Welcome to 2014. The amount of content on social networks continues to explode beyond the capability of tools available to tailor and filter it. The extra noise blocks out valuable signal. Within every block of loosely-relevant tweets hides a highly relevant one, and too often we miss it.
Algorithm vs. Interface
This is frustrating. But what frustrates me more is that most companies are trying to solve this problem at the algorithm level rather than the interface level. Instead of getting tools you get recommendations.
Algorithms are achieving widely-touted local-maximums, like Eugune “passing” the Turing Test, but that doesn’t mean the average person’s life is improving any more than if they tried to achieve Her-like intimacy with Eugene the Chatbot:
Not how I pictured ‘Her’
The increase in social media noise in absence of filtering tools is why I’m happy to see some of my friends going back to the newsletter publishing model. I sign up, and I get an email at some frequency pushed to my inbox, where it remains until I address it.
Newsletters are active, not passive. I get the email even if I don’t check my email. Contrast that with Twitter, where not checking means missing. Heck, on Twitter, checking often still means missing plenty.
On the other hand, the email model does require that every message be dealt with. That is work. But for high-signal content like a great newsletter I’ll happily trade away FOMO for the occasional maintenance.
Let me tie this back to my earlier comments.
I’m a fan of giving people tools to control their own information destiny instead of trying to guess it for them. And as the tools and interfaces for working with inbound information get better it’s possible to widen the floodgates; to receive more without losing more.
Achieving inbox zero has gotten easier because of improvements in interfaces not algorithms. I have a swipe-to-act mobile mail app that makes postponing or archiving mail fast and easy. I have gmail filters. As a result I’m willing to let the world fire more at my inbox for the benefit of missing less.
Because email’s interface has gotten more advanced, subscribing to newsletters is proving to be a better system for me than checking Prismatic, creating Twitter lists, or tuning Facebook feeds. (Though I do think Prismatic is excellent for what it tries to do.)
In the long run I’ll bet on algorithms, but if I was solving this today I’ve be picking the low-hanging but very juicy fruit. I’d be hacking on interfaces that allow humans to do what humans are good at – determining relevancy in the blink of an eye.
My recent subscriptions
There are 6 newsletters I signed up for recently that ultimately inspired me to dash out this post. Allow me to acknowledge them:
- Weissblog – Justin is a friend of mine from college and has been using Ruby & Rails since 2004. His latest post, Tips for Finding Rails Blogs at Your Level, is actually about finding signal in a blogosphere of noise.
- Jon Gold’s Newsletter – Freelancer Jon Gold is using a newsletter for a totally different purpose: to tell you when he’s ready to take on his next gig.
- gitat.me – Covers a broad array of open source projects, and the posts are short and to the point. Once a week, curated by my Twitter friend @nealrs.
- The Endeavor – From the brilliant John D. Cook. Some of the math goes over my head, but the use of clever analogies like jigsaw puzzles makes sure any post is a proper thought experiment.
- Crypto-gram – This one needs no introduction. Author Bruce Schneier is a premier security expert. Every commentary is clear, consise, and accessible to non-security experts.
- Mattermark Daily – Hand-curated enrepreneurial content broken out into clear sections so you can quickly jump to what you’re interested in.
I also have subscribed recently to a few personal, private newsletters targeted at friends and family. Their authors see these as an alternative to Facebook or blogging, focused on creating 1:1 replies instead a stream of likes and comments in the semi-public forum. I’ve really enjoyed this format, and I think I’ve replied to every one of their posts so far with something to add.