The information society was defined by Daniel Bell (1976) as a post-industrial society where information leads processes of change and innovation. The constant flow of information in the 21st century is proving him correct. Today, people confront myriad streams of information from an overwhelming number of information channels. In the last decade, the amount of digital information has doubled every year (Jacobs, 2013; Schull, 2018). The information explosion, driven by the rapid development of new information technologies, has changed interactions between people and information and between people and the management of their own personal information (Bergman & Whittaker, 2016; Jones & Teevan, 2007).
Personal information management (PIM) refers to the practices people use to acquire, organize, maintain, and retrieve information items as part of their daily routine (Jones, 2007). The personal experience of people with the vast amount of information available today manifests in changes in PIM practices (Jones et al., 2015), and in the emotions and feelings characterizing this encounter (Cushing, 2012). Most studies have focused on the use of specific PIM practices (e.g., filing and piling, navigating between folders, searching), ignoring the equally important affective aspects. Little work has examined the gaps between actual PIM behavior (how people manage information) and ideal PIM behavior (how people would like to manage information). Nor do previous studies offer a theoretical framework capturing a range of affective interactions between people and information or defining the whole affective experience of PIM.
The study aimed to examine the affective aspects of people’s interactions with personal information and its management, with a sample of male and female participants of various ages. The research had four main goals. The first was to define the characteristics of the gaps between actual and ideal PIM behavior, drawing on Higgins’ self-discrepancy theory (1987). The second was to characterize the affective aspects of PIM and define their frequencies. The third was to examine the relations between the affective aspects of PIM and the use of practices (actual practice, ideal practices, and the gaps between them). The last goal was to define a typology of PIM behaviors and examine the affective aspects relating to them.
A conceptual framework was constructed and validated to examine the affective aspects of PIM. This included the representation of the variables and their relations in two circles. The inner circle described sets of practices for the management of personal information (actual practice, ideal practices, gaps between them). The outer circle comprised the seven affective aspects of PIM: anxiety, efficacy, frustration, desperation, belonging, dependence and loss of control. It included three independent variables characterizing people who manage personal information: use of PIM
platforms, age, and gender. Four research questions arose from the conceptual framework: (1) What is the actual and ideal use of PIM practices and what are the gaps between them? (2) What are the affective aspects of PIM? (3) What are the relations between the affective aspects and PIM practice use (actual, ideal, gaps)? (4) What are the types of PIM behaviors and their characteristics?
A mixed methods approach was used to examine the affective aspects of PIM. This approach enables researchers to draw on the strengths of both qualitative and quantitative methods to deepen the observation of the research questions (Creswell, 2015). Most data were quantitative; the qualitative data were used to support the findings and suggest their meaning (Creswell, 2009). Quantitative data were used for the following proposes: measure actual and ideal practices and the gaps between them; examine the affective aspects of PIM; to define the relations between affective aspects and practices; define a typology of PIM behaviors. Qualitative data supported the findings by describing the affective experience of participants and giving examples of PIM behavior types.
Participants included 465 respondents, 351 female and 114 male, aged 19-73. They filled in two questionnaires developed and validated for the study: a PIM practice questionnaire examining actual and ideal use of 25 practices, and a PIM affective experience questionnaire addressing the seven identified affective aspects. In addition, 16 in-depth one-hour interviews with eight females and eight males were recorded and transcribed. Quantitative data were analyzed via IBM-SPSS statistical software. Descriptive and explanatory procedures included Pearson correlation, t-tests for related and independent samples, two-step cluster analysis, and ANOVA. Qualitative data were analyzed using the Moustakas (1994) content analysis method, including horizontal and cluster of meanings analysis.
Findings revealed that the PIM experience becomes complex for people who manage personal information spaces in a digital, overloaded, and connected world. Participants were unsatisfied with their PIM behavior and wished to conduct more PIM practices that would enable them to reduce clutter and overload in the personal information space. Gaps between actual and ideal behavior were expressed in a complex and intense affective experience characterized by anxiety and frustration on the one hand but by a sense of high efficacy and little desperation on the other.
The first research question examined the gaps between actual and ideal PIM behavior. Findings showed significant gaps between actual and ideal use for most practices. These gaps were mostly positive, revealing that participants wished to use more practices than they actually did and were not satisfied with their PIM behavior. Gaps were extremely large for organizing practices. Women
had larger gaps between actual and ideal behavior; these were related to negative feelings and decreased with age.
The second research question explored the affective experience of PIM. Findings revealed participants had high levels of anxiety when thinking about a possible loss of personal information or a failure of their digital platforms. They felt dependent on their personal information, were concerned about the amount of personal information they accumulated, and questioned their ability to organize it. On a more positive note, they expressed a sense of high efficacy in managing their personal information, seldom felt desperation, and felt more in control of their personal information than expected. Similar to the gender and age differences in the PIM practices, the affective experience was more intense for female participants and decreased with age.
The third research question examined the relations between the affective aspects of PIM and the PIM practice use. Findings showed the affective experience of PIM was correlated mainly with PIM ideal behavior. For example, the more the participants felt anxiety, frustration, belonging, and dependency, the less they deleted information items and the more they filed emails in folders. With increased anxiety and frustration, participants wanted to use PIM practices less.
The fourth research question examined types of PIM behaviors. The cluster analysis indicated four types of PIM behaviors differing by activity level (actual PIM) and satisfaction level (ideal PIM and gaps): passive and satisfied, active and satisfied, fairly active and unsatisfied, and active and fairly satisfied. Types differed in their range of affective aspects and in their use of digital PIM platforms.
Conclusions and implications
The study showed that people do not give up on managing their personal information spaces, despite the growing challenges posed by the information explosion and the divergent, multiple information technologies. However, it is impossible to ignore the intense negative affective experience accompanying PIM, including feelings of anxiety and frustration, or the substantial gaps between actual and ideal PIM behavior. Gaps can motivate people to actively reduce the discrepancies between actual and ideal behavior, but large gaps could harm motivation to manage the personal information space and trigger a more intense experience, especially in the unsatisfied type of information management behavior. The study has implications for research, consumer training, and platform design. Theoretically, it suggests self-discrepancy theory and the theoretical framework of the affective aspects of PIM could be useful in future PIM study and HCI research. In a more practical sense, it suggests principles for a training program to improve people’s PIM literacy skills. Finally, it indicates the need for platform designers to develop affective-sensitive and type-sensitive digital platforms for PIM.