On filters and echo chambers

Posted by on Jun 3, 2011

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Do We Have Too Many Filters, Or Not Enough? Tech News and Analysis:

Will there be people who have such a uniform social graph that any form of social filtering will just allow them to live in an online echo chamber? Of course there will be — but then, those people already exist, and seem to have no trouble living in a cocoon with or without the Internet. Social filters aren’t going to make that phenomenon any worse (J.P. Rangaswami has a very thoughtful post about filtering, and business blogger Tim Kastelle also wrote a great post recently about the virtues of different kinds of filtering).

This has always happened online, going back to the days of USENET where kill files could virtually disappear someone out of the social circles of a group if they didn’t follow the party line well enough. One of the great struggles I’ve seen with mailing lists going back 15 years and more is for a tendency for a list to stagnate over time. I used to look for ways to break that stagnation and try to keep fresh blood entering the community, but one of the side effects of keeping a group of people together for years is they get really comfortable with each other, and whether they realize it or not, they don’t always make newcomers welcome. It may not even be a visible “we don’t want you here”, but a more subtle lack of being welcoming where people just don’t end up feeling comfortable so they don’t tend to stick.

In today’s environments it’s easy to set yourself up so that you only see what you want to see; I think that’s inherent in the unknown and uncomfortable causing stress and as humans, I think most of us unconsciously try to minimize our stress where we can — as such, whether we realize it or not, we filter for the known and comfortable because it’s, well, known and comfortable.

There’s no place where this is more overtly visible than what I like to call the Silicon Valley tech bubble; you know who they are, it’s the high profile A-lister bloggers who are a large part of the group that writes or influences what’s written in the tech and analyst press about high tech, especially here in the valley. This group all watches each other very closely, and stuff found by one tends to circle around to all quickly, and when they get it in their mind that something is (or should be) true, disagreeing opinions rarely get much visibility.

Worse, when they are wrong, the mistakes tend to get quietly buried. Look, for instance, about the hype and predictions leading up to the release of the Verizon iPhone. In the view of many, that was going to be the death of AT&T and that there would be mass riots of AT&T customers chasing Verizon iphones. Could this be influenced by the fact that AT&T networks are particularly bad in some areas of silicon valley and maybe that influenced their thinking? Well, maybe. But that thinking also clearly influences the tech and financial analysts, and the whole “Verizon iPhone diaspora” concept because kind of a running meme in the tech press, until finally, Apple and Verizon actually shipped the damned thing.

And it turns out, it was a nice, modest success on all accounts, but… Where was the massive shift of customers that everyone was predicting? And how many of these people actually stood up and said “well, heck. I guess I got that wrong?” — few. And how many actually analyzed why so much of the predictive coverage of this was wrong? Almost nobody, that I saw. And how many of you actually held them accountable for being wrong and demanded accountability, or stopped reading them because they proved themselves to be more about wishful thinking than real analysis? Hmm.

That’s one problem here. Analysts and writers with frankly pretty lousy track records aren’t held accountable, especially if they’re interesting/fun writers and because we as readers love the rumor/gossip aspect and don’t actually seem to care if any of that is actually correct. There’s a strong aspect of Entertainment Tonight to all of this, which is amusing because many of these folks would pluck out their eyes rather than admit they pay attention to that kind of stuff. Unless it’s in the geek press.

There are a couple of things in play here. One is the tendency over time to focus what you follow away from things that cause stress, meaning a quiet tendency towards narrowing to the comfortable and familiar. On the flip side is what I think is a subconscious worry that you’re going to miss something important, which leads to bringing in more sources and more feeds, which means you’re spending more time going through all that stuff (and skimming, so you’re actually seeing even less detail and capturing less info) — until ultimately, you hit information bankruptcy and blow everything away and start over. Do that two or three times and you probably find yourself and you find youself simultaneously stressed over adding new sources to the things you’re watching (because you’re already overloaded and struggling to keep up already) and also stressing because there’s stuff you wish you could follow if you weren’t already stressing over being overloaded. And once you hit that point, you’re firmly in the grip of your personal echo chamber.

I’ve fought those issues; we all have. I continue to, but I feel like right now, I have things set up in a way that I’m comfortable with and which seem to be working pretty well. And I figured some folks might find how I simultaineously fight the echo chamber while avoiding information bankruptcy useful as hints to adopt into your own information surfing workflows… So here are a few thoughts on what I’m doing today:

(1) If it’s important to me, it will be brought to my attention. This is a core concept to get your head around; it’s the core of all of these social networks we’re in, yet one of the hardest lessons I had to teach myself was that I didn’t actually have to find all this stuff myself, but to relax and leverage the networks I’ve built myself into. This is easier said than done, but I think it’s very true: if you touch the right points in the network, then stuff you should know will end up being within your attention space. And if it doesn’t, you probably didn’t need it. Those exceptions you will run into (because no network is perfect) are those places where you need to figure out how to tie into the right networks to get  that information the next time). Embrace this concept, and you will likely wave bye-bye to bankruptcy forever, because you are embracing leverage over sheer volume.

