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Dealing With Too Much Information

The idea that telepathy will be like drowning in a sea of voices is by now a cliché in SciFi. Nobody knows whether we might someday develop such mental powers, but right now we already have a form of techlepathy provided by the Internet.

While email and IM allowed one-to-one conversation, people are now using websites, blogs, and microblogging to broadcast their thoughts to anybody who wants to listen. The amazing thing is that people want to listen. The number of interconnections are exploding thanks to Metcalfe’s law.

I’m already having difficulty coping with the flood of information, and I’m mostly following entertainment feeds. What happens when people start using these techniques to keep updated on useful knowledge? Our kids won’t suddenly evolve bigger brains to deal with this. They’ll need to adapt in the way that they handle information.

I’ve always thought of the blogosphere as an information filtering system, like a larger scale version of our minds. The spine doesn’t bother the brain with reflex requests, and the autonomous nervous system doesn’t bother the conscious mind with heartbeat control. You’re not conscious of every movement you use when driving a car.

There’s a natural hierarchy that percolates relevant information upstream to higher level structures, and higher level structures that design and pass down strategies to lower level structures.

The truth is that the blogosphere doesn’t structure itself that way. Maps of the link structure in the blogosphere make it clear that blog communities with tightly interlinked nodes form. These then echo one another in the types of links and news items that they pass on. You see even more evidence of this if you start aggregating a number of feeds within a blog community. People pass on the same interesting stories.

So how will we cope? Strategies are already emerging.

Lifehacker allows you to filter their feed based on the tags attached to the posts. Unfortunately this won’t work nearly as well on the aggregator level, since tagging is inherently chaotic. We’ll need people to use an agreed upon taxonomy before that will start working.

Another method is that Google reader allows me to see items “shared” by my friends. Some of my friends have very specific interests. I know one guy who only passes on alternative medicine debunking articles. Unfortunately not everybody has such a narrow interest when sharing items, and comparatively few of my friends use Google reader.

One possible solution is to combine the two. Filterable feeds by a community of people who each read a limited number of blogs, but tag the items according to a predefined taxonomy. In the process they could act as sources for new items, and filter out duplicates. By forming such a hive mind, they can gain control of the information flow.

Until this happens, I’m cutting back on my feeds. Even an information junkie has his limits.

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