Drinking from the Information Firehose

This piece was published in the Irish Times on the 4th June 2012.

In it I plea for a better dashboard to handle social media, email and the web than the current generation of Flipboard, Tweetdeck, etc…

Do I really need to keep tabs on so much information ?

Weren’t computers meant to improve our capability to manage information? Wasn’t the internet supposed to seamlessly interconnect us? Isn’t the web designed to help us share knowledge?

I don’t know about you, but each time I turn to my tablet or laptop, I get deluged in emails, tweets, alerts, postings and comments flooding onto my screen. The proverbial firehouse threatens my ability to spot what is relevant and a priority, from what is interesting, but please not now, and from what is tame and tedious.

To provide some help in sorting everything out on my tablet, I use Flipboard. It offers a pleasant “flip the page over” style interface for my finger tip, and reasonably seamlessly merges together news and updates from websites which I find interesting, together with a degree of tweets and Facebook postings. It summarises articles by usually presenting in each case a photograph and first few paragraphs; I can then tap my finger to get the rest of the story if I am interested. It sorts information using content guides – I can then read a particular topic when I have time, for example their new content guide for Ireland and the UK.

Unfortunately, Flipboard is not available for my laptop, and so for it I use Feedly. Feedly appears as a button on my web browser, and then sorts and summarises stories from various websites I have asked it to monitor. It does not have the nice “flip over the page” style of Flipboard, but I find its traditional “point and click” interface is fine.

However, neither Flipboard nor Feedly give me a complete overview of everything in which I am interested in the “Twitter-verse”, so for that I use Tweetdeck, which I have on both my tablet and laptop. Tweetdeck lets me set up parallel columns of tweets from different contributors and on different topics, so I can rapidly scan across tweet gossip on a variety of subjects.

Then, of course, there is email. I use a classic email client, Outlook, and I assiduously try to remember to file away important correspondence into particular folders, so that I can quickly recover and review past conversations. Some may think me a luddite to still use email at all, rather than just social media tools. However, I find tweets and posts usually overly terse for many communications, particularly relating to work and business. Furthermore, many people with whom I interact also still use email as their preferred communication tool.

In assessing the information firehouse and the various ways it floods into my tablet and laptop, I ask myself do I really need to keep tabs on so much information? Truthfully, I probably do not need to, but I nevertheless really do want to. I am curious about what is happening in the world, and how people are reacting to events. I look for connections across disparate topics. I seek patterns, matching events and observations.

Contemplating my toolkit portfolio, it would of course be wonderful to have a single, elegant aggregator and organiser. I admire much of Flipboard, Feedly, Tweetdeck, Outlook and similar tools.

But I personally struggle with remembering and later finding interesting snippets which I read yesterday or last week or last month. Outlook does help me here, but only for email, and the other tools do not really do so at all. My browser “history” facility only lists the titles of web pages which I have visited, but does not summarise the content of those pages for me. Google, Bing and other search engines help me find new things to read, but do not always help me retrieve snippets and interesting things which I have looked at in the past. When I use Tweetdeck or Flipboard or Feedly, the search engines do not necessarily know that I looked at particular tweets or posts or even articles, and so have no way of helping me in the future track down those which I found interesting in the past.

Then, of course, there is advertising and digital business models. Sure, I understand the tools which I use need to generate revenue so that they can make themselves available to me for free (with the exception of Outlook).

Sure, I understand that these tools use information about me – and the rest of us – to make money from advertising. We are the product which is then sold to the advertising agencies.  I personally do not have an issue with the proposition of serving adverts to me in return for giving me a free-to-use tool. However, I do have two major disputes. First, please only show me adverts which are relevant to me and my interests, rather than the frequently arcane and obtuse. Secondly, only show me adverts when I actually want to read adverts.  Nothing irritates me more than having my concentration and train of thought rudely interrupted by an in-my-face advert, which also is inevitably completely irrelevant to me. Would I chose to dedicate part of my precious time to sit down and browse adverts, if the rest of my content was always served advert-free?  I believe so, yes, absolutely: there are times when I really do want to consider commercial offers and bargains and interesting new products. As long as they were relevant to my interests and lifestyle, I would definitely spend time browsing my “adverts” stream and channel.

Taming the web firehouse, online digital business models and advertising for the mobile phone and tablet markets are all nascent arts. There remains much innovation yet to be engineered, and there is entrepreneurial opportunity.

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