(2) Budget by time, not size or number. I finally got over the “how many feeds can I read?” mindset. It ignores things like how busy a feed is and how noisy a feed is; you can’t treat a feed that updates weekly but is full of gems the same as some of the sites that post 30 articles a day, 20 of which are crap. I finally realized what mattered was time, so I budget time: my goal, about 90 minutes of surfing for information a day. If you come up with a budget for how much time in a day this is worth to you, you can start adjusting what you do to maximize the value of that time investment. I don’t know about you, but time is the one commodity I can’t flex and the one I very much tend to need to be creative about. If time were available in packages at Lowe’s, my credit cards would be maxed permanently.  So decide how much time you are willing to invest in this, and then that gives you permission to explore (if you’re under) and makes you edit (if you’re over); and through the editing you’ll keep yourself pro-actively away from bankruptcy.

(3) At the end of the day, throw it all out and start over. How often do you find yourself around someone who fires up Google Reader and it shows they have 1,000 unread articles? 10,000? And they peck at a few things and then leave the rest of that mass there, and rpobably say something apologetic. They’re in bankruptcy and won’t admit it. The amount of time they’re willing to commit is clearly smaller than the wad of information they’re trying to process, and they’re choking on it. They are in reality editing (by picking stuff on the fly) without editing (by leaving the rest behind in this faux fantasy they may catch up soon). And they’re stressing themselves out by doing so. So my suggestion: at the end of the day, if it’s not read, mark it all read and move on. Start fresh tomorrow. Remember point 1; if it’s important, it’ll be brought to your attention. Of course, if you’re that far overloaded, you may be too overloaded to see that it was. Which is why you need point 4.

(4) Edit. Ruthlessly. Often. Whenever you start falling a bit behind, start dropping things out of your feeds. Find the things that are least useful, least interesting — the least value for your precious time commodity — and unsubscribe them. don’t just mark them read, mark them gone. How often do you look at at site you’re following and wonder why you subscribed? Or the last time you got a useful article from it? Or clicked through a link to  something? Or did you research how to write web apps in Dec/RSTS three months ago and are all of those feeds still in there even though you ended up adopting Node instead? Edit. Edit. Edit. Even if the feed you drop is mine, drop it. seriously, I won’t mind. Think of ever piece you’re committing to follow as needing an ROI, where there’s an investment of time and a return of information of value. Anything that doesn’t meet that ROI that isn’t a boss, co-worker, spouse or your mother’s blog, should go (there will always be a need for VIP sites, of course). Think about it this way: the act of editing what you read can be intimidating because the process of going through all of those feeds can be time-consuming, and time is what you’re most missing anyway. If you get in the habit of editing out low-value feeds on the fly, one here, a couple there, you won’t hit a time where it all overwhelms and becomes a big hairy monster. And you can build the habit such that as you’re going through things, you’ll find yourself mentally suddenly do a sanity check: “when was the last time this site gave me value?” and if you can’t answer it, you drop it. And by building that habit, you’ll find your feed management almost becoming automatic within the time you’ve budgeted; if you start spending too much time in the feeds, you’ll edit more seriously, if you’re well in your time budget, you won’t. but by building that habit, you may hit a point where you rarely even notice your time budget any more; it becomes almost automatically self-sustaining.

(5) Fresh Blood. Lots of it. Always be adding new things to the mix; don’t be afraid to audition a feed. About 80% of the feeds I add get removed again within a month, but that’s okay. Many times I’ll check something out because of a particularly interesting piece someone linked to, but I don’t see much else that keeps me interested. Rather than continuing to skim and hope, I know if something else really interesting pops up, I’ll get told about it, so that’s okay. Also, don’t forget that your interests and needs and skills change over time; as I’ve grown as a photographer, the list of sites I follow on photography has changed by about 80%.; that’s not because those sites stopped being good or interesting, it’s because I stopped being their demographic and I started wanting different kinds of information to feed on. That’s good, but adapt your feeds to it, don’t just keep stuff around because it was useful once….

That’s another aspect of the edit ruthlessly; it not only helps you avoid bankruptcy, it gives you permission to explore ruthlessly, too. That’s how you avoid echo chambering yourself. My typical pattern seems to be that I subscribe to a number of feeds roughly equal to 5% of my feed collection every month. Most of those don’t survive the month, but many do. Along the way, I drop out weak feeds that come to my notice, but not as many as I add. Eventually (it seems to happen about every two months) I decide I’m spending too much time on all of this stuff, and I go in and do some more enthusiastic editing that typically takes me back to about 80% of my time budget. Note that all of this is thought of in terms of time expended and the value received for that investment in time — but if you want a raw number, my Google Reader subscriptions tend to cycle around 400.

You can almost think of it as an agile process; lots of short iterative acquisition/editing cycles instead of massive binge/purge projects.

And the core determining value is a simple one, in theory: are you getting a good return on the investment of your time? If the answer is no, then you need to adjust and edit until you do.

Of course, that’s still easier said than done, but I’ve found it definitely worth doing…  And if this helps, great. If not, well, maybe this site isn’t a good investment of your time… (grin)