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If it's important, the news will find me

Which works better: gulping from the info firehose or letting news come to you?

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers’ project “Breaking the Page, Saving the Reader: A Buyer & Builder’s Guide to Digital Books.” We’ll be featuring additional material in the weeks ahead. (Note: This post originally appeared on A New Kind of Book. It’s republished with permission.)


I don’t necessarily want to give up Twitter, Google+, blogs, Zite, and so on. But it’s clear: they’re too much for my single core, ADD-prone brain to manage. Gone are the days when I try to consume, or even just scan, all the social media I’ve signed up for. I’ve tried drinking from the Internet’s firehose and what I’ve ended up with is a wet face and a headache. After a couple recent experiments in offline living I’m sold on the idea that, for me, less is more. I think more clearly, and more creatively, when I unplug. It seems kinda obvious but it’s taken me a decade or so to figure out: info-gorging leaves me feeling fat-headed and logy. Now, for example, rather than web surfing and info snacking in the morning, I get up early and read whatever book I’m into for an hour or two.

I do try to carve out an hour or two each day for some focused exploration — digital publishing and design are my main areas of interest — but even there I’ve given up stressing that I might miss some Seriously Important Item. There’s just no way I can see everything that comes out. I figure if something’s really important I’ll catch it somewhere; I’m sure I miss plenty using this system, but all in all I feel less scatterbrained.

But here’s the thing: for some topics — what’s happening in Afghanistan, the debt crisis, toddler management — I’d like to figure out a way to stay informed without getting overwhelmed. I don’t want a newsfeed on any of these topics. What I want is something I’ve started to think of as News Gems: the best of what’s out there, updated only when something new has happened or when something notable has been written. And I want it presented in a way that’s more compelling than a list of links. I want something that’s more like the cover of a magazine, where typography, titling, and visuals all combine to say: “Hey, Pete! Look at this, it’s slightly more important than that. And over here, you might also be interested in this.” A sporadically delivered email or text alerting me to new stuff would also be nice; it’s gotten to the point where I more or less ignore email alerts that show up each day.

What are you doing to stay on top of the topics you care about? Leave a comment or shoot me an email [peter DOT meyers; gmail].

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  • James H.

    Thank you for putting this observation into prose, Mr. Meyers. Ever since that first year in high school where I went without cable, I’ve noticed and even “preached” on the virtues of waiting for consequential, weighty news to rise above the hourly milieu. Case in point: how few will remember the Anthony case by this time next year? Never mind how few will have real knowledge take-aways from the tragic tale that, in the end, deserved little impact even within the city of origin. Just imagine the impact if more people thought to count the number of tweets in their feed that warrant the half-second spent reading them.

    I could see a very profitable and downright morally-imperative venture in sifting out the news worth checking just every three hours, never mind that worthy of push notification. Until that start-up appears, though, keep up the fight!

  • http://www.internetscelebrities.com rafi

    fyi, this same sentiment was a web journalism hot topic three years ago based on a young man’s quote in a nyt article:

    http://www.mathewingram.com/work/2008/03/27/if-the-news-is-important-it-will-find-me/

  • http://about.me/adriennericeadams Adrienne Adams

    I’ve been thinking along the same lines as you lately. Born with an analog brain, I’m inclined to think that no existing algorithm can provide what you (and I) desire. Most of our social services, whether they’re networks or search or feeds or whatever, are attempting to figure out what we think is important: suggesting search results, friends, related news, etc. etc. But none of these automated results seem to be able to serve us what we want without being annoying, intrusive, or simply inaccurate.

    One core problem I see is that what is Important! to me can, and does shift—my relaxed and fresh morning brain is in one state of receptivity, while my fried-at-the-end-of-the-day brain is in another state altogether. Serving up an identical collection of “Gems” morning and evening wouldn’t work for me, and I suspect not for you either.

    In my case, I rely upon a rather small group of trusted friends and colleagues to filter for me, and I (hopefully) for them. As often as not it’s a Twitter DM or email sending something on. But as much as I think I can curate my friends’ interests, I’m limited in my ability to provide a steady stream of events—and my friends may be too polite to tell me that my choices for them are inappropriate.

    I think that filter/selection/search algorithms are too simplistic. There need to be much better feedback mechanisms so that we can train our ‘personal digital assistants’ to better understand our needs and interests; kind of like Mom, knowing what’s good for us at any given moment. Also, the issue of privacy is important—I really don’t want Google knowing any more about what I want to read than it already does.

