How to Fix Your Web Filter Failure (Stop the Flood!)

Your Internet information overload is nothing more than filter failure. So do yourself a favor and follow these tips to mastering the art of filtering incoming information.


You Can't Detect What You Can't See: Illuminating the Entire Kill Chain

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Posted February 17, 2010

Mike Elgan

Mike Elgan

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There's no such thing as information overload. There is only filter failure.

This idea, uttered by new media guru Clay Shirky a couple years ago, is both profoundly true -- and encouraging.

In fact, everyone is already filtering almost everything. You're already not reading 99.9% of the available newspapers, web sites, books, blogs and newsletters. You're not listening to 99.9% of the conversations taking place. You're not following 99.9% of the items posted on Twitter, Facebook and Google Buzz.

Congratulations! Unfortunately, if you feel overwhelmed, or if you're spending more time trying to "keep up" with all your incoming information, then your filters are failing.

Are you feeling more overwhelmed lately than you used to? Blame Google. The company unveiled Google Buzz last week, which is a set of social features designed to overwhelm us with yet another time-consuming, energy-gobbling stream of information to process.

It's not designed that way on purpose, mind you. But information overload is baked into the Google Buzz design as it was first implemented. The absence of a Twitter-like or Facebook-like limit on post size, the way threads are handled, the way items force themselves into your inbox, the lack of tools for managing threads and messages – all conspire to make Google Buzz a burnout machine.

Google Buzz added a massive incoming stream of information without helping us eliminate others.

The good news is that Google will probably fix all this very quickly, making Buzz not only far less overwhelming, but also a tool that will eventually enable us to filter out other streams as well.

So how do you fix failing filters? In part, the solution lies in developing a better understanding about information overload.

Understanding Information Overload

First, it's important to understand that you're engaged in an evolutionary arms race. When you create new filters to block information, the Internet will evolve the capacity to route around your filters and reach you anyway.

Second, information overload is really about mental energy. It's a psychological and a physiological condition, not something that exists "out there." Part of the solution is to learn how to use your mind efficiently.

For example, there is no such thing as multitasking. You can rapidly switch your focus from one task to another, but that switching involves a mental cost. Each time you shift focus, you're expending energy. Multitasking is nothing more than interruption mode at the expense of "flow." By avoiding interruptions of all kinds, including multi-tasking, you'll cut info-burnout.

Third, (and the most challenging to embrace), is that ignorance is the goal. Ignorance about something unimportant is the happy product of a good filter doing its job.

To embrace ignorance is to abandon delusion. You cannot know everything. The goal is to gain control, to clearly identify the information that isn't worth your time, then avoid that knowledge. I know, for example, that the "Brangelina" family is vacationing in Europe. I know that the leader of the flying monkeys in "The Wizard of Oz" is named "Nikko." And I can rattle off a list of trivia about the show "Jersey Shore," even though I've never seen it.

This knowledge is the product of filter failure. With better filters, I could have remained ignorant about all of this, and replaced that information with data from the vast ocean of useful information that I am still ignorant about because I didn't have the time or energy to learn it.

Fourth, the price of freedom from information overload is eternal vigilance. Every single piece of information -- every e-mail, tweet and post -- is removing available time and mental energy. Whenever you confront a useless e-mail, a time-wasting tweet or a redundant post, take action. Why did I get this? How can I stop this kind of thing in the future?

Don't do what almost everyone does. Don't just delete it and move on. You've been robbed! Your right to control your attention has been violated! Do not accept this. Take action every time.

Fixing filter failure is not about using this service or that feed. It's about cultivating a low tolerance for broken filters.

How to Fix Filter Failure

1. Master your e-mail filters.

Outlook "Rules" and Gmail "Filters" are the most important tools for overcoming filter failure. Get in the habit of making nearly all incoming e-mail rule-governed. Automatically delete, save, reply to, flag, tag or set up alerts for all incoming mail.

2. Favor e-mail as your point of entry.

You can use services to send RSS feeds, online articles and a vast range of content into your inbox. The benefit is that your e-mail rules or filters can apply to content, too.

For example, if you're a BlackBerry user who feels your time is wasted by iPhone chatter, you can set up filters to auto-archive content mentioning "Apple iPhone." Many authors make their articles available via e-mail. (For example, you can subscribe to all the columns I write by going to this page and clicking "Subscribe to this Posterous" on the right.)

3. File for searching.

Some information is urgent. But most of what is pushed at us is really just information we might need to know someday. Set up filters that file stuff in a searchable format for later searching.

For example, I'm on all the tech-journalist PR lists. I get 20 press releases a day. I have a filter set up in Gmail that looks at sender, as well as content, to identify press releases. My filter tags them, and archives them without placing them in the inbox.

I never see them unless I search, or choose to browse my "press releases" folder. I have a dozen or so such folders where content is automatically filed, skipping the inbox. This auto-filing also helps me with #4.

4. Group comparable information.

Invent content categories for your life -- "personal correspondence," "social networking," "professional education," "personal interest," "political argument," etc., and figure out how to selectively immerse yourself into each category one at a time. Most of us have all categories pouring into all our feeds. Jumping from one kind of stream to another can burn energy needlessly.

5. Maximize screen alternatives.

We're all reading on screens a lot more than we used to, and it's contributing to that burn-out feeling. Seek alternatives.

Replace some blogs with podcasts. Listen to audiobooks. Cancel one of your online sources of news, and start listening to BBC radio online. Use a voice-to-text service like reQall to write stuff by talking (for example, I "wrote" most of the notes for this column by talking into the reQall app on my iPhone).

6. Screen calls and get voice-mail via e-mail.

I use Google Voice, but alternatives abound. If phone calls are contributing to burnout, screen calls with voice-mail, and have your voice-mails transcribed and delivered via e-mail.

Next Page: Beware of information addiction...

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