In my last post I described the feeling of information overload. A feeling most people know very well. There is a tsunami of opinions, facts, news, media blah blah, data, info and it’s growing by the minute. In my blog I expressed my renewed hope for better info because the number of professionals in information architecture, information design and user experience (design) is on the rise and their profession is getting more professional.
I received a comment. A brilliant one. Did I not know of Clay Shirky’s speech at the web 2.0 summit in 2008, where he talked about information overload? In it Shirky described that our problem is not information overload, but filter failure. The web led to a big change in the business dynamics of publishing. Since the costs of producing content is practically zilch, there is no economic necessity for a filter function anymore. Before the web, publishers had to filter quality, since they had to pay upfront for producing the content and had to bear the risk of not selling poor quality.
No, I did not know Shirky shared his thoughts on this subject with us. So I checked it out, watched ten minutes on video, became impressed, searched for comments and analysis and learned a lot.
And in a funny sort of way, that’s exactly the point I tried to make. How did I not find this quality content?
And it made me think. If there is no quality, why try to search for it? What’s quality anyway? Who decides quality? Peers, friends? Experts? People, machines, algorithms?
When the web started people made homepages and linked to other homepages. We pointed each other to interesting stuff. Some people grouped interesting links in what later on became known as portals. Homepages became websites. Search was hell, as more and more websites were launched. The engines did crawl and count, but ‘quality’ was not judged.
A very interesting startup, later to be known as GOOG, came along and counted links to other websites and links coming in and thus Pagerank was born. Based upon the longtime academic practice of peering, quoting and referring, links became the way to be noticed in the growing amount of websites. A brilliant idea at the time, since quality of the website, material, opinions, design, webmaster was judged by other humans. Poor quality, no link. No link, no rank in Pagerank.
GOOG became a huge success and the de facto startingpoint for a journey into cyberspace. Eyeballs were attracted, money could be made through advertising and search results became manipulated. More and more content could be found quickly. It takes a few nanoseconds to get millions of results. People normally click on one or two, maybe three, links. They land on a website, look around for a very short time and dissappear.
Finding interesting and usefull stuff became again harder and harder. New solutions to the problem popped up. Web 2.0 came along and people started to produce and publish more and more on the web. New ways to find and share interesting stuff popped up as a new tsunami. Social bookmarking, adding, sharing, tweeting, digging, blogging, pointing, pushing. Nowadays it takes me even too much time and effort to follow all the new approaches of sharing. That’s why I missed the point Shirky tried to make.
And he is right. It is all about the failure of the filters.
That brings us to the question what sort of filters we need. Should we return to the time and practice of the librarian and the curator? Should we integrate search with sharing, as GOOG introduced this week? Should we abandon machines and algorithms? Should we, as humans, do the filtering? Is there a way to use our collective judgement to judge quality? Let us minimize the junk and install some filters.
Around the time the web started to grow into a mass medium, I enjoyed the movie Johnny Mnemonic (1995), based upon a short story by William Gibson. This cult classic is staged in 2021, when the whole world is connected by the gigantic Internet. Almost half of the population is suffering from a strange disease, called the Nerve Attentuation Syndrome, a.k.a ‘The Black Shakes’.
Let this scenario remain science fiction!