The Twitter Generation: Coping with Information Overload

People look at Twitter, Facebook and other social media and often observe “oh great, just what I need.  More distractions.”  Perhaps now more than ever, my learnings of over 20 years as an analyst are broadly useful.  As an analyst, I’ve been trained to look at the world through the lens of input, process and output.  You have to allocate your time among those three and also make sure that each is managed, typically in different fashions.

Input

In the good old days of “information is power,” we had a finite number of inputs, often giving us an incomplete picture of the situation.  Today, we still may have holes in the input but the bigger issue now is information overload, too much input.  Still, we must do two things.  First, make sure that among that choices of inputs that we have that we choose a balanced set of inputs to give the broadest possible picture.  Too many people on Twitter, for instance, follow people “just like them,” giving an echo chamber kind of effect.  Their thinking gets ratified because the only inputs they choose to select are those that confirm their position.  Bad situation in which to find yourself.  At the same time, it’s all too easy to conclude that because of the volume of inputs you’re receiving that you somehow must be seeing everything you need to see.  False.  It’s every bit as critical in this “too much information” world to identify the underlaps in your information flow as if you were in a “too little information” world.  So many post-disaster analyses demonstrate that the information to realize we were making a mistake existed, just that it hadn’t crossed the relevant person’s radar screen.  The old saying still applies:  “if you don’t know what you don’t know, you don’t know enough.”

Process

In the “good old days,” we’d actually spend time thinking about or debating things.  In today’s world, process consists of clicking “like” on Facebook or retweeting on Twitter.  Perhaps with the volume of data today, it’s easier to identify trends but then again, extrapolating straight line conditions was never a terribly valuable skill to possess.  In a data-rich world, every bit as much as in a data-poor one, identifying the non-intuitive conclusions is the real value contribution.  I suppose there’s a place in the world for the Scobles and Kawasakis – the broadcast media of social networks – but the real value I’ve found always comes from those who apply selection, judgment and insight to the data, not merely rebroadcast it.  This is one of the values of the Internet OldTimers Foundation network to me; my OT time is usually thought-provoking and insight-focused.  There is very little of the “see this, pass it on” and much more of the “so what does this really mean?”  And perhaps the biggest insight I’ve gathered over the years from focusing on process is to look for proof you’re wrong.  If you look for proof you’re right, you’ll almost always find it…even when everyone else long ago concluded you were wrong.  If on the other hand, you give your search for your errors a true and honest effort, only in the absence of information negating your position might you begin to feel comfortable in your correctness…subject of course to a full range of inputs as outlined above.  This search for wrongness makes me sometimes a difficult person to work (or live) with – I’m the one who, when everyone else is rushing to agree, stops to see what we’re missing.  On the other hand, that makes me a great consultant; I’ll see what those of you too close to the matter (whose inputs are biased in one direction) might miss.

Output

At the end of the day, what you do with your inputs and processes is what really matters.  Mental masturbation is a wonderful game in which to participate but if your inputs and processes don’t lead to substantive behavioral changes, it wasn’t necessarily time well spent.  Don’t spend a lot of time in maintenance of the status quo.  Instead, look for those outputs that call for a behavioral change.  That’s where you get the real return on your investments of time above.

It’s real easy to lose track and get caught up in one of the above steps – the information junkie, the debater or the presenter.  I find great personal value in being aware of these processes and biases and actively managing them.

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3 Responses

  1. I like the use of inputs and outputs as a way to frame the discussion of social media, in particular the higher volume ones like twitter and Facebook. In the “olden days” while we did have much fewer inputs, they were also much better vetted and trusted, since the process of publishing information was much more costly. If you were going to invest in getting information out there, it better well be researched and thoroughly fact checked.

    The challenge with today’s inputs is not just that they are vastly higher in volume, but the new platforms make the exposing of ideas and opinions virtually free. So as consumers of information we now have the burden of sifting through more content, and vetting the sources for accuracy a validity. At the end of the day, when it comes to making better business decisions, I don’t want more inputs – and I certainly don’t want more opinions. I want only the most trusted and best vetted facts without the publishing cost. When the social networks figure out how to automate that “process” piece for me they become game changers. But for now, there’s not enough time in my work day to manually wade through the inputs. Certainly google can and should play a role here, and to some extent already does with search rankings. But those are still based on relevance, not reliability or quality of information. But perhaps they’re already working on that problem….

  2. I don’t agree that higher volume necessarily means lower quality. Rob, you may be guilty of nostalgia. I don’t know that it’s a fair conclusion that we had better vetted inputs, even though we may have thought so at the time. And we’ve certainly learned that the trust we put in many of those institutions was misplaced, at best, and abused at worst.

    I’ve come (courtesy of colleague Tom Cunniff) to think of this as a funnel.

    Twitter, Facebook and other raw social sources are poured into the top of the funnel. I actually find that, through careful selection of who I follow, that Twitter actually serves as a very good filter mechanism, highlighting key points of interest. Twitter has, to some degree, assumed the role of newspaper editor for me, albeit one through selection that better understands my interests.

    Further down the funnel are blogs and other news analysis. They distill all the raw inputs at the top of the funnel.

    What falls out the bottom are the valuable insights, which then serve as inputs back to the top of the funnel, which begin the process anew.

    The circular nature of this process makes it further valuable. In your good old news, there was little to circulation of insights. It stopped with those who pontificated. Now, we get an acceleration of insight and a furtherance of the value proposition.

    And there’s definitely technology being provided to the opportunity. My favorite is a company called Loomia whose solution, SeenThis, enables me to easily distill the collective editorial judgment of my Facebook friends and groups. I think they’re really on to something.

  3. I like your approach to see “what you don’t know you don’t know” — That is what can make or break a business. Biases will prevent this knowledge from being “discovered”. Using Discovery Analytics can help to uncover emerging issues with the use of all data availble to the enterprise. I strongly believe that organizations should be using social media sources. 3rd party data and internal data so that they have a true picture of what is happening (social media being the #1 source). It is so easy now for opinions to become viral.
    Great article!

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