Cutting through the clutter — Curation and the new 3 Rs of content.

Two-thirds of tweets are either “so-so” or not worth reading at all.  So says a study from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, MIT and Georgia Tech.

There is a delightful irony that I found this little gem in a tweet.  I read it on a feed from Chris Zane who runs Zane’s Cycle.   I interviewed a few months back for “The Customer Experience Show” a podcast that I host.   I follow Chris on Twitter because he is truly one of the great experts in customer experience.  What he has to say is worth listening to.

If truth be told, I had an little extra incentive to review his twitter stream.  I got a notice that Chris had mentioned me in one of his tweets.  When you get someone who you respect like I do Chris and THEY think that you’ve said something intelligent, you want to know what it was you said.

I — like so many others — say and pass along a great deal of information.   If this study is correct, about a third of it is worth saying.  Despite the source, I don’t believe it for a second.

They are hopelessly over-estimating how much  twitter traffic is valuable.  I for one am doing my best to bring down the  average.  I don’t believe for a second that a third of what I say is truly valuable.   This isn’t false modesty — just ask my friends.  Modesty is not something I’ve been accused of  having too much of.

Frankly, if we were “batting 333” in the content wars, life would be fabulous.

We wouldn’t have to start (and end) each day deleting emails.  I’m not talking about spam.  I’ve got a great spam filter.  Mine are  from subscriptions I thought were valuable, newsletters that have one good article buried in a pile of stuff that doesn’t interest me at all and a ton of other things I should get to but never seem to find the time for.  Like many of you, that’s how I start my day — looking at all the things I’ll never have time for or scanning and skipping quickly through mail, posts and  tweets. Sometimes something brilliant will catch my attention — or my ego (when I’m mentioned).  Otherwise, it’s all just a blur.

Like most of you, my day is a stream of electronic documents.  Do you find yourself skimming  through documents that you should probably spend more time reviewing?   Do you struggle to focus through all of the interruptions — the  calls, emails, notes, tweets, texts and people who try to get a few minutes of attention?  Does your day go by in a blur?

Moore’s Law rules – the power of technology is growing exponentially.   In a world of social media, there is another law that I’ve often quoted — Metcalfe’s Law.  Metcalfe came up with a way to explain the way networks grow in value exponentially as they get larger.

We’ve lived by these two laws for years.  More is better.  But is there a limit?  Could we get to too much of a good thing?

I love to read.  Here’s a paradox.  What’s my idea of a great vacation?  Answer –  sit at the cottage get a glass of great wine and read a good book.  My refuge from reading is to go off and read.  And it’s not just fiction.  I will read great business books.  My children think I’m insane.

The difference?  The wine and the scenery are certainly a factor.  But the real difference can be explained by another law — Sturgeon’s Law.   Theodore Sturgeon was a science fiction writer in the 1950’s who came up with the axiom, “90% of everything is crap.”

Sturgeon was bemoaning the state of science fiction, but what he said was not only prescient but more and more relevant each day.   Junk mail, Telemarketers. TV.  Even our daily conversations —   while we might not be as uncharitable as Sturgeon, we’d have to say that most of our day is spent in fairly mundane conversations.  Think back.  What did you talk about yesterday?  Same old, same old?  I rest my case.

Not only do we know Sturgeon was right, but at least in terms of work, many of us would love to change it.  That’s why when we see books like the “4 hour work week” it starts us dreaming of freedom from the barrage of urgent things that distract us from the truly important things that we yearn to do.

If Sturgeon was right, we are in deep trouble.  He was talking about a time when only a tiny percentage of the population were authors.  Everything that was written, certainly everything that was published — went through one or often several revisions.  This wasn’t just books and articles.   Even an office memo would have several drafts.

90% of everything might indeed have been “crap” – but it took a lot of effort and to produce that “crap”    Mercifully, there were limits to the volume if not the quality.

Fast forward to today. Everyone is an author.  Production is effortless.  It costs nothing to publish to the entire world.  As a result, most  of us are overwhelmed by the shear volume of content.   Yet Sturgeon’s law remains the constant.  Most of what we have to deal with is still — to use the uncharitable term, “crap”.

That’s why books like the “Four Hour Work Week” have such incredible appeal.   Imagine.  All you have to do is to filter and focus on what is important.   Sounds great.  But it’s a lie  It sounds so plausible but just try it.

Try going into your office every week, doing the four hours of high value work and then leave.  See how long your employment continues.

Unless you can unplug from the grid and be one of the lucky few who leverage a small amount of time into a large dollar value — largely by writing nonsense about things like a four hour work week — you are pretty much stuck doing the other 36 or more  hours of wading through the deep end of the Sturgeon pool.

