Filter Failure

I started following Thomas Vander Wal’s FriendFeed a week or so ago, and noticed that he had linked to a presentation from Clay Shirky at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York from back in September (I think, I just did a cursory Google search to try and date the presentation)

The title caught my eye, because I’m just now emerging from what feels like weeks on end of my own coding. I’m bridging our “employee directory” (and identity/authentication) tool to our list service, and in the process re-creating a lot of the same kinds of community aggregation of activity that’s become de rigueur. It’s perhaps one part reinvention of the wheel and one part shaping that wheel for our particular wagon.

So, I’ve been thinking about Activity Lists, and all the information we are tracking and how much it is, and what I can do to mitigate what I know will be coming with the same old lament, time and again about “information overload” from a lot of the faculty I come in contact with in my job. How can I help ease that? Or present the information in more manageable chunks?

It’s the opening preamble to to Clay’s talk. Which goes on for a bit, but it’s the first time in recent memory that I actually stayed glued to the screen for 20 minutes. And that’s saying a lot. ( I don’t typically have the patience to sit through 20 minutes of anything, much less a tech talk — my wife even noticed because she was in the same room while I listened to it all). But maybe this information is different, and a talk on Information, privacy, and colliding worlds in higher ed. can hold me for 20 minutes.

(Although, Clay uses “right” like most of us use “um” — and honestly, it got distracting as hell later in the talk, but um, er, I digress.)

While I disagree with Shirky somewhat that the problem/issue of privacy controls is a new one — I was pretty fascinated with the the summary statement of the presentation — information overload really isn’t a condition — it’s just a fact that we we are swimming in information — and have been for quite some time, since Gutenberg really. And that the change in publisher-mediated filtering that has happened with the advent of the Internet requires us to rethink the problem — not of taming information, but how to implement filters. And when we complain — it’s not the information, it’s our filters.

This hit home for me recently — back in September actually — when I complained in Twitter about reaching an information saturation point

(and it was pretty funny that Kevin bookmarked a bunch of dents and a post after that about Information Overload being a farce.

(editor’s note — which is really weird because I’m the editor — but I’m leaving my original sentence above even after fact-checking myself, because it’s both telling AND funny. Kevin bookmarked an article about it being a “cop-out” — which I never read — and only in going to look for Kevin’s quote did I see the article is about the same Clay Shirky presentation I’m commenting on now — It’s a small, incestual internet after all, it’s a small… farce, cop-out, close enough)

I adore information. I eat live and breath information. I’m the quintessential modern era “knowledge worker” — taking it in and sending it along as fast as I can. My tolerance for multiple streams is pretty high. But it was a complete cop-out to complain about saturation.

I wasn’t saturated, my filters failed. I was getting the same exact stuff from twitter, friend feed,, etc. And I was having a devil of a time adapting to the duplicates. (somewhere in the back of my mind is the mantra of “I see everything twice.” from Catch-22).

I had to adjust. And that’s the theme — and the challenge. Putting a cork in information flow, ever since Gutenberg, has been useless. You can’t control it. We’ve never been able to control it, but we spent 500 years pretending we could and building Academies and Bureaucracies to do it. And the internet came along and created a whole new perceived set of problems that some in the Academy (and even more in the Corporates) are trying to figure out how to control — trying different hardware and software games to still control publication.

Instead of rethinking the problem.

My personal example highlighted this for me — it wasn’t about too much information, it was about personal workflow. I set myself up for my own problem with the duplicates. And solving it was about reorganizing how I got at the information.

Back to my own apps — it’s not that I’m collecting too much, or displaying too much (maybe the defaults can be tweaked) — but more in that the freedoms to personally filter what’s there is key.

I don’t have any more answers than Clay postulated in his talk. And I’m not really adding anything with this post other than my own Eureka! moment that I’m going to be rethinking the problem in terms of filters (and personal filters) rather than publication control. Because I definitely think he’s on to at least a glimpse of what the real issue is.

It’s not the bits, it’s how you personally arrange them into bytes (and enable others to do the same).