It’s not Information Overload. It’s Filter Failure

Thank you Daniela for pointing me to Clay Shirky’s keynote at Web 2.0 Expo last week in New York. In it, Clay gives a talk on Social Networks, Lifestreaming, and Privacy. It’s a timely talk as lifestreams go mainstream. I’m really happy to see someone like Clay talking about the social impacts of lifestreaming and the crudeness of the tools we have to manage them.

Some quotes to give context.

The problem is that “managing” your privacy settings is an unnatural act. It’s not something that anyone is good at setting up or doing. Prior to the present day, the only person any of us could name that had anything you could call privacy preferences was Gretta Garbo. Privacy is a way of managing information flow.

The inefficiency of information flow wasn’t a bug, it was a feature. The guarantor of privacy was simply that it was difficult to say things in public.

How do you control what you publish so that simple updates such as the one used in Clay’s talk, that you’ve gone from having a relationship to now being “single” goes to the folks you want to know without being blasted out to everyone connected to you via your lifestream? Clay’s point is that the manual settings to control privacy are not intuitive and all it takes is one slip up to cause irreversible damage.

Facebook’s News Feed Equalizer UI (2007)

On the flip side, we’ve all heard that everyone is famous for 15 people. It’s now trivial to share your online activity across multiple services so that anyone and everyone can tune into your lifestream and keep up with every bookmark, blog post, photo, and status message you ever make. Keeping up with your friends is as easy as clicking a subscribe or add contact button.

It’s no longer the effort of publishing that is the filter. First with blogs and now with lifestreaming, publishing is so easy that we now have too much to process. As I said back in April, the new challenge is coming up with the right filter. Once you’ve pulled together all your personal and professional contacts into a single feed, how do you make sense of it all? Just as I used to worry about missing an important post that lay buried in my collected RSS subscriptions, how do you make sure you catch what is going to be important without having to spend time getting distracted by the tangential stuff that comes along for the ride?

Contexts are going to be the key inputs. Are you at your desk? Are you looking at your feeds via a dedicated client such as a feedreader or are you looking at a thin sliver via something like Gmail webclips? Maybe you’re looking at a particular post and want to see if any of your work colleagues have posted something or left a comment. Are you on a phone with some down time between meetings? Or are you disconnected from the web on a cross-country flight and want to catch up on industry news?

All these contexts can be accommodated but they need to read from the same source or be synchronized in some way to keep you from reading the same thing twice. Even better, if something comes up more than once in different contexts, that could be a signal telling you that you really should read post you’ve passed by in another context.

MyBlogLog, Friendfeed, and others are building the master feed – I’d love to hear from others on what types of contextual filters can be built on top of those feeds to goose the relevance.

Cognitive Surplus will free up time to

One of the best talks at this year’s Web 2.0 Expo was Clay Shirky on Cognitive Surplus. In it he suggests that modern television is a, “cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat.”

He concludes after describing how a child spent a few minutes looking for the mouse connected to her living room television;

Here’s something four-year-olds know: A screen that ships without a mouse ships broken. Here’s something four-year-olds know: Media that’s targeted at you but doesn’t include you may not be worth sitting still for. 

The ironic thing is that I was stuck in the hallway and missed this talk. I read Clay’s transcript and was moved. But watching him deliver his talk on video was even more impactful (for instance, listening to the collective, “Ahhh!” from the crowd when he delivers the lines quoted above).

As with many involved in the tech industry, I watch very little television but when I do, it’s mediated by timeshifting technology that lets me watch it on my own terms. It’s either on Tivo or filtered through social pointers such as Jeremy’s blog post which determine which videos I invest time to watch.

“The web is in its infancy,” says Tim Berners-Lee and looking at the tools available to manage information flow it’s easy to see why. We’re shifting from a time of channel surfing to web surfing but the evolution from web portals to something more dynamic and efficient has only just begun. The vast wealth of information is still intoxicating and we constantly jump around afraid we’re going to miss something. What’s going to happen when we wake up from this second, “collective bender” and use our spare time to improve the world around us.

Then we will have the capacity, as Tim O’Reilly challenges us, to “wrestle with angels.”