Wednesday, January 27th, 2010 | Author: Konrad Voelkel
Today in the series "How to do XYZ with software?":
How to manage news?
It is vital to get at least some news. You need to know about political developments, to be informed when it's time to cast your vote (or, if you're not living in a democracy, when it's time to protest). You need to know about developments in your work, so you can adapt and don't risk losing your job because you're too old-fashioned. You need to know about economy if you're investing money. You need to stay informed about every project you want to participate in. Maybe you even need to know what pop-stars do, because if not, you have nothing to talk about with your friends.
How to cope with this information overload?
Disclaimer: if you're using a feed reader/aggregator and/or know about Google Reader, scroll to the bottom of this post. There's not much new for you in here.
Why information overload?
Imagine you were living in the newspaper times, without television, without internet. Then, you could read (parts of) the local newspaper every morning and that was it. No problem yet. Of course, it would have taken much longer than today, to transmit the latest information about some projects, developments in society, and so on. Since everyone has had the same conditions, it wasn't a problem to be that uninformed.
Now imagine you were living in the television times, without internet. Then you could always get the latest "breaking news" and stock market information, and it was vital to have this information because everybody had access to this information, so you would risk a disadvantage when being uninformed. It was easy to select the information you needed, because you could just find out which channels are sending the information you want and then stick to these channels.
(Sorry for skipping the "radio" times.. here almost the same applies as for television).
What's different with the internet? You're no longer restricted to 100 channels sending information in a linear fashion. It's a completely uncontrollable mess, just way to much to consume, even if you would try to do nothing else. Today, it's not only vital to get information, it's also absolutely unavoidable to select important information - for everyone.
Another problem that's creeping in since the invention of radio and television is the restricted attention span: human brains are not capable of doing several things at the same time - it just looks like that because we're able to switch very fast from one task to another. Switching tasks is a problem, sometimes. When you're concentrating on something cognitively challenging, you will need about 5 minutes to get back to your level of concentration if you were interrupted. Another problem is, that our brain is relatively good at doing very different things in short alteration (like playing piano and drinking water and thinking about stock markets), but it's not that good at doing very similar things in short alteration (like speaking one foreign language and then another). That means, watching TV while working does not really work for jobs that involve information processing (at least, you won't be as good as you could).
The internet is even worse: many people have e-mail notifications, mobile phone ring tones, twitter notifications, etc., so they're interrupted in their work very often. Since many jobs today involve information processing and getting the latest news is information processing, our brain has severe problems in doing this in short alteration.
An interesting text about the question how the internet changes the way we think can be found on the BackReaction blog.
Software can be used to control the news flood, if you use it wisely. For example, you can use an instant messenger like ICQ or Skype to let people contact you, but without an audible notification. Then you'll only read their messages when you're not in a state of concentration. The same applies to (mobile) phones: you should mute them for some time each day. A phone call would interrupt you immediately, while a short message is controllable by you - it's you who decides when to digest the information.
Ask yourself: do you really need the latest latest news? Most likely it suffices to get the news some hours later, too. Instead of watching TV and hoping for not missing the breaking news, you can use feeds in the internet, so you get news immediately but are able to consume later. Feeds offer another problem solution: You don't have to navigate to 50+ websites to know what's going on about your favourite projects, to get your favourite opinions about politics, etc.. You just subscribe to the feed of each website and a software manages the information flow for you.
Wikipedia has a nice explanation what a web feed is. You can learn about feed aggregators/readers there, too. I'm using the Google Reader, which is a web-application, so you can use it from everywhere on any computer that has internet access. It offers collaborative features: you can select information entries to "like" them or to "share" them, if you want even with a personal comment. The software then displays on top of every entry how many people "liked" this entry, so you can use this as a guideline in the selection of important information. To "share" a news item means it's added to a special feed, the shared items feed, which your friends or co-workers can subscribe to. This way, an organisation can effectively process the information that's important for them and then distribute it to all members. Most aggregators offer ways to sort the various news items, so you could select some to read them later and delete some items unread.
Feeds offer interesting ways to organise various kinds of information. If you're a Wikipedia author, you can use feeds to watch thew pages you've written. If you're using MathOverflow, you can use feeds to get the latest questions about your favourite mathematical topic (same applies to StackOverflow). Every blog in the internet has a news feed. You can avoid twitter, because each twitter account has an associated feed. Podcasts are nothing than feeds with sound- or videofiles in it.
Another software recommendation besides Google Reader is the Android software NewsRob (which works only on Android smartphones). NewsRob synchronises with your Google Reader account and is able to save the feed items (and even the websites that are behind the feed items) for later use. This is really helpful if you don't have an internet-everywhere contract with your mobile phone provider and still want to read the news somewhere where you don't get internet access (in a train, for example).
UPDATE: At the time I'm writing this, Google presents a new feature: Subscribe to websites that don't even have feeds. This way you can monitor changes on any site that's important to watch. Google creates a feed with the URL
http://www.google.com/notificationservice/webchanges/webfeeds/12345.... so you can even share the feed. For those who don't like being watched, you can exclude your site from the feature by standard methods.