Of all the burdens we have to bear in modern society, one of the ones that is growing most is information overload. This is something that has been pointed out for years, and yet new information content is growing–let’s say rapidly (I was going to say exponentially, but I’m not sure if that’s strictly true). Now of course, I think this is a net good thing. I’m sure we’ve all noticed when we’re talking about some topic among some friends and there’s some slight doubt or disagreement about facts and someone whips out their mobile device (I think common courtesy would be to say “let me look that up”–which not everyone does, leaving others to wonder if they are just attending to something else that came to mind). It is as if a new right has been created over the past decade: the right to have one’s curiosity about facts satisfied–immediately! Research it later? Nay, my vague, tangential, incidental, yes trivial interest, should be satisfied and the world is on pause to me while my trifling itch of curiosity is scratched.
Okay, I’m bleeding into sarcasm here, but again, on the whole, access to information is a great thing. But access doesn’t mean we get the information we want, in fact it is happenstance that we often find out about something of interest. Here are three recent examples where this happened to me:
- A while ago I re-watched the whole Netflix series of ‘The Office’. I can never get enough of that show and it’s one of the few shows where I enjoy the reruns. After watching an episode a while back I thought to myself: “Rainn Wilson is an awesome actor–what is that guy up to? Is he doing movies?” So of course I looked it up–I choose Wikipedia, but I could have Googled it, looked at IMDB, etc. It turns out he hasn’t been doing a lot of movies (why not?), but he is had an independent film at Sundance called ‘Cooties’. And recently, I saw an ad for a new comedy-crime drama Backstrom, that he’s starring in.
- Something reminded me of basketball player Allen Iverson a little while ago. The last I remember he was playing for the Denver Nuggets or something, but then I just didn’t hear anything about him. The most disconcerting fact about this is that I didn’t notice that I didn’t hear about him for a long time–until one day I just asked “Where is that guy, I haven’t heard about him in years?” A little research turned up that he had been playing in Turkey & China trying to work his way back to the NBA, and also that in Oct., 2013, he announced his retirement, with his jersey will be retired by the 76ers. Although it’s not a big news story, I missed it completely!
- I recently found out that Mel Brooks is doing a comedy special. To be completely honest, if someone asked me a month ago, “Quick! Tell me whether Mel Brooks is alive or dead”, I wouldn’t have been certain. But having found out about the special, I definitely would want to see the video of it.
Now, what do these examples have in common? That I was somewhat interested in knowing what was going on with these celebrities (and the example can be extended to peoples, places, or things), and had to be triggered by something serendipitous to go look for information about them. Now I know what you may be thinking: there are ways to solve that problem! Just follow them on Twitter, or set up a Google News alert on them, and you’ll be able to keep in touch with what’s happening with them. But the problem is that while there are some things I may want to follow closely, there are a lot more that I want to be aware of, but not follow that much, I mean, I don’t want to know every little thing they are doing–I just don’t want to lose touch with what they are doing for 2 or 3 years. Is there a solution for that?
Look at the illustrative diagram I put together above. The curved line represents the amount of information that’s out there compared to how interested we are in it. The curve goes up, probably exponentially (I feel justified using that word here!) because the # of things we are interested in strongly is much smaller than the # of things we are somewhat interested in, and that is dwarfed by what we have little or no interest in.
Now, how do we find out about these things we have varying levels of interest in? For things of high interest, we can follow them on social media, set up alerts, and so on. How about things that we are somewhat interested in? Well, we can monitor sources where news of interest is likely to come through. We can also associate with groups that may have common interests and hope to hear about things from within that network. Oh, and perhaps easiest of all is when we have maven friends who keep up with everything in a certain area and can update you on significant events. These are somewhat hit-or-miss methods, and for things that are of even less interest, we rely even more on serendipity.
Well, here’s an idea to try to capture this area of lower interest items better, instead of relying so much on serendipity. It is a concept I’ll call “Loosely Following“. This is when you want to follow the news on someone or something, but not very frequently, only when there is some major news, probably only a couple of times a year. So how would this work? Perhaps something like this:
1. You indicate the people or things you want to Loosely Follow. This could be as easy as selecting from a list or copying from someone else’s list. There could also be a button on websites like the following:
2. Next, you could log in to a page that had all of the things you are following, with information presented in an efficient way so that you could scan it for big news. For example, you could be looking at a series of small timeline graphs, one for each person/thing, with perhaps 20-30 timelines on a page. The height of the line on the graph is the # of articles listed on Google News. This can be automated, and the peaks will show relevant news. You could then click on those news articles, or go to Wikipedia, etc. It would essentially be a “Dashboard of Secondary Interest” that you glance at once in a while.
3. Finally, and this might be the key, you could specify an interval (say monthly, quarterly) that you receive a custom generated newsletter showing the big news items for the things you follow. Big news can be defined as a certain # of Google News articles initially, but it is ripe for further algorithmic refinement.
I feel that now we are mostly faced with a choice of somewhat randomly becoming aware of things, or following things closely. What I’m suggesting here is that maybe we need a way to follow some things loosely, at a distance. Now it may be true that most of us get along okay with the way things are, and this sounds like too much effort (specifying what we want to loosely follow, then scanning) to be worth it. And maybe that’s right–for now. But it seems that as we continue to generate information at an ever faster (if not exponential) clip, the number of things we will be slightly interested in will continue to balloon, and we may want to find ways to keep tabs on things without expending the cognitive effort to follow them too closely.