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Who Is Your Information Filter?


This comment by Michael C. Harris on FriendFeed the other day caught my eye:

Heaps of fantastic shares from unknowns get almost completely ignored and yet Scoble shares “Scoble” and gets 50 comments

Michael is hitting on something very important. In FriendFeed, not all shared items are created equal. I’ve noticed some people are really good at getting people to click through on a shared item and start a conversation.

I think of these people as the new Information Filters. They have a knack for getting their subscribers to check out stuff they find interesting. More so than your average social media user.

Over time, a logical outcome would be this: as the Information Filters share information with their subscribers, click-throughs and comments occur on that content. Which attracts new people into the discussion. Who then subscribe to the Information Filter. Which increases the click-throughs and comments. Repeat…

Good Information Filters can find themselves with a lot of power to direct traffic, and subtly influence what others take in when it comes to information. This isn’t without precedent. Television and the web are prior examples of this.

Migration of News Consumption Habits

Both television and the web have seen changes in the way people get their news. In both TV and the web, the changes are based on the strength of someone’s personality and judgment as to what the audience wants:

In 2004, CNN reported a Pew Research Center survey of news viewing habits. The survey found that 21% of people aged 18 – 29 got their news on the presidential election from Jon Stewart and Saturday Night Live. A follow-up report “Where Americans Go for News” by Pew also noted:

During these late night hours, many young people are tuning into comedy shows such as David Letterman and Jay Leno. Those under age 30 are among the most likely to watch these types of shows 17% watch Leno or Letterman regularly, compared with 8% of 30-49 year-olds and 12% of those age 50 and older.

What do Jon Stewart, David Letterman and Jay Leno offer that the traditional news broadcasts don’t? Humor, obviously. They also get to pick the most interesting news items for their shows. NBC News anchor Brian Williams noted the obligation of professional news organizations to offer news that likely doesn’t interest most audiences:

Some people call it ‘eat your peas’ journalism because it has to include everything that’s good for you to know to be a good citizen of the world. We put it out there.

In this comment, you see the larger societal obligation felt by the mainstream news media. They cover everything, even the stuff you don’t care for. There’s a tension between ensuring people get a full range of information about our multi-faceted world, and what people are willing to pay attention to.

The web has undergone a similar change in reading habits. Matt Drudge’s Drudge Report has eclipsed traditional news outlets in terms of influence. From The Telegraph’s article Matt Drudge: world’s most powerful journalist:

So much internet traffic can be directed to an item linked to by Drudge that unprepared websites have been known to collapse under the strain.

For politicians, the effect is akin to a needle injecting information into the media bloodstream. A positive story can give a shot of adrenaline to a flagging campaign. More commonly, negative information can be like a dose of poison being administered.

Drudge rose to prominence when he famously put the Monica Lewinsky story in play. Since then, his traffic has grown enormously. It’s not just about that one scoop. Drudge has a good sense about what is newsworthy. From the Washington Post blog The Fix:

The second major reason for Drudge’s influence, according to the Fix’s informal poll of Drudge-ologists is his ability to sniff out a potentially big story when others — including reporters — miss it at first glance.

“He can identify what’s a big deal even when the reporters who actually cover and report on an event don’t realize what they have,” said one GOP strategist granted anonymity to speak candidly. “He scoops reporters’ scoops.”

What do Jon Stewart, David Letterman, Jay Leno and Matt Drudge have in common?

  • They don’t actually find and report news (for the most part)
  • They only present what they find interesting
  • They have shrewd judgment as to what audiences will like
  • Their personalities are part of their effectiveness as news filters – people trust them

Each of these guys have emerged as a key Information Filter.  New social media platforms, such as FriendFeed, are starting to see the emergence of their own Information Filters.

You Are Who You Follow

This is something Robert Scoble emphasizes: you define yourself by who you follow. Early FriendFeed employee Kevin Fox described the general role of your friends on FriendFeed:

The nature of FriendFeed is that you start to think that the world is like you, because your friends shape your FF world. I think the FF world is full of Obama supporters, and other people thing it’s full of Twitterers. Pick your friends wisely because they define your FF.

In an equal world, information shared by any of your friends will merit click-throughs and discussion. But the practical reality is that some people will be more “equal” than others in terms of driving the discussion agenda. There are two highly correlated components to that:

  • Number of subscribers
  • Reputation for identifying what is interesting

The sheer number of subscribers make some people Information Filters. The big power users on Twitter: Leo Laporte, Dave Winer, Robert Scoble, Jason Calacanis, etc. These guys really drive discussions around ideas, opinions and news. If you subscribe, you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the discussions they can kick off.

