means to stop supporting sites that contribute to the maelstrom, while shifting to those that employ human editors with judgment and obvious accountability. It might even mean paying for information again. Perhaps paywalls make good neighbors in the information age, just as fences did on the open range. If investing in quality information is worthwhile, here are some ideas for how to show that you mean it:

  • Pay for 2-3 additional subscriptions to quality publications right now (or donate to a quality news site)
  • As publishers and editors, think harder about the governance role we have in controlling what gets published, and how important that remains
  • Spend money on providing more contextual and interpretive materials in and around your content
  • Cultivate reporters in your field, and bring quality journalism to your publications, ala Science, BMJ, and NEJM
    • A unified effort along these lines might be required — reach out to friends in the industry to see if a “STEM ProPublica” is possible
  • Create more watchdog functions in your editorial pages — readers love and respect these features, and we need more of them
  • Start covering more economic, ethical, and social issues, because science can’t thrive if these factors are compromised

In its current, uncontrolled state, abundance appears to damage social cohesion and human success. It’s essential nature has delivered existential threats to liberal democracy. Perhaps Shirky himself summed this up best in 2010:

Abundance breaks more things than scarcity does.  Society knows how to react to scarcity.

Who, exactly, is all this abundance intended to help if not our society?

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.


32 Thoughts on "How’s That "Abundance" Thing Working Out For You?"

Nobody would even be talking about any of this had Clinton won. But we need something systemic to blame, lest it simply be her fault. The genesis of “move on” was 1990s Clinton so maybe we need a parallel effort to end the endless naval gazing.


Sorry, couldn’t resist. This is something we’ve been talking about for years. Beall’s list dates back to 2008. Facebook itself has been debating this internally since May ( What has happened is that our urgency in discussing these issues has increased because we now have a tangible, real world result that at least in part can be attributed to the change in the way humans communicate and understand their world.

No one is claiming this is the sole reason for the US election results nor the Brexit vote results, though that seems to be a strawman argument you’re eager to tear down.

The operative words in your reply are “at least in part” — but you don’t say how much. Let me guess “large part” in your opinion or “worrisome” at the least. My adjective would be “minuscule” because I give the voter more credit for critical thinking than you do, although neither of us can prove the proper degree of worry.

Source credibility is always an issue to some, but strong evidence of Hillary’s physical frailty, e.g., video of her exhibiting a distinct lack of vigor or even eye coordination, is objectively trustworthy, regardless whether Infowars showed it or the New York Times and CNN looked the other way. It’s still evidence.

I don’t know “how much” I attribute to the isolationist nature of current internet use. I suspect there’s a much wider change in how we view our fellow man that’s happening than you do.

My adjective would be “minuscule” because I give the voter more credit for critical thinking than you do, although neither of us can prove the proper degree of worry.

See today’s news:

David: I was going to give you more credit than to reply to DF. Just who is DF? Seems to me that he is a troll that has engaged you in a stupid argument. No matter what you say, the poster will ignore you and come back with something either misinterpreted by him/her or misrepresent your statement. Lasty you used an elitist word “minuscule”!

As George Bernard Shaw said: I learned long ago to never wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.

This essay would be essentially the same if Clinton had won, with the exception of the title given Trump now. It was an unnecessarily close election, and for many of the reasons cited here.

The worrying effects of abundance (and media and social fragmentation) have been discussed by me and others on this blog multiple times over the past few years. Here’s one pre-election essay, which may help you see that this topic was not provoked by the outcome of any election:

Great read. As you mention, there are a couple of opportunities for leadership, especially in the STM space, to create MORE rigor around what is acceptable to submit for publication, and to reward that rigor above all else. One of the reasons we see preprints servers coming online is because of the huge wait or backlog many researchers experience when trying to publish results, the one thing they can do to advance their careers. But other reasons are in response to a desire from more researchers and societies to place increased intellectual focus on the work, to have more control over the types of research that get published, not just what’s “impactful.”

What about a paradigm shift? Rather than rewarding what is hot or what will generate clicks, citations or impact factor, what about returning to a focus on what is verifiable and truly meaningful? Encourage editorial boards to require preregistration and open data. Request regular follow-ups on major studies to confirm reproducibility. Give those requirements weight in your decision to accept a paper. Become the arbiters of the truth and process we see evaporating from our discourse. Publishers that embrace that mindset can do their part to stem the tide of laziness and falsehood. The truth is hard work, but isn’t it worth it?

