Info Overload or Filter Failure? Introducing FilterJoe

Since 2001, I’ve noticed a trend: People are gradually getting less productive, efficient, and focused, caused in large part by an ever growing list of technology distractions.

Checking email.  And facebook.  And RSS, IMs, SMSs, Twitter . . .

email, facebook, RSS, IM, SMS, twitter . . .

To this point, many articles on the subjects of information overload, Internet distractions, and declines in reading and focusing abilities have appeared during the past few years. Some of the more interesting ones are here, here and here.

Where is the Information Overload Blog?

While many like to comment or complain about information overload, there isn’t much in the way of resources for teaching people how to deal with it. Sure, there are a few blogs one can point to for getting tips on improving the situation. My favorite is zenhabits, devoted to simplifying your life so that you can focus on the relevant. And there are a number of quality blogs with productivity tips, such as lifehacker and mashable. But no blog or forum specializes in the specific issues I have in mind, so far as I know.

It’s Here!

So here is FilterJoe, dedicated to helping you “find what you need” and “focus on your work”—to be a starting point for you to enhance your ability to effectively focus, process information, and get work done: Joe’s filters for the average Joe. Initially, content will relate to the following subjects:

  • reducing Internet/computer distractions
  • tools to reduce distraction and how to use them (password managers, clutter-free browsers, etc.)
  • improving online reading, writing, email, etc.
  • staying focused
  • wise gadget use
  • finding/filtering information

Rapidly Changing Technologies

The passion I’ve developed for this topic brings together ideas I’ve had for years, and especially the last year, about how rapid technological progress can lead to unintended, undesirable consequences. Case in point: the car alarm. An extra theft deterrent is a great idea, but unfortunately most car alarms are so easy to set off that they are now routinely ignored. Thanks to insurance company incentives, most cars now have them, so the net effect of this new technology is to cause much more noise pollution in return for a slight decrease in auto theft. Probably not what was initially envisioned.

The technology with the largest impact that is changing the most rapidly is the proliferation of ways to get information on the Internet. There are many ways this is obviously good, such as instantly accessing encyclopedic reference information or the solution to an obscure technical issue. But the ease of accessing and generating information has also led to an explosion of new content and methods of access. It is much easier to waste time and lose focus than it is to harness all this information efficiently and productively. Better filters are needed.

So Why does the World Need FilterJoe?

The inspiration for both the title of this blog, and the motivation to start it, comes from a thought provoking interview with Clay Shirky (Part 1, Part 2). There is much of interest in this lengthy transcript, but the key piece for me was the relationship between information overload and how people filter information.

Library of Alexandria Reconstruction

Library of Alexandria (Source: Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, 1980)

Shirky correctly points out that there has been more information than any single human being could possibly know since the creation of the library of Alexandria. But over the ages, filtering mechanisms have developed which allow people to get relevant information, without getting overloaded by details. Examples of useful information filters are:

  • card catalogs
  • news publishers
  • social networks

Shirky argues that the best way to view the difficulties arising from recent rapid technological change is not “information overload,” but rather “filter failure.” Filtering mechanisms have not yet caught up with the last decades’ worth of innovations in generating and delivering information. Card catalogs and traditional news publishing now only cover a fraction of available information.

So what we need is not less information, but better filters. This blog is an effort to provide one such set of filters, “Joe’s filters,” that will hopefully be of use to a broad audience of anyone who is hoping to make better use of today’s technology without getting overwhelmed or overloaded.

How Can FilterJoe Help?

To help be part of the solution, rather than the problem, I will attempt to:

  • Present information and filters that are both effective and simple to set up and use
  • Avoid complex solutions that require scripting or a great deal of learning
  • Avoid solutions that require big habit change
  • Keep this blog easy to read and free of distraction
  • Emphasize content quality over quantity
  • Harness group wisdom from comments and emails I receive to drive improvements to the site and ideas for future content

How Can You Help?

If you find my posts interesting or helpful, please subscribe via RSS. Please share via comments any insights or questions you have on specific posts of interest.

Initially, I will be the sole editor and moderator, generating all content. But I welcome on-topic guest posts and ideally this will turn into a group with many active discussions and contributions from others. Social networks have always been one of the most effective information filters, and are likely to continue to be so for the foreseeable future.

Filed in category: Uncategorized.

6 Comments

  1. March 21, 2009 at 11:13 AM

    Looks great Joe! Also a very interesting subject to tackle. I’ll bet you can’t get E.G. to spend less time on Facebook though! I also know a few people that really have trouble sifting through the results of a simple Google search without ending up on the internet for two hours just to find a meaningful (and credible) link. My challenge these days, as the construction and start up of a new business and commercial kitchen necessarily entails, is the shear quantity of new things I need to learn, find, shop for, apply for, and research in order to achieve my goal of less computer time, more time creating food for people. Good luck with your blog – hope it doesn’t become too big a distraction for you!

    P.S. The subscribe to link at the bottom of the page is quite hard to find since there is so much extra space at the bottom of the page – maybe you could put it in the side bar or figure out how to tighten up the space at the bottom.

  2. March 21, 2009 at 11:43 AM

    Thanks for your comments, Anita. The large space at the bottom and the RSS link below that was a deliberate part of my experiment: is it possible for a site to be almost as easy to read as a book? I put RSS at the bottom because I figured it is something you only need to use once, as opposed to navigation which is used repeatedly. Based on your comment, I’m putting it back up on top where I had it before – hope things don’t look too cluttered, now . . . :-)

    My next article to appear soon will be on site design – and I hope to get many more comments like yours. While site readability is my #1 priority, I need to keep usability in mind as well.

  3. Jim Kloss
    March 21, 2009 at 11:14 PM

    I agree that there’s a lot of whitespace between end of entry and true bottom of page. RSS feeds are typically subscribed to via the RSS icon in Firefox URL line (or IE’s toolbox bar) as the RSS standard has taken hold – I seldom look for a “subscribe here” link anymore but just click the nice icon provided by RSS autodiscovery (http://www.rssboard.org/rss-autodiscovery)

    But the real reason I’m writing this comment is to see if the spam filter leaves me alone. I have my website URL filled out. And I included one link (to the rssboard.org site above) to see how sensitive the filter is.

    Oh, and to comment on Anita’s comment (ignoring the Facebook comment which I agree with completely) I find that Google Reader is an incredibly efficient way to keep up with what interests me daily. E.G., not being a “skimmer”, tends to get bogged down in Reader. It’s interesting how people vary in their ability to filter words / headlines / paragraphs on the screen.

  4. Yael Golton
    March 29, 2009 at 8:28 AM

    Loved “Introducing FilterJoe”
    Should’t it be placed on your home page?

    Yael

  5. March 30, 2009 at 9:30 AM

    Blog home pages usually show recent posts, in reverse chronological order, and FilterJoe will be no exception. However, I partially implemented your suggestion: If you click on “About” you’ll see a brief description of the blog and a link to the article, “Info Overload or Filter Failure? Introducing FilterJoe”

  6. March 30, 2009 at 9:38 AM

    Jim and Anita – I took your suggestions and did two things: eliminated the white space at the bottom and moved RSS links to the upper right.