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July 13, 2010 / conceptbin

Filtering, at Curious01

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to be one of the provocateurs at Curious 01, an event organized by Paul Bay of Citizenbay for marketing and communications practitioners. Being the lone academic in a room full of seasoned marketing and advertising pros was great fun. In the spirit of provocation I suggested that fostering curiosity these days is more about filtering out information that seeking it out in the first place.

Curiosity in an information-rich environment takes the form of filtering, selecting and weeding out information. (Multitasking is a coping-tactic, not a preferable way of doing things). This has prompted technological developments like the “Readability” Firefox extension, which has now been adopted as a feature called Reader in Apple’s new Safari 5 browser. Its purpose is to remove ads and give a clutter-free view of online articles. Similarly, Phil Gyford has recently put up a remixed clutter-free version of The Guardian. These are all attempts to increase what mathematical information theory (Shannon and Weaver et al.) called signal-to-noise ratio: Noise is bad, signal is good – the stronger, cleaner the signal, the better.

Credit: Chris Anderson, Wired

At a simple level we filter through tools (e.g., indexes, curated databases, online search engines, RSS feeds) or institutions (e.g., schools, universities, trusted news media, etc.). Not surprisingly, in print media, “decision maker” titles like The Week and The Economist are actually gaining circulation (according to the ABCs), against the downward trend in general-interest newspaper sales, because they filter and analyse news with authority and proven quality.

An acquaintance of mine who works in finance has adopted habits for protecting himself against what he calls “triple stacking” – a tendency to believe whatever information comes in from three sources, independently of one another. He reads the FT on the way to work, in the office he’s exposed to information all day, and this necessitates total media avoidance on the way home to guard against inadequately sourced information-pollution. As he put it, “If I’m going to believe something, I don’t want it to be because of the Evening Standard.”

Not only do we filter information through habits like these, but also socially (using colleagues, friends, family and other trusted people as information filters). The extreme version of this is what we might call “the Black Swan media diet,” a tactic recommended by Nicholas Nassim Taleb who advises readers to relax about what’s on the news, just go to parties and pay attention to what it is that people care enough about to bring up in conversation.

Perhaps we might call this the socialite-method: “When in doubt, go out.”

One of the great successes of Web 2.0, or participatory media, is to have picked up on the fundamental (cultural) value of social ties, mutual recognition, and the pleasures of sociability, and to amplify them – more precisely, to scale them up and represent them back to ourselves and to others.

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