I agree, and I believe it is “worth it.” However, the assumptions of abundance are working against any economic solution along these lines, which is an absolutely necessary pre-condition. Users won’t pay for quality, and purchasers continue to buy quantity. This drives consolidation, and that flywheel is moving fast. When people wake up and begin to harden their purchasing decisions around quality, things may change.

But can’t editors and publishers move the needle? If you only accept quality, after a while that’s all that’s out there. Is it truth or commerce that wins? The sense is that commerce is winning, and so folks start migrating away from current models towards their own solutions.

Commerce seems to be winning, but also there is now a cultural assumption that more is better, which is affecting editorial thinking. Maybe we need a rethink.

Yes, that is a challenge, because as you said, attention spans are short and people get tense when they see something more than a week old. But valid science is a slow moving beast that requires considerable deliberation, yes? All the retractions of late certainly suggest that. It’s one thing to be Huffington Post, but it’s quite another to be a major scientific journal relied upon for scientific truth. STM societies and their publishers have a strong grip on scholarly content. That means they could really impact the way science is conducted, published and incentivized going forward. Let’s cooperate on restoring truth as the reward, not “impact,” or clicks, or downloads.

Why, the state, of course. Less social cohesion means more control over the populace, makes policing more manageable.

Anyway if it’s true that Hilary won the popular vote, shouldn’t you be worried about Russian spies in the electoral college rather than those on social networks?

There is evidence of Russia influencing social media, as well as hacking Hillary’s emails. They did this because even the disruption of a Trump presidency suits their strategic priorities. Planting of fake news, creating distrust of the most-qualified candidate (and one Putin dislikes), both led to an election that was close enough for the Electoral College mechanisms to kick in. Putin might have gotten lucky in the end that we have that mechanism.

Well that’s amazing then, hats off to Putin for winning the US election. And to Russians for winning the Cold War in overtime I guess.

On a more serious note, though: any piece of supposedly Russian influence exerted over social media pales in comparison with the vast cultural and political influence the US commands over all forms of media, global and domestic; especially social. It builds up over time, and does not dilute that easily. It certainly does not hinge on a few rogue like-n-share facebook campaigns.

It certainly is an interesting period in human history. The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, the birth of free speech and freedom of the press—one would have hoped that the Information Age and the democratization of information would have led to better outcomes. Oops. So where does all this end? We can unplug, of course—let the pendulum swing back to reading books and actually speaking to each other. Or maybe some of these platforms like Twitter will just collapse as users abandon them in disgust. Facebook and Google are going to increase their vigilance in filtering out what is and isn’t real news, which might seem like welcome news but we should also be careful what we wish for (their algorithms already do this—the Google Panda algorithm basically killed news aggregation sites in recent years, for instance, because all duplicate content was swept up in a dragnet to combat web scraping). We can do as you suggest, Kent, and buy subscriptions to legitimate publications and push back against disinformation. Maybe most fundamentally, though, we need to improve information literacy. This is a new challenge for a new age, and our failure at this task to-date is apparent everywhere. Information literacy standards already exist for many schools, of course, but we don’t have any public education programs—maybe a “Schoolhouse Rock” type of campaign, combined with public service ads, free online classes throughout the country, newspaper education campaigns, brand-sponsored events, and so on (combined with Google and Facebook withholding ad revenue from fake news sites). Figuring out how to separate fact from fiction is a new challenge for a new age, and it’s probably going to be a bigger challenge than any few, passionate groups can manage alone—the public will need to help with this effort.

You may unplug, but you’re no less exposed to propaganda via books and talks. You just consume and absorb it slower, have a bit more control over your choice perhaps.

There’s no end really. It’s simply a matter of preaching the most popular truth to the biggest choir.

Don’t trust; check for yourself. Instill that notion in the youngins’ minds and they’ll cope just fine.

No, not really. Lots of people “don’t trust” and end up not believing in climate change or evolution. Information literacy can help bridge that gap between being skeptical and yet also being well-informed.

Yes, but information literacy doesn’t stop them from wilfully having those beliefs. Democracy of information democratizes propaganda too. Only way to truly achieve what you desire is to abolish freedom of expression and prosecute anyone who doesn’t speak facts.

I think you’re looking at the wrong end of the problem Sasa. No one is talking about restricting freedom of expression. The issue here is misinformation and what to do about it. In a free society, sure—people are free to spread lies as long as they don’t defame, incite violence, or cause injury. But willfully ignoring whether people believe these lies and how they act on this misinformation destroys the very fabric we’re trying to protect. In order to protect society, there needs to be some effort exerted to ensure the governed can distinguish between fact and fantasy—that’s why public education is so vital to democracy. This conversation about trying to draw a brighter line between fake and real news sites is also important. An “informed” electorate that is not actually informed does nothing to support and promote the framework of democracy. Indeed, democracy becomes weakened.

The digital sharing platforms have created / exacerbated this to a large extent. Before Facebook and sharing widgets like AddThis, you could find bad content but it was largely anchored in place and a lot harder to spread around. Now anyone with an opinion can become a publisher and there’s so much disintermediation, no one has time or resources to vet any of it.

Great post, Kent and the three posts that proceeded it this week on SK. For the most part, great comments too. The themes of the posts this week should be the basis for a plenary session at the next SSP meeting as well as all other scholarly publishing, librarian and scientific meetings. However and Glenn’s comment gets at what I’m thinking, if you agree with the opinions expressed in the SK posts this week, what else can be done in other spaces? We all need to make it our duty to spread the messages in these posts as far and wide as we possibly can beyond the realm of scholarly publishing. This means going way beyond your own personal Idaho, i.e. social media. As Bruce Springsteen sings in Long Walk Home, “Your flag flyin’ over the courthouse, Means certain things are set in stone. Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t” Yes, it’s gonna be a long walk home, but as the saying goes, the journey of 1,000 miles begins with one step.

The implication seems to be that OA means lower quality, less rigorous peer review, lower bars to acceptance, and volume over selectivity. But it doesn’t need to be that way, does it? Just because a journal is not expensive to submit to or doesn’t live behind a paywall does not mean it’s not valid, true, or legitimate. That’s a long-standing argument that needs to be debunked, or better yet, proven wrong with examples either now or in the future.

This is a huge perception problem that we continue to struggle to overcome. I’m spending the week with a research society that is launching a new OA journal, and I can’t tell you how many times I (or the Editor) has had to explain to a researcher that the new journal will have high standards of experimental rigor. There’s a great level of misunderstanding, and a tendency to conflate the megajournal level of peer review and the predatory journal approach with all of OA.

Angela wrote about it this week here:

That’s also a perception problem promulgated by fabricating some sort of connection between predatory OA journals and the results of US elections.

If you can’t understand the difference between a parallel and a direct connection, then there’s probably little I can do to help you.

A parallel intended for a reader to make the mental connection between the two. It’s just an observation, not a cry for help anyway.

The transition to abundance IS irreversible. What can we do beyond hand-wringing and longing for the good old times when publishing was too expensive to be done by amateurs?

Paying the sources you like is a good thing, but of course if you want to do that, you can. you don’t need a paywall to force you.

I would also suggest that building good, diverse networks is another useful practice.

Google removing fake news site access to AdSense is a welcome development.

My feeling is that if the current algorithms aren’t good enough, we need to improve them, not vainly try to get back to somewhere where they aren’t needed. This is a good take from someone who’s been there: (though many of you may see him as the cheerleader for the problem)

In all of this, though, let’s remember that systematic analysis of large corpora are valuable for understanding in the age of abundance. This is the downside to paywalls, because how do you write in your analysis script the instructions to pay for each bit of the thousands of millions of articles you might process? How much more complicated does that make the process?

If I may, William, I think there are probably at least two separate issues here. The first—how to build better filters—is one we can deal with at least in part through technological fixes. The second—how to keep humankind from sliding down a dark and dangerous path that we swore would never be traveled again—is quite another. It is alarming how little we’ve learned as a society if we can still allow ourselves wholesale to be misled by false information, and whipped into a frenzy over caricatures that perpetuate myths, demonize innocents, and start us down an incremental path of making it okay to hate a little today and a little more tomorrow. Bad things can happen to societies that can’t take a time out to do a reality check and recalibrate their impulses. So some amount of hand-wringing is both warranted and necessary if the goal is to figure out how to get back to the “good old times” when our moral arc was still climbing.

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