    It seems like one solution might be based on a privately customizable, learning application rather than a public service. Of course a private application wouldn’t mine data about my interests and activities, and so would be useless for the purpose of selling advertising—the sole incentive for search engines and social networks at this stage.

    I do love your idea of making this—whatever-it-is—graphically designed. Brilliant.

  • http://knowabout.it Kevin Marshall

    This is almost exactly the reason I built http://knowabout.it (would love to have you give it a try/look)…

    It’s a bit more focused on finding you *relevance* from your social stream than straight news per-se, and it’s prob. more along the lines of a list of links right now than what you described as your ultimate wish…but it’s a start, we are getting great feedback and usage so far…and best of all we are evolving as fast as possible as we learn from our users how best to solve this problem for them..

  • http://johnrougeux.com John Rougeux

    I agree, trying to keep up with the torrent of updates leaves nothing but an information hangover. The problem with sites like Zite, Flipboard, etc. is that they are less prone to suggest stores that are outside of your normal areas of focus.

    I Adrienne’s comment earlier, I would like to see a happy medium between pure generic content and pure personalization. We all like to think of ourselves as entirely unique, yet I guarantee that there are thousands of other people similar to each of us who’d be interested in reading the same 95% of content. If we could find a way to identify and develop these “personality and interest types” of content consumption, we could strike the right blend between anonymity and customization. Your thoughts?

  • http://www.eqentia.com William Mougayar (@wmougayar)

    Very well said. Most people have been sucked into what’s popular on social media vs. what’s relevant, i.e. according to my interests and needs, not what my friends are thinking. We have become lazy, and we have forgotten how to set proper filters for our needs.

    I think that social news should be a complement, not a replacement. If you can strike the right balance, then you will be liberated, and the most important news will find you, instead of you chasing after it. That’s the approach I’m taking and I use our own toolset Eqentia (www.eqentia.com) configured for my needs. It surfaces what’s relevant (via email or web), although I can re-slice by popularity if needed.

  • Felix

    Four or five snippets daily, pointing to the best of the freely available journalism on the web, sounds like the kind of thing you’re looking for.

    http://www.themonthly.com.au/shortlist

  • http://info-architecture.blogspot.com Samuel Driessen

    Nice post, Paul! Interesting topic. I think we see lots of services moving into the direction you’d like to go. I use Postrank with Google Reader to tell me what posts are popular. I subscribe to Techmeme which also tells me what’s highly debated, etc. I think Google Sparks is also interesting. You basically say what you’re interested in and it feeds you relevant, fresh stuff. Just like Google Alerts is supposed to do. (I use Alerts as well). I also use Twitter lists and searches to filter content. My lists are shorter for topics that I want to follow closely.
    All this added up helps me stay on top of the news that I want to be on top of. Yes, I do feel overwhelmed sometimes. Sometimes I can’t keep up, but the funny things is, the news that I want to see pops up anyway. It’s sent to me by email or RT-ed so it shows up in my timeline again. Etc.
    One feature that I really liked was the star in Google News. Lots of topics don’t get fresh news every day. The star in GNews let you keep track of a topic over a longer period of time. That really helped. But the feature was discontinued (to my knowledge) and was only available in the US edition.
    Does the above solve all my filtering issues? No. I’m closely following the semantic web and really hope that semantic technology will improve the way we browse and consume information. I believe it will and I believe we need it.

  • http://noupsi.de Renee

    This is a great post that really articulates the challenge of balancing curation and discovery.

    I’ve found that relying on Twitter to surface meaningful topics is hit or miss; I have one account that focuses very heavily on finance, and a second on tech, and there is very rarely overlap in the stories that are getting the most attention. Lists are a good way to manage it, but you’re still relying on people to share things that are the most important, when a lot of times what surfaces is what’s most sensational.

    What you’re actually looking for kind of sounds like good old-fashioned print journalism rather than blogs. I used to have a subscription to a magazine called The Week. It broke all of the week’s most important news stories up in to punchy paragraphs grouped by topic. If I wanted to do a deeper dive on a topic, I’d hit the Internet. Otherwise, I felt like I had a pretty broad sense of what was going on without trying to stay on top of a 24/7 news cycle.

    It’d be interesting to see if there is a viable way for a magazine to have its content entirely on the web WITHOUT having to rely on blogging to drive traffic. I’ve seen a few startups trying to do explanatory journalism, but nothing particularly well done yet.