Bookmarked No End to Content Overload by Amit Gawande

Amit Gawande’s struggle is very recognisable, also after ditching most if not all passive consumption. There’s always more content, and its creation outpaces your intake by many orders of magnitude. In the ’00s I blogged quite a bit about information strategy, one where abundance of information is a given. Most of the information strategies and tactics I learned earlier were based on information scarcity, or at least on a scarcity of access to abundant information. That’s when I assumed information and content abundance, and that my agency lies in starting from my information needs. My agency turns overload into abundance, a switch created by a change in assumed locus of control.

When we say “I cannot keep up!“, what does ‘keeping up’ mean really? At some point I realised it was mostly an outside perspective and projection by