If we could somehow magically filter out all of the mundane, the low value — the “crap” — it would be a wonderful world.   There’s an old saying in the world of marketing.  It says, “50% of your marketing budget is spent on things that are worthless.  The problem is that you’ll never know which 50%”.   That’s the problem.

But it’s not just marketing.  We have the same issue with the tsunami of content overwhelming us daily.  Even if you know that only 10% is of any value, you are never sure which 10%.

This is the trap of those who do “knowledge work”.   This is the daily reality.  Most of us learn how to cope.  We filter.  We delete.  We skip.  We skim.  But in our hearts we are know that we are all struggling to keep our head above water, living in the hope that we don’t miss something important.

That explains the growing interest in curation.  It’s a word we’ve been hearing a lot — and we’ll hear more about it as a new phenomenon in the world of software.

Curation is a a filter.  An intelligent agent goes through the volume and the clutter and brings us a distilled version, reduced to it’s essence.   Great curation does three things.  I call them the “3 Rs”  – short for reduced, relevant and reliable.

Curation reduces the volume information from a particular domain to make it more manageable. It distills things to their essence.

It ensures that the information is relevant.  Does it fit our interests and our needs?  This is more difficult than it seems.  Especially where the topic is new or unfamiliar we don’t always know what is valuable or how to describe it.   It can also be intensely personal.  We all have slightly different levels of need and the nuances of those needs are sometimes subtle.

Lastly, information must be reliable.  Accuracy is critical and in the current world, difficult to establish.  Is the story correct?  Is the source reliable?  Even if we could somehow establish these (and that’s by no means a certainty) there is still the real danger that when the information is reduced, filtering will introduce biases and inaccuracies.

Daniel Kahneman, the noble prize winning author puts it succinctly in his best seller, “Thinking Fast and Slow.” No matter how much we strive for objectivity, our brains are wired to introduce bias and inaccuracy — and to do so unconsciously.  No one, not even Kahneman himself can be a totally objective filter.

This is why the idea of curation software has such promise.  If search engines like Google’s can tame the web and help us search and find content in the vastness of the Internet — couldn’t we use that same type of filter in reverse?   Couldn’t we have information not just pushed to us, but filtered — reduced to manageable volumes?    In a world where Amazon can tell us what books we should read, why can’t we have software that can learn and even predict our needs — that will know what is relevant to us?   While we know that accuracy is difficult to automate, can we not find ways to increase the reliability of information — checking the sources and where there is ambiguity, allowing us to have several expert views.

That’s the promise of curation software. And it’s a big promise.  Like most technological developments, the promise is bigger than the delivery.  The challenge is that, despite Kahneman’s revelation that our minds are biased and often inaccurate, they are wonderful at understanding semantics — at dealing with the fuzzy and imprecise things — a task which software has only recently been able to approximate.

We are in the early stages, but there is some promise.  While we may never get a real semantic search, we are getting very sophisticated algorithms that can simulate how we analyze and how we learn.  Are they perfect?  No.  But frankly, if you read Kahneman, you’ll realize — neither are we.

Moreover, interfaces to these curation software engines are becoming more and more sophisticated.  Where once there was a tedious and lengthy question set, we now have software that “watches” your choices and adapts.  While it is still in the early stages, with IBM’s Watson and Apple’s Siri, we are growing ever closer to the ability to communicate our ideas in real language.

Still we are a long way from HAL 9000 or the USS Enterprise.  Until we reach those feats of technology, curation software remains an enabler of human expertise – a way to assist and to magnify our abilities.  It those terms, we have already come a long way indeed.

Even with it’s current limitations, in the hands of a skilled editor it’s an enormous boon.  One of my friends and colleagues, Shane Shick at  IT World Canada uses a Canadian developed package to monitor the daily output of thousands of writers and journals.  It allows him to monitor a wide range of writers and areas.  It functions as a research tool.  And increasingly, it allows him and his staff to republish the work of another writer, adding their own annotation and insight, while crediting the original author for their work.

As costs come down, curation software is available to a wider range of writers.  For even an”occasional journalist” like me, curation is an opportunity to make the most of limited time.  I have several curation engines that I watch regularly.  The tweet that started this post came to my attention because of a filter that I had set.   I’m now experimenting with curation software to feed several of the blogs that I publish which are more technical and less — how shall we say it?  Verbose?  Parts of our websites are now driven by curated content.  More to come.

Hopefully, curation will free up more time for me to read as well as write.  My passion is for words.  That won’t change.  No matter how sophisticated the software, my love will always be for the art of creation — not the act of curation.  So don’t expect me to replace this blog with a curated feed.  Sorry, but you’ll have to tolerate the 90% to find the 10% of it that is valuable.

All the best.


1 Comment

Filed under People, Social Media, Technology

One response to “Cutting through the clutter — Curation and the new 3 Rs of content.

  1. Thanks for this. The three R’s for content curation

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