Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Managing Information Overload - Filtering or Sifting

Have you ever experienced having a certain belief for years and years, only to discover that you actually were practicing something quite different the entire time but just didn't realize it?  Consider this question about your own behavior.  Which email messages do you ignore, likewise which Facebook posts do you ignore?  (Feel free to extend this question to other platforms.  Email and Facebook were chosen here mainly for illustration.)  Now ask a different question, not quite the obverse.  For which messages that provide links do you not only read the message but also follow up by clicking on the link and reading what is there in its entirety?

For years and years I had thought these as two different sides of the same coin and I labeled the entire process filtering.  My idea then was that I had the mental equivalent of a safe senders list and if I got a message from someone not on the list I wouldn't look at it but if I got one from somebody on the list I would follow it in its entirety.  It turns out, that's not true.

The first part is true.  Solicitations, particularly from vendors but really any sort of solicitation whatsoever, are ignored.  I sometimes look for clues to identify these messages.  For example, some emails are still addressed to me @uiuc.edu instead of @illinois.edu.  I can't remember when we switched domains, but it was years ago now.  And some still think of me as Assistant CIO even though I quit that job in 2006.  I understand that once in a database your address might very well be there forever without getting updated, but for that very reason it makes sense to ignore these messages.  One related topic that I find intriguing is that the same senders don't seem to get the (implicit) message from me giving them the cold shoulder.  The emails keep coming - so much for data analytics and smart use of the technology.  In any event, this act of ignoring messages is properly called filtering.

The second part is not true as originally stated.  If I read everything posted by my friends and followed all the links they post as well, there wouldn't be enough time in the day to do anything else and quite possibly on some days not enough time to do even that.  I suspect other people I know are more connected than I am, so the possibility for being overwhelmed by the volume of correspondence that gets through the initial filter is pretty good.  It's what people do next to address the issue which is the interesting part.

Email is a little different than Facebook in this regard.  One question is whether there is a need to reply to email.  In Facebook, one can Like without offering a comment.  The other obvious difference is who sees the response.  Many responses are displays of empathy and the question for me is whether those responses emerge from some heartfelt feeling or if instead they come from a sense of social obligation.  In an email it is either the former or no response at all.  In Facebook, I confess, sometimes the social obligation feels strong and that frequently motivates my use of the Like button.

I now want to abstract entirely from those sort of messages and consider other ones, messages that are informational and not personal, but come from a friend.  Before I do that, however, let's consider briefly such informational messages that come from news digests, such as The Chronicle's Academe Today or the Inside Higher Ed's news digest, or from a periodical like Scientific American.  How do you choose which of those links to follow, if any?

For me, the process is quite different from filtering.  I am looking for something that will "grab me."  This process of search I call sifting.  I'm not sure whether I can describe the type of piece that will draw me in, but I am certain I have a sense of taste about these things and trust my sense of taste for making the decision.  There are certain topics I care about and others that I'm quite willing to ignore.  There may be still other topics that I haven't considered before at all.  If the post title strikes my funny bone, I'll have a look.  Otherwise, I won't.  I have the wish for uplift from what I read and if not that then to gain perspective on something I've perhaps considered but not fully.  I confess that I often shut down over things that are otherwise interesting but also seem to be quite depressing on first impression.  And I shut down over what seems to be blather, or clearly wrong, or on a different subject than I had first thought, so is actually a piece I would have ignored at first had I understood the topic.

I am not proud about shutting down while reading something.  It cuts against the grain of how I learned to read when I was a kid, where I pretty much read everything I started to completion, as long as it wasn't way over my head.  I don't do that anymore.  And it may be that sometimes I don't give a piece a fair chance, meaning I shut down too soon.

My ideal is to identify good reads, quickly, and then read those to completion.  My reality is that whether a piece is a good read or not is often not known till I'm well into it.  Further, the initial draw might be be quite other than the gist of the piece, meaning there is a "marketing" aspect that the writer goes through to get me as reader willing to initiate.  In this I suppose I'm no different from any other reader.  I fall for the marketing from time to time.  For example, a couple of weeks ago The Atlantic featured a piece called The Dark Power of Fraternities.  It begins with a vivid description of a truly juvenile act of self-destruction, something compelling to read in itself for the sheer idiocy of the behavior.  I enjoyed reading those first paragraphs so I read through the rest.  The rest isn't so much about the fact that college students looking for fun will do some stupid and terrible things as it is about how the adult world manages this (or fails to manage this).  The real subject matter of the piece is also interesting to consider, but it wasn't a topic on my radar and I wouldn't have read this piece straight away had that been how the author marketed it. 

How does this sifting change when it is a friend who has written the snippet and posted the link?  I have some friends who are very close, where I will at least follow the link and read a bit, no matter what the topic is and I will feel obligated to post some response in this case.  On the blood is thicker than water continuum, deep friendship is closer to the blood end of the spectrum.  Following up on links is then a bow to friendship more than anything else.

I have only a handful of very close friends.  There are many others who are more at arms length.  Particularly when these other friends post to Facebook, there is little to no obligation to respond.  Instead what matters for whether I will follow their links is their reputation with me for posting interesting things.  In turn, that reputation depends on how much overlap there is between their interests and mine, how judicious they seem to be in selecting items to post, and to the extent that I've followed their links before and have some memory of that, imperfect though that memory may be, my track record from having done so.

I should also add here that my reading and search behavior has changed substantially since I've retired.  Where before it was necessary for me to have some sense of the pulse of learning technology as a field, I really don't care about that any longer and staying current with everyone else is far less of a motive than it used to be.  What I do care about is identifying stuff that I can explore at my own pace and in some depth, with a feeling of reward from having done so.  When I do sift, that's what I'm looking for. 

I sometimes ask myself whether I could be a student again and if I were how I would go about my studies.  Mostly I think I couldn't.  I'd be too impatient and too opinionated.  If I were confronted with an assigned reading list, I almost surely would sift through it rather than read it exhaustively. Only if my prior readings had climbed over my personal bar would I continue reading through the entire list.

This notwithstanding, as an instructor I don't expect to confront myself as a student in this way.  I don't expect students to read everything I assign, where here the word "expect" means "predict," but for some reason I still wish that to be true.  I also don't explicitly teach students to sift through information this way.

But now I'm wondering whether I should.  It seems an important life skill. 

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