Thursday, February 22, 2007

Information Overload

I'm not the first one to notice this and I won't be the last but here it is: We are overloaded with the amount of information we attempt to process each and every day. I'll even narrow it down and say we're overloaded with just the number of websites we attempt to consume every day. Never mind the shows stacking up on TiVo or the Cd's we got at Christmas and haven't listened to yet. And you can simply forget the dead-tree-ware (books, that is) that were given to us on our birthdays months and months ago! At latest count I have over 50 blogs I monitor every day. It's no wonder I rarely have time to update this one!

So what are we going to do about it?

Well, the naive would say that we simply cut back. Drop my 50 to 5 and be done with it. OK, fine, but the problem with that is I've spent a lot of time and energy to be one of best Java programmer (and C++ programmer before that) I can possibly be. I have a passion for what I do and if I'm going to bother to do it then I want to be good at it. To do that means that I need to keep up with the technology and all that's new. After all, you don't get better by doing the same thing the same way all the time. You get better by learning from folks who know things you don't know. To do that means reading lots and lots of stuff put out by people who are a lot smarter than I am. And that sets me up for the information overload.

So, again, what are we going to do about it?

Well, these days any website (be it blog or other) worth visiting has some kind of feed available. Even my own poor blog here has an atom feed and I'm certainly not in the top set of sites to visit! (Actually, I'm not sure that anyone visits at all. Maybe I'm just typing in a vacuum...)

Armed with some sort of site feed we can begin to leverage some pretty cool tools called aggregators. If you don't know what I'm talking about go ask Wikipedia. From my limited investigation they fall into two broad categories: local installables and web-based. (Of course I guess you could say that most applications these days fall into those categories...) My daily digital life involves three to six computers so a local install is not really useful thus I've begun to look into the online variety.

My first attempt to fence in my mass of feeds was Google's customized home page. If you're not doing this then you're missing the boat. And not just any boat. I mean the boat. Google's customized home page is what every ISP or portal-thing vendor has been trying to do since the www got started. There are hundreds, nay, thousands of widgets you can drop on there to customize your web experience. Beyond that, anything with a feed can be dropped on just as easily. Soon, however, I reached a critical mass where I had a half-dozen customized tabs with ten or twenty widgets each and things were beginning to be ignored.

My new favorite toy is Google Reader. I played with it a year or more ago when, I think, it went by the name Google Lens. I'm probably wrong about that name because every time I say it nobody knows what I'm talking about. Whatever you name it, it's cool.

Now I'm not going to turn this into a Reader tutorial. You're probably a pretty smart person and can figure it out for yourself. I just wanted to take a moment to make you aware of it in case you're not already. However... here are some of the cool things I can do: tag sets of related feeds, mark come-back-to-read-later articles with a big yellow star and share my favorite articles in an automatically maintained meta-blog thing. That last one is wicked cool because it actually has its own RSS feed so its like a feed of feeds kind of thing and as a coder I really dig the recursion of it.

Along the same lines as Reader is Bloglines. I tried it for a while before I settled on Reader. It has an equally cool set of features. There is obviously overlap as well as some interesting features that set it apart. (FWIW I settled on Reader because of some odd usability issues I had with Bloglines. YMMV)

I encourage you to try 'em both out and any others you run across. It isn't really about which one you settle on as long as you settle on something. In my opinion (of course it's mine since it's my blog) there is just no way to keep up with the torrent of information without some sort of tool that will help us organize it all.

My other favorite toy is del.icio.us. del.icio.us does for bookmarks what Reader does for feeds. It lets me aggregate all of my bookmarks into one web-accessible location and organize them by any relevant set of tags I want. What's more, my friends with a del.icio.us account can drop things onto my pile and vice-versa. They even have these cool browser buttons that let me tag a link without visiting the page. So, now, instead of maintaining an html page of my bookmarks or trying to sync six to twelve browser instance's bookmarks I just install those cool buttons everywhere I go and link 'em online.

Clearly these are not the only tools available to help manage the information overload. Even if they were the only tools for their niche we're still faced with all of our other input sources. Rather than simply sigh and succumb to the avalanche take a moment to find things to help get things under control. There are a lot of smart folks out there with the same problem and some of them are giving us some powerful tools to take back control. If I wore a hat I'd definitely take it off to 'em!

4 comments:

Jim Crossley said...

(Actually, I'm not sure that anyone visits at all. Maybe I'm just typing in a vacuum...)

I visit. What's the opposite of "vacuum"? :-)

Anoop Johnson said...

James - Talking about recursion, I have added the RSS feed of your del.icio.us into my Google reader so I can watch out for new links. :-)

I use Google Bookmarks instead of del.icio.us. It has a few advantages:

The tags will be displayed if a bookmarked site appear in Google search, a Mozilla bookmarks manager-like UI built-into the Google toolbar, integration with your Google homepage etc.

But it lacks many of the del.cio.us features - collaboration, RSS feeds etc. I am thinking of moving to del.icio.us, but Google bookmarks provide no export feature. So I guess I'm stuck with Google bookmarks.

James CE Johnson said...

I have my del.ici.ous RSS feed on my Google home page. I find it handy when I have a few minutes to kill & want a "quick read".

WRT Google Bookmarks, I ran across the Firefox GMarks add-on. The docs say that it can export your Google Bookmarks as a bookmarks.htm which you *should* then be able to import into del.icio.us. (https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/
firefox/addon/2888)

I like being able to try out different options before settling on one. It's too bad it is sometimes a pain getting the data moved over...

Ashtyn said...

Thanks for writing this.