So as I mentioned a while back, I’m on Twitter as @createquity (what else?). I joined earlier this year and just lurked for a little bit, using the web interface and gathering a few followers. No big deal, right? Then I downloaded my first Twitter desktop application, Twhirl, and let the tweets roll in. That’s about when I started to freak the eff out.
You see, if you just use the web interface, it’s easy to ignore Twitter even if you’re signed up and actively following other users. You have to physically hit the refresh button in order to see new updates, and it occupies its own browser window which means that if you switch tabs you’ll hide Twitter. But Twhirl is different. It sits in a corner of your desktop, separate from any other programs. By default, it sounds an alert whenever a new tweet comes in. And like your email client, it updates by itself, without any prompting from you. Well, if you follow more than about a dozen people, those updates will be coming faster than you can handle them individually.
I can’t even begin to describe the feeling that came over me the first time that I got myself into a Twitter conversation and found myself basically chatting with another user about my favorite subject, arts philanthropy, with other unrelated flotsam shooting past us in the aether, all while on deadline for a school assignment the next morning. It was this totally incomprehensible mix of can’t-tear-myself-away interest and sheer, unadulterated panic.
It may sound silly, but that experience really shook me. A little context may be in order: Two springs ago, I did not own a personal planner. I didn’t have Outlook on my computer. I didn’t have a Blackberry, Palm Pilot, or other personal digital assistant. I didn’t need any of that, because I literally kept all of the appointments I had in my head. And believe me, I had a lot of them. I was handling the bulk of the scheduling work for the collaborative chorus I had founded, organizing the second of two world premieres extravaganzas with my experimental rock band, dating, looking for apartments in New Haven, and working full-time to boot. Now, I put appointments into my Outlook calendar and forget about them two minutes later. My brain just can’t handle all of that and the neverending torrent of information flowing my way.
When I started Createquity a year and a half ago, I read on a regular basis maybe three or four blogs. Basically, Sequenza21, Daily Kos, and sometimes PostClassic and/or Sandow. As of today, I’m subscribed to 67. If my two years in business school have taught me anything, it’s that skimming is a really, really important skill — and as of October 2007, I was not a good skimmer. So, as each fun discovery of another blog would lead to yet another entry in my RSS reader, I would find myself getting stretched thinner and thinner, and then I would eventually adjust, and then I would add more blogs, and the cycle would repeat again.
I was finally convinced to join Twitter by Sean Stannard-Stockton’s exciting-yet-terrifying post “Information Filtering.” In it, Sean takes on the problem of information overflow directly:
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.
Of course, this is easier said than done. As Sean highlights later in his post, “you need to evaluate [your filters] 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.” So it’s kind of a catch-22. On the one hand, you can keep your information flow manageable by limiting the sources you use for input. But of course, by doing this, you’re pretty much guaranteeing that you’ll be behind the curve with respect to finding out important new information. On top of that, if everyone in your “trusted network” pursues this strategy, it’s not hard to imagine your social media interactions becoming a kind of echo chamber — a small group re-blogging and re-Tweeting each other’s content, while other developments take place around them and under their noses. Since you never know where exciting new information will come from, it’s sort of impossible to be meaningfully open to new things in a limited way.
So for now, I’m trying to follow Sean’s advice while still casting a relatively wide net. On the advice of @AdamTheHutt, I switched to TweetDeck, which allows you to organize your network into distinct groups more easily. I’ve turned all alerts off so that I can ignore it when I need to. I’m still adding new blogs all the time. So far, this approach has worked well for me. I feel so much more on top of things than I ever have before in my life, and blog traffic has essentially tripled since I started using Twitter. I feel more and more like one of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Mavens” every day. If the price for that is a little occasional insanity, for the time being at least, I’m willing to pay it.