Saturday, 8 December 2007

Managing signal to noise

A couple of months ago, I decided to get stuck in a bit more to the whole social media thing, as a few conversations with other’s that were much more active than me had planted the seed in my mind that I might be missing out on something. Those who know me will realise that this wasn’t so much me getting involved in social media for the first time, as I have been a producer and consumer of blogs for a couple of years now. It was more a case of stepping up a level.

Anyway, I made a real effort to go through the blog rolls of the 20 or so blogs to which I was already subscribed, took recommendations on interesting wikis, and signed up for a bunch more feeds. I also decided to explore the extreme real-time end of social media, and signed up to Twitter.

Fast forwarding to this weekend, I have just deleted my Twitter account and got rid of most of the RSS feeds I had added as part of the exercise.


Well two reasons. Firstly, I just couldn’t keep up with everything. I struggle to stay on top of my incoming email already, so having too many other streams to monitor and sort through just means more time away from the family and ‘real life’ and/or more chance of missing something important. This last point leads me on to the second reason paring things back again – the signal to noise ratio got considerably worse as I expanded my subscriptions beyond the hand-picked sources I had already been using.

One of the particular challenges I encountered was that so many bloggers and Twitterers out there are clearly on a mission or pushing a specific agenda. Nothing wrong with that in principle provided you take what you read with a pinch of salt, and I personally find it interesting and useful to understand the range of views that exists. Unless you are on the same mission, though, such sources quickly become very boring. There are only so many ways of making the case for ODF, for example, and a daily stream of evangelism thereafter is really just noise to most people.

However, with the exception of Twitter, which I struggled to see the point of, I did actually get some benefit from exploring things a bit more widely. I now have a list of blogs and wikis that might not have a high enough level of genuinely new insights to subscribe to on an ongoing basis, but do represent sources to browse from time to time to keep up to speed in certain areas or provide input for research. The difference is that it will be me going to them rather than them coming to me from this point onwards – which is pretty much the way I have been using the Web for the last decade.

So, while I remain a big fan and active user of social media, I have discovered that to me it is the content being exchanged that matters more than the act of communicating itself. Perhaps that makes me relatively ‘unsociable’ in the online sense, but when it’s the socialising that takes precedent, it is only natural that the signal to noise ratio deteriorates.

Again, nothing inherently wrong with this, but just like I all those ‘put the world to rights’ conversations in pubs, small talk and one-upmanship competitions at parties, etc, activities that are primarily about social interaction should not be confused with the production or exchange of useful information. Somewhere in between lies the ‘conversation around the water cooler’ that forms an important part keeping people informed and tuned in, and there are blogs out there that encapsulate this spirit and are therefore very worthwhile subscribing to (e.g. monkchips). Most of the other feeds I am left with are concerned with blogs and wikis that explore issues and debates in an objective, informed and thought provoking manner, with high level of original content - but these are harder to find than I think many social media advocates like to admit.

At the end of the day, it’s all about how you spend your time, so the trick is to find the optimum balance between continuous incoming streams and keeping tabs on the sources of information that are useful to access but on more of an ‘on demand’ basis. The next stop for me on my social media adventure is therefore tagging and bookmarking.