Surfing the Information Tsunami

By: jerry | 07/15/2009

Recently, I was part of a presentation to the team about social media. It's interesting to see how widely varied our knowledge and perceptions as a company of fifty people are. We bring to the equation the biases and limitations of our experience. "Social" means interacting with people; and just because it's interacting online, doesn't mean we're necessarily any better at it—or more comfortable with it—then we are in person.

But that's not really my point. During the discussion following the presentation, one of my colleagues asked about keeping up with and participating in the the ever increasing sources of conversation. It's a problem that I have been wrestling with for the last few months, especially as my focus has turned increasingly toward social media. The textbook answer, and the one I suggested to my colleague, is that we must each decide what is important to us and focus on that. I further suggested that it is ok for a company or a brand or an individual to only participate in those networks and conversations that best engages with their core audience.

That answer, of course, is somewhat glib and facile and ignores the fact that even when culling down the signals to only the most relevant, the flood of data is still more then we can process. So what next? Are better tools the answer? Perhaps. But it is far more likely that fighting the information overload battle with better tools is at best an arms race of cold war proportions. Information is increasing at an exponential rate and new tools are not really keeping up. So what next?

One idea (and it's certainly not a new one) is the concept of editors and curators. Steve Rubel wrote about this a few years ago on MicroPersuasions. In his post Rubel suggests that the difference between a curator and an editor, is that the editor must fill a finite space and the curator seeks only to unearth treasures that fit a purpose or viewpoint. I might extend this to suggest that the editor seeks those things that are timely, while the curator seeks those which are timeless. John Gruber, the noted Mac philospher and pundit, is an editor. His posts are always timely and generally insightful, even when they are short and pithy—or perhaps most often when they are short and pithy. Jason Kottke, on the other hand, is a curator of the "liberal arts 2.0" and a shining example of how a good curator can provide a steady stream of new and relevant content.

Shaun Inman recently launched a new feedreader, Fever, which purports to take "the temperature of your slice of the web and show you what's hot." Based on your personal collection of feeds, Fever calculates which posts are most relevant to you by looking at how many other sites are linking to a particular topic. While an interesting idea, I believe that Fever suffers from two fundamental flaws. One technical and one existential. The technical problem comes from Shaun's decision to make Fever a server based app, thus limiting its utility to programmers, developers and other fellow geeks with the necessary skills and infrastructure to use it. Second, and more importantly, it attempts to determine relevance based on mathematics and relevance is a much fuzzier proposition.

Fever does, however, represent an important step on the journey to machines as editors and curators. But until the singularity, I'll continue to look for the Gruber's and Kottke's to keep me informed and safe from drowning in the information ocean.

Posted in Misc, Social Media, Personal,

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