The reputation for finding interesting stuff is a little harder. Like Matt Drudge and Jon Stewart, you need to have a sense for what people want to know and find interesting. Some people are naturals at this, but I think anyone can learn how to identify interesting stuff.

Louis Gray is a really good Information Filter. Out of curiosity, I took at look at the last 30 Google Reader shares he put into FriendFeed. And I compared them to my last 30. I wanted to analyze the interaction around them: Likes, comments.

The chart to the right graphs the total Likes and comments for the 30 Google Reader shares of each of us. Louis is clearly good at putting things out there and having people discuss them. You’ll see the Likes and comments on his shares are double mine.

I consider Louis to be one of my Information Filters. He’s great at identifying the good stuff. And he takes this role seriously. He wrote a post Roll Your Own Blog Leaderboard with Google Reader Trends, in which he identifies the blogs he’s sharing most often.

The Effects of Our Information Filters

NBC News’ Brian Williams had this to say in response to the increasing application of personal filters to news:

Do you have a problem with people personalizing the news vs. you saying ‘these are the top stories’? Is there a danger in that if you give people too much personalization?

Williams: That’s for others to decide. I will say that if you’re using a filter, if you wake up in the morning and you have loaded up your computer, in other words to say, ‘Foreign news totally bums me out, this Iraq thing, it just ruins my day. Keep it away from me.’ Is that what [James] Madison had in mind, do you think? Is that what [John] Adams and [Ben] Franklin and [Thomas] Jefferson had in mind? Did they expect a little more informed electorate, to quote Mr. Jefferson? Did they expect a little more from us as citizens? I can’t judge people.

Democracy, on the other hand, looking at the argument, it’s their right [to filter]. I’m a lover of news and information, I’m a lover of American history, it’s my hobby. So if I had my druthers… Some people call it ‘eat your peas’ journalism because it has to include everything that’s good for you to know to be a good citizen of the world. We put it out there.

I can’t start programming the ‘NBC Nightly News’ with just the news that doesn’t bum people out. Just the news they want to see and hear. But I can’t stop someone from using filters, from using pay-as-you-go technology to get what they want. I will probably have my own opinion in a couple years about what we’ve become as a society as a result of if we stop getting the news that’s at all negative.

There’s a similar concern about over-reliance on our Information Filters in social media. That it becomes too easy to rely on what they find, and put in front of us. Robert Scoble asked a question that touched on this recently:

Hmm, how come you all like commenting on Google Reader Shared Items here in FriendFeed but you all do so little Google Reader reading yourselves?

Check it out for a good discussion around the merits of using FriendFeed exclusively for reading new blog posts.

Choose Your Information Filters Carefully

Brian Williams alluded to the “eat your peas” element of being an informed citizen. That is, take in information even when it doesn’t interest you. But that’s really fighting against human nature. We’re time-constrained, and social media has made it easier than ever to perpetuate our natural tendency to rely on the advice of friends for what is interesting.

So really, the best thing to do is to choose your Information Filters wisely.

What do you think? How do you select your Information Filters?

*****

See this post on FriendFeed: http://friendfeed.com/search?q=%22Who+Is+Your+Information+Filter%3F%22&public=1

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About Hutch Carpenter
Senior Consultant for HYPE Innovation (hypeinnovation.com)

19 Responses to Who Is Your Information Filter?

  1. markdykeman says:

    I’ve been noticing the Louis Gray filtering machine and I’ve incorporated his Google Reader shares into my daily monitoring. I probably don’t filter as much as I should. I rely on FriendFeed and blog subscriptions, but I really need to try NoiseRiver.

  2. I’m curious about the comment that the top twitter-ers are news-driven. I haven’t gotten into Twitter because it seems like an endless stream of minutia from people I know. Am I missing a bigger picture here?

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  5. orcmid says:

    I think “filter” is the wrong term. Using Scoble as the example, I believe Robert sees himself as a connector. So it is a kind of “editors choice” except it comes from finding that Scoble is reliable enough with regard to my own interests that his links and posts have a high enough signal to noise for my interests that following the connections he makes is valuable to me.

    I also notice that over time this relationship changes, where my attention is on other things than what attracts Robert’s attention. I may still keep an eye on his river of connections, but I follow fewer of his links and I find myself connecting with others more.

    There are obviously other factors, including the clubhouse nature of the social cluster around Scoble’s internet presence.

    Need a better term than “filter” is all.

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  11. dochi says:

    Nice Articles..

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