December 4, 2007

Managing Information Overload or Incremental Relevancy

I was asked the other day in an email how I manage information overload. I think it is a really important topic and one that I could probably improve a lot upon in my own activities, if I focused a little more on it.

When I think about information overload, I usually start thinking about the vast amounts of information that comes to me or I wade through on a daily basis that is basically "junk". That is not just the obvious junk mail or even vast amounts of trial and error that occurs when searching or researching on the web (i.e. Google or Yahoo), but the junk information that comes in the form of posts or comments within the groups that interest me, but aren't talking about things I care about today or in the precious minutes of my day when I have time to check out my email, RSS feeds, or social networks that I belong to.

Some talk about this as the signal to noise ratio. How much information do you have to weed through to get to the highly relevant content that you really want?

What I do to produce "incremental relevancy" which I hope leads to incremental productivity improvement is to try to tweak my daily (continual) information management practices through both automation and structure within these communication tools.

Email

Email is currently the default form of electronic communication in most organizations. Some believe and I tend to agree that email is broke and its associated actions tend to be rude, but because it has become the primary means of communication, you can't ignore it. So, I tend to try to make it as efficient as possible. I monitor two accounts, a work account (which I use Outlook 2003 or the Exchange Mail client) and a gmail account. With the Outlook/Exchange-based account I have been overloaded with spam because the account has been listed publicly on the web for years and I have about 9 years of email newsletters that I have joined. This listing range from elearning industry groups to technology groups, to marketing groups. So the "noise" is very high in this account. There is a very small percentage of email in the account that is useful, however, those that are useful, tend to be mission critical and cannot be overlooked or ignored.

My strategy here is to try to allow the mail filters in Outlook to catch most of the spam. It has been somewhat effective, but nothing like the gmail spam filter that is incredibly reliable. I try to delete those non-relevant emails that don't get filtered out, but this is a source of frustration. It takes too long to rid the inbox of these items.

RSS
The next tool that I use for information gathering is an RSS Reader. I use Google Reader because it is fast and functional and web-based, allowing access from anywhere on the web. I am fairly liberal with the Feeds that I add to the my Reader so I have 271 subscriptions generating just under 5000 posts a month. I can run into frustration with this level of content or flow. If I can't keep up, I can get behind on a couple thousand posts. At first glance this can be paralyzing.

Some strategies that can be used with this "river" of content is labels or folders. You can categorize feeds of information by topic or category. I have also noticed that there are different types of feeds and I tend to deal with them separately. There is the standard blog post feed that comes fairly regularly and typically contains some level of content. These are typically ones that I want to read, but take some time to get through. There is also search feed, these feeds are typically vanity searches or keyword searches that I use to monitor the web for topics of interest. They tend to have very high noise. Finally, I have some monitor feeds, these feeds typically alert me of an event. Someone updated a wiki, posted a comment, logged into an application, posted a resource to Del.icio.us. This type of feed typically just needs a quick scan to look for interesting resources then I can move on. However, event-based are extremely useful particularly in social situations to give you a near-realtime notice without the overhead of email.


A strategy to deal with information overload from RSS feeds is to categorize by topic and type of feed. That way if you have a series of blog posts that you know you want to take some time later and read, put them in a folder that you don't have to get to zero unread items. By putting monitor feeds in a single folder you can quickly review and click "Mark all read" with very little overhead. My understanding is that some tools are allowing you to subscribe to just the top 5% of a feed based on relevancy. If accurate this would be a very cool tool.

Social Networks
Another source of information on the web and a potential place for information overload is social networks. I am a member of several social networks and sub-groups within those networks. For me these include Facebook, LinkedIn, and TwoBrains. I have a few smaller networks that I try from time to time, but these are my primary sources. The value of the social network is the social interaction that you get from like minded people. However, you can spend considerable time monitoring the site.


To assist in monitoring social networks, use RSS whenever possible. Although I haven't figured out how to do this with Facebook. Maybe someone else has, let me know.


My final comment is that I become much more productive once I got my mobile phone that allowed me to engage these tools during any available down time. I try to do a lot of filtering via my Treo while I am in line at the store, waiting for an oil change, or waiting for a meeting to start. This allows me to focus a lot of my time at a computer on engaging in the content I am interested in and not just filtering information.


I'll bet there are a lot better ideas out there then mine. Do any of these activities resonate with you?

8 comments:

  1. Can definitley relate, especially to the newsfeed overload.

    I read recently in one of my feeds (from 43 Folders) that a good way to avoid this is to folder your feeds the same way you read them - Can't miss, News, Skip these etc.

    Have also been making use of filtering in gmail with the labels feature. I have a 'bacn' label (bacn is spam you've asked for ie newsletters etc.). Which filters for domains (e.g. facebookmail.com) and labels it 'bacn'. then all I have to do is click on the label and I can quickly scan down the list and see of anything is relevant and how many sheepthrowers there are. Then click select all and delete - easy!

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  2. Great idea Tom. I love 43 Folders. I'll have to use the bacn label. Thanks for the the suggestion.

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  3. A minor terminological point, but I wonder why you've chosen the word "relevancy" rather than "relevance", the standard noun form of "relevant"? I've seen "relevancy" chosen consciously in some disciplines where the meaning is somewhat distinct from "relevance", but am not sure how that would apply here.

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  4. Most people don't use RSS or subscribe to social networks (for information purposes). Your strategies sound valid but they are directed at yourself not so much the common man.

    Would be interesting to hear how people should deal with global media, 155 cable channels, advertising embedded in EVERYTHING, etc.

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  5. Rick --

    Interesting question. As you can probably tell, I am not a real wordsmith. (I'm not even sure if wordsmith is one word or two.) Incremental Relevance may be a more appropriate. I am thinking that you are correct. Thanks for the comment and causing me to reflect.

    Nicky --
    It is true that I was completely describing my own approach, but my goal was to try and learn what others do, by sharing my own experiences. I have no real evidence of what the "common man" does, but I would be surprised if there isn't a large percentage of those involved in social networks using RSS. I also would love to hear how other people deal with the large amounts of mass media.

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