How to Filter Better

I was at the mall yesterday eating lunch, and I took a moment to listen to the conversations going on around me. They were, without exception, utterly banal. Consequently, I concluded that conversation is a useless tool, and the widespread use of it is nothing more than a symptom of the widespread decline of intellectual discourse, manners, and civilisation as a whole.

Stupid, right? That’s a riff on Clay Shirky’s response to people that complain about the quality of discourse within social networks.

The latest version of that complaint comes from Tom Davenport on the HBR Blog, who asks for us to tweet about something important:

Almost 50 years ago, FCC Commissioner Newton Minow suggested that the then-new medium of television was becoming a “vast wasteland.” One could argue that the same fate is befalling social media.

So here we are again: a promising new medium being used largely for vapid chattering about celebrities. Couldn’t these technologies be used for good?

Here’s an analogy: bird calls. When Nancy and I started birding one of the things that we learned was bird calls. When we’re actively birding, we’re pretty alert to everything, because we want to know where the birds are. However, when we’re working at home, we pay less attention to the calls. And since we’ve got a yard that is pretty attractive to birds, there are a lot of calls.

The vast majority of bird calls don’t contain too much information. The most common form of call is what ornithologists refer to as ‘chip calls’, which are short, brief calls that birds use to let other birds know where they are. It can help them find food (lots of chips in one area), it can keep them from straying from the flock (most of the chips moving further away), and it simply be a Horton-Hears-a-Who type ‘here I am’ call or an ‘everything’s fine’ call. When we’re working at home, we don’t pay any attention to these calls at all.

However, the birds also have a few calls that contain a whole lot of information. We’re particularly interested in the calls that say ‘predator’. That usually means there’s something pretty interesting in the yard, like a Goshawk, or this Carpet Python:

We only got to see that snake because we heard the bird calls, followed them, and found the snake.

So we’re filtering the bird calls in our heads all the time, waiting to find the interesting bits. We need to do the same thing with conversations (well, maybe not the conversations at the mall food courts…), and social networks like twitter. Most of the words used in these media are like birds’ chips. We need to find the words that contain data. How can we do this?

Howard Rheingold is in the middle of putting together of series of tutorials about Mindful Infotention that explain a few different methods that work.

These are fantastic videos that are well worth your time. In the one above, Rheingold makes several important points. He demonstrates the use of several different tools for aggregating and filtering information on a topic that is of interest to you. He has step-by-step instructions that make it pretty easy to track down specific information from streams that are on average not very useful.

Rheingold also talks about two different forms of filtering – algorithmic and personal. He correctly recommends using a combination of the two. Algorithmic filtering includes tools like PostRank, which uses a formula to determine which posts are most relevant to your search. Personal filtering takes place on sites like delicious and diigo, where you can find the pages that the highest number of people have bookmarked, or the pages that specific people have saved. There’s also using your network to help filter.

Rheingold makes an absolutely critical point at the end of the video – it’s not enough to simply aggregate information, and filter it so that you have only the most relevant information. You also have to do something with it! The information is no good unless you connect it up:

The important part, as I stressed at the beginning, is in your head. It really doesn’t do any good to multiply the amount of information flowing in, and even filtering that information so that only the best gets to you, if you don’t have a mental cognitive and social strategy for how you’re going to deploy your attention.

There is a wealth of great information being shared on a constant basis within social media and elsewhere. None of it does us any good at all if we can’t find the bits that are useful to us in solving the problems on which we’re interested in working. But if we filter well, we’ll discover that we actually are tweeting about things that are important.

(I’ll also just note that Howard is currently getting treated for cancer – the prognosis sounds encouraging, and I hope that he pulls through it in good shape.)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

8 thoughts on “How to Filter Better

  1. The bird sounds metaphor not only is appropriate for the twitter wink, but works. Of course looking out your window at a handful of birds is one thing, yet what happens when it is 100, 1000?

    I suggest a third dimension of algorithmic and personal, though now that it write, it might be the latter- and that is serendipity… many of my favorite discoveries are link wandering- 3 links away from something in my RSS reader, or something I find on the sidebar of a link I followed in twitter. It’s kind of like going out for a walk to scout for birds, and not being so deliberate n your choice of paths (Robert Frost analogy fits here too).

  2. Thanks for the comment Alan!

    The issue with bird calls isn’t the number of birds, but the variety – that makes it easier to filter 100s, and sometimes even 1000s – calls that are unique (or that I’ve never heard before) still stand out!

    But I fully agree that serendipity is critical. Following a semi-random path through the web is still an interesting and often fruitful thing to do. The Robert Frost analogy makes the point nicely.

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