The Infovore's Dilemma

Some call it ADHD, others call it ‘keeping up with the Joneses.’ the firehose of news and random information that screams past us on a daily basis is pretty staggering, and in some parts of the tech industry we tend to consider it a moral obligation to hoover up as much of it as possible. At Lullabot we’ve been trying to capture the ways we each approach some of these problems, and my notes ended up spiraling into a full-length ramble. Without further ado, I present… my tools for (relatively) manageable news and data consumption. ###A Taxonomy of News Sources, Listed in Order of Signal/Noise Ratio

If you find yourself overwhelmed, it can help to chunk them up into general categories – groups that help you understand what to expect, what to pay attention to, and what to skim for the occasional gem.

Social Networks and Sharing sites

High signal/noise ratio, but interesting bits often arrive here first via well-connected friends. These networks can serve as aggregators of stuff that you care about. Examples: Twitter, Facebook, Dribbble, Pinterest, etc.

Aggregators, Bookmarks, and Linkblogs

Especially if you can target sub-topics or tags that you’re interested in, they’re handy for bubbling up the current buzz in a given field. When they’re good, they’re good. When they’re bad, it’s all memes and cat pictures. Examples: Drupal Planet, PopURLs, Pinboard, Delicious, Reddit, Digg, MetaFilter

Industry/Topical news sites

These generally have a better signal/noise ratio, but if they aren’t really focused they tend to lag behind a well-connected social network. They’re good for keeping up on topics or industries you and your normal network of friends aren’t as focused on. Examples: Mashable, .Net Magazine, The ChangeLog etc.

Specialist Bloggers and Niche Sites

Individuals who consistently write good original material or pull together useful stuff that hasn’t hit the mainstream yet. These are often drivers of other news and shared links. Keep up on the ones closest to your field of interest and rely on the other kinds of sites/sources to bubble up interesting stuff from other spheres. Examples: Paleofuture A List Apart, Daring Fireball, Rands In Repose, Luke W, Archives and Museum Informatics, etc.

Search Engines and Topical Archives

Digging for a specific piece of information you need in a search engine, or consulting a site that maintains a long-term archive of specialized information, isn’t part of the normal flow of news consumption. They’re important, though, because they keep you from developing a dangerous 24-hour-news-cycle myopia. It’s way too easy to miss these meaty sites when the flavor of the moment is clamoring for attention. Examples: Google Scholar The Internet Archive, Pew Research, Etc.

My News Workflow

If you find yourself in the “Too much news! Too much stuff!” trap, remember that nobody can keep up on it all. Use bookmarks and read-it-later services like Pinboard, Delicious, Instapaper, or Pocket to flag the interesting stuff while you’re skimming. Come back to those more focused ‘reading lists’ when you have some breathing room, or want to catch up on things. If you want to share with other people, retweet the links on Twitter, or use Google Reader’s sharing and flagging features to start cultivating your own archive of good content.

I tend to treat social networks and news oriented sites as a river that I dip into when I have 10-15 minutes between tasks and don’t want to dive into something more serious. If I spot interesting things, I flag them for later. RSS is a little more intensive, and I only explicitly subscribe to specialist sites to keep the signal/noise ratio down, but I treat it much the same. I skim, bookmark or send to Instapaper when I see something I want to sink my teeth into, and move on.

Digging into those longer pieces is usually reserved for relaxing during breakfast before work, or in the evening with the paper, or while I’m traveling. Instapaper clients for iOS and Android can cache flagged articles for offline reading, and it’s like having your own custom-curated magazine. If one of those longer pieces turns out to be really good, I tend to Tweet the link, yammer about it to co-workers, share it on facebook, or even write up a short blog post about it.

If I think it will be useful long-term (perhaps there are good quotes I want to use in a presentation sometime, or it has good original research I want to refer to later), I make sure that I bookmark it, add a description, and tag it so I can find it again. If there are links to research (say, a scientific study or a white paper or video of a presentation), I download the PDFs or media and keep it in a Dropbox folder called ‘Reference Materials.’

This last part is probably a little too much for people who aren’t totally OCD, but I find that it reduces the amount of frustrated Googling that I do when I vaguely remember “that perfect article” but can’t recall where it was. Finding useful information in the river of news is hard – businesses talk about “customer acquisition costs,” and for infovores it’s all about “knowledge acquisition costs.” Holding onto the useful, high-quality stuff you find is like customer retention: it’s always cheaper than forgetting where you found it and trying to dig it up again.

Tools To Make It Better

On any given day I’m usually researching thorny issues for a client who wants some high-level recommendations, preparing for distant and upcoming presentations and speaking engagements, queueing up material for blog posts and articles I’d like (or need) to write, and so on. I’ve tried lots of tools to improve that process: mind mapping programs, personal Wikis, customized Drupal sites, project management apps like Unfuddle, desktop apps like DevonThink, and so on. None of them feel like a really good fit, unfortunately. Even the interesting curation tools like Storify that are springing up tend to focus on short term news coverage or social aggregation rather than long-term research and the evolution of a serious article, paper, or presentation.

For the time being I rely on Dropbox, topic and project specific subfolders, and OSX’s decent search tools to find what I need. As the river of information gets deeper, wider, and faster, I think it’s a kind of tool that will become more and more essential.

Additional Interesting Reading

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