I'm not dumb. I just have a command of thoroughly useless information.
Calvin - It's a Magical World, Bill Waterson
Wired's June 2008 edition included an article entitled 'Quiet Please: how Man-made noises may be altering Earth's ecology'.
The article focused on the theory put forward by Bernie Krause, a field recording scientist, that nature's soundtrack (biophony) is being adversely affected by a louder human-made cacophony (anthrophony). Krause postulates that the animal kingdom divides the acoustic spectrum so it's inhabitants do not interfere with each other. However, human-made noise is increasingly disrupting this harmony and intrudes on a piece of the spectrum already in use - drowning out natures voice.
As an example, Krause summizes that the rapidly declining population of the Yosemite spadefoot toad is due to the noise generated from low-flying military aircraft, performing training exercises in the area. Coyotes and owls are able to home in on individual frogs as they have lost the veil of protection provided by the synchronicity of their calls.
The information flow in the jungle is compromised
Something similar is happening with the explosive adoption of social media tools and the information they generate.
These social media tools now afford the ability to create informational flows of near unbounded proportions from as many sources. So much information threatens to drown out real information of value.
In his book "Here Comes Everybody", Clay Shirky notes that the old process of 'filter-then-publish' has been inverted to 'publish-then-filter' through the adoption of new digital broadcast media by the masses. The inherent simplification and reduction in cost of the publishing process through social media tools has enabled a multitude of 'amatuer' publishers to transmit their work online. The traditional system of publishing only select items has been replaced - a momentous move from where the few decided upon the information that the many should consume. However, with this new freedom, the task of information filtration is now transferred to the consumer.
With this glut of information and the potential for overload, the ability to sift and sort the 'signal' from the 'noise' is key.
Follow the leader
One potential mechanism to address the information overload is to track the digital trail of your peer group. Most social media tools are founded on the very principle of sharing and enable users to see what is of interest to their tribe. A type of group filtering system evolves. The links formed in these social networks imply that information of interest to one of your connections, most probably will also be of interest to you.
Digg is an example of such group filtration in action - content of interest to the general group bubbles to the top. The site further supplements the origial content by facilitating a discussion around it. Delicious allows users to share content they have bookmarked on the web.
Let the Data Talk
In another Wired article, Chris Anderson talks about the Petabyte Age. He notes how large bodies of data can be mined with analytical tools and contextualised. It is
a world where massive amounts of data and applied mathematics replace every other tool that might be brought to bear.
Using Google as an example, he notes how this analysis is used in advertising and translation to generate better results - without applying subject knowledege. Further, Google's search results provide a level of filtration through the application of the PageRank algorithm.
As the data cloud and understanding of these concepts grow, these type of tools will help filter informational value and provide relevant data customised for each user.
The ill-effects of information overload can also be experienced in software applications and websites. All too often, applications are encumbered with feature bloat - overwhelming the end user with too may options and features.
Matt Linderman suggests that we should be:
the sniper who must pick off every distraction, unneeded feature, and extra word that doesn’t absolutely have to be there.
Some of the latest application success stories include tools that focus primarily on one core task. Dropbox provides a seamless experience in sharing, syncing and sharing data. Skitch makes taking screenshots a pleasure. Twitter, the de-facto micro-blogging tool, concentrates on the fundamental process of posting 140 character status updates. In each case, the principal functionality is the focus - provided with simple, yet intuitive design.
The flow of information is only set to increase; as will the need for the skill to sift through this flow. In part, social networks will provide frameworks for data filtration, while new tools will emerge to further help extract the information of value.