Information Filtering

I wrote yesterday about my new use of Twitter (you can follow me at @TactPhil). A lot of people who start using Twitter feel like “they can’t keep up” with all the postings. Sasha Dichter wrote yesterday about feeling “overwhelmed,” not just by Twitter, but my information overload in general. Sasha linked to this great video that suggests that no matter how overwhelmed with information you feel, the reality is that the overload is exponentially more than you know.

There are probably two types of people in the world. Those who watch that video and feel a sense of dread and those who watch it and feel excited.

I’m one of those who feels excited and inspired when I watch it.

It used to be that if you were a smart person who wanted to be “in the know” and make good decisions, you were best served by seeking out as much information as possible. When I say that “it used to be,” I mean from the beginning of human history until about four years ago. The video points out that more information will be generated in 2009, than was created in the past 5,000 years. That a weeks worth of the New York Times holds more information than most Americans living during the 18th century were likely to encounter in a lifetime.

How is it possible that we operate when the amount of information is growing at an exponential rate? The key is filtering.

Today, smart people who want to be “in the know” need to figure out how to filter the information fire hose. The challenge is not finding information, but finding trusted “filters” and then absorbing information through them while ignoring the rest.

If you look at my blogroll of “Blogs I read every day”, you’ll see a set of filters I use to track what’s going on in philanthropy. Filters can be people, publications, web tools, etc. The key is that they allow you to separate the “noise” from the “signal”.

Twitter has become one way for me to filter valuable “signals” about philanthropy from the general cacophony of “noise.” There is a tradition on Twitter called Follow Friday, where users share with each other their favorite people to “follow” (on Twitter, you can choose who you “follow”, ie. whose updates you see). One way to think about Follow Friday is “filter sharing.” So today I’m sharing some of my favorite Twitter Filters:

Lots of people feel like Twitter takes a lot of time. But I actually think it is a time saving filter system. Because I am building a set of trusted filters who post lots of interesting news, overtime I have less need to browse broader sets of information looking for things relevant to me. Of course that highlights the danger of filters. You need to evaluate them constantly while always keeping an eye out for new filters. Otherwise you run the risk of simply limiting your world view and missing the shifts that are occurring around you.


  1. @sinatraj says:

    How to deal with datasmog (email/blogs/twitter) ~ @tactphil thx for the shout!

  2. @sinatraj says:

    How to deal with datasmog (email/blogs/twitter) ~ @tactphil thx for the shout!

  3. @sinatraj says:

    How to deal with datasmog (email/blogs/twitter) ~ @tactphil thx for the shout!

  4. Hey Sean

    GREAT post. I’m increasingly focused on filters as the core functionality of Assetmap tools. The real promise of the internet is discovery – discovery of new people with common interests, discovery of new ideas, etc.

    The problem is that you don’t know precise search terms (usually) when you’re discovering. People, our friends, are the best filter we have.

    I mentioned this talk when we had dinner last month but in case you hadn’t seen it, Clay Shirky on Filter Failure:

  5. Thanks Nathaniel, I’ll check it out. Of course just reading the tag line makes it look like I stole the whole idea for my post from Shirky!

  6. Joe says:

    Hey Sean,

    Great post, I just started a Twitter account today and definitely felt a little overwhelmed. The filtering tip is a keeper and very important when using any social media.

    I’ve seen that video before as well and it is so cool. It’ll be interesting to see how accurate those predictions are.

  7. Sean, thanks for the great post and the shout out. It’s funny I was just having the noise -vs- signal/substance debate with someone who is having difficulty recognizing the value of Twitter. I’m sending around your post now!

    Personally, I’m finding a lot of inspiration for both the Social Citizens Blog and my broader work at the Case Foundation based on the 140 character “tweets” I come across. Thanks for being an early adopter in the Philanthropy world and for helping others understand the power of this new “filter.”

  8. Kari & Joe,
    Glad you liked the post! It is rather amazing that 140 characters can be useful!

  9. Sean — Thanks for the ping and great post! You hit it all on the head, and it’s great that you’re sharing your experience with it all. Thanks!

  10. steve wright says:

    Great post. The idea of signal from noise is near and dear to my heart. Here are some resources I have found recently. the first two are specific to discerning signal from noise in a disaster:

    Ushahidi, crowd-sourcing the filter Evolve

    And the best book I have read on the topic is Yochai Benkler’s Wealth of networks:

  11. Steve, thanks for the links. Between these and the ones Christine Egger sent on Design Thinking and Philanthropy I have my reading cut out for me!

  12. Ben Tremblay says:

    I agree whole-heartedly that “allow you to separate the “noise” from the “signal”” is paramaount …
    … that’s core to my notion of “participatory deliberation“.
    But while I’m talking about decision making (which is core to problem solving), others’ pragmatism is not likewise oriented: while I’m working to maximize content according to salience others are almost universally concentrated on entertainment. Talking about stuff is great fun, an easy way to increase one’s social capital, and carries none of the responsibilities attached to real activity. Sort of like selling derivatives for a living.