Sunday, August 23, 2009

We need more, and better, filters

The problem of information is no longer too little access; it's now too much. As more content is generated in ever-diminishing sizes (from books to magazines to newspapers to blogs to texts to tweets to...?), and as more of it gets put online and made instantly available, the existence of information in usable form becomes more and more useless. What good is the latest awesome article on global warming, if I never see it because it gets buried beneath a thousand new RSS items a day?

While this might be a pretty obvious idea, it has yet to really become a mainstream feature of most major information-consumption tools:
  • Google Reader will either show me every new item, or only those from an individual feed or feeds, but it won't actively filter anything out (or add to my feeds). The result is thousands of feeds of seemingly equal importance, when in reality I only want to read a small number of them.
  • Facebook shows me every update from every one of my friends, but unless I want to spend forever sorting all my friends into groups and explicitly telling it who I want to see updates from, I'll see everything from everyone. My best friend's pictures of his new apartment are, to Facebook, just as worthy of presentation as an inane application invite from someone I barely know. Since Facebook is, to me, primarily useful as a way of finding out what's going on in my friend's lives, this lack of a filter has rendered the site entirely useless for me, and as a result I never use it.
  • Twitter just shows me every tweet from everyone I follow, ordered chronologically. If one tweet has been retweeted a million times, and another one has never been retweeted, Twitter won't make the distinction. The result is that Twitter seems to be tough to scale beyond a few dozen follows at once; I don't know how people who follow hundreds or thousands of others manage to keep up.
  • Gmail, and every other email client, only understands how to order my inbox by recency. Thank god for the personal-level indicators (two arrows for emails sent only to me, one for emails cc'ed to me), but there's got to be more that could be done here.
The point of a filter is to make information useful. I can learn more about what's going on in the world from one minute scanning the front page of Google News (which I work on) than I could from an hour with Reader, Twitter or Facebook. Until those services take advantage of the power of filters, they'll be little more than dumb interfaces for random blobs of text.


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philgo20 said...

One great filter for Google Reader is the PostRank Firefox extension :

It rank feed items based on sical engagement (number of times it was shared on twitter, delicious and a list of social services).

For twitter, you can use Tweetdeck Groups to make sure you don't miss any tweets for the some poeple an d leave ody else in one column that you check once in a while. Not a perfect method, i'd prefer to have a real filter based on interest and engagement, but that helps a lot.

The internet needs more cowbells... and filters !

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