Combating satisficing through relevance: Facebook, Reddit, and beyond

by Clayton Hayes, Head Editor, INALJ North Dakota

Combating satisficing through relevance: Facebook, Reddit, and beyond

clayton.hayesThe increased availability of information online has presented information seekers with an often overwhelming array of sources to choose from. This (along with other factors) has led to a growing concern in the academic world with satisficing. Satisficing, put briefly, is the tendency of information seekers to pick the first source they come across that satisfies a bare minimum of requirements. I think it would be fair to say that librarians are usually concerned with satisficing as it applies to student research. The classic example of satisficing is the use of Wikipedia; a student performing research may choose to look up their topic on Wikipedia and, though the article may link to other information sources, the student will choose Wikipedia as their source because it is convenient and contains enough information as they feel is necessary.

This is not to say that I have anything against Wikipedia. I think it’s an excellent information source and, as one of my Library School professors often said, it is sometimes the best source available on some topics.

I am actually more concerned with the way satisficing is addressed by librarians and other information professionals. Students are told not to use Wikipedia on assignments, to determine whether or not a particular website is an appropriate resource, to look for bias on the part of the author or authors. These are all very important concepts, but do they affect the information seekers in any meaningful way? How likely is it that these concepts, when presented to students through the lens of academia, will stick after they leave the classroom?

There are places, though, where people must deal with difficult information-related choices on a daily basis. Places where satisficing runs rampant and few, if any, attempt to stop it. There are two in particular which I have chosen to use as examples: Facebook and Reddit (specifically the “Today I Learned” subreddit).

Though some reports indicate that Facebook may be decreasing in popularity with teenagers, the arguments presented below apply to various social media services. The situation is a common one:

There is a popular video being shared around Facebook. A friend of yours has posted a link, not to the video itself, but to a website that has the video embedded within an article about the video. You would like the share the video with your friends. Your choice is to then either “share” the link that your friend has posted or to find the original video (probably on Vimeo or YouTube) and link directly to that. Either one will satisfy your main requirement, that the video is accessible through your Facebook wall, and there are good reasons to make either choice. If you like what is said in the article to which your friend has linked, it makes sense for you to link to that article as well. Linking to the video directly will allow your friends to watch the video without navigating away from Facebook, and will require less effort on their part.

The former seems to me to be the most common course of action taken, and I suspect that this is due to satisficing more than anything else. It is the easier of the two options for the information user making the choice, requiring only a single click, and satisfies their minimum requirements as noted above.

This example, along with similar ones that arise in other social media services, provide a means by which librarians (and other information professionals) can address the concept of satisficing in a way that is likely more relevant to learners. I think that if information users can begin to see satisficing as it exists in their everyday lives, they will be better equipped to recognize satisficing when it occurs in their academic endeavors. One more click is often all it takes to move from a less-desirable information source (such as the article in the above example) to one that is more desirable (such as the video itself).

Teaching information seekers the mantra of “one more click” (though technically inaccurate in some cases) provides them an easy-to-accomplish goal that trains them to put more consideration into what they want out of information sources. In particular, it is immediately applicable in the “classic” case of Wikipedia. Articles will often feature links to cited sources, and one or two more clicks will allow information seekers to evaluate those sources directly.

These examples can help learners make a connection between satisficing and their everyday lives, but good instruction should include some way to assess their learning in an authentic manner. That is where the Today I Learned subreddit (often abbreviated TIL) may be of use. For those unfamiliar, Reddit is a website that allows users to post links to content which other users then vote up or down depending on whether or not they approve of the content. The site is organized into “subreddits” that feature various themes. In the TIL subreddit, users post interesting or surprising facts which they’ve recently come across and provide a link to their source.

Learners could be asked to navigate to the site, to pick a claim that seems interesting to them, and then evaluate the source of information used. Asking them to judge the quality of the source, whether or not it adequately supports the claim being made, and whether or not there might be a better information source available can help to reinforce the concerns surrounding satisficing. There is also another underlying lesson: many of the site’s users will vote up content with an interesting title without actually consulting the linked source. Asking learners to reflect on this fact may lead them to a deeper understanding of information seeking behavior on the web in general and their own information seeking behavior in particular.

This is much more authentic than showing students purpose-built sites like or’s Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus site. TIL will feature different content each time it is visited, offering more of a variety for instructors and for learners. Allowing users to select a claim that is of interest to them can make the lesson more personal, something that will help the lesson stick. The TIL site will occasionally feature mature content, however, and the target audience should be taken into consideration when determining the suitability of the site for use.

The Internet is full of examples like these, it only takes a bit of outside-of-the-box thinking on the part of the instructor. Some are more suitable to certain audiences than others, but examples can be found that will suit just about anyone if their information-seeking behavior is taken into consideration. Relevance is what’s important, and developing information literacy instruction sessions that reflect learners’ everyday lives instead of tying them to academic research may allow us to help learners on a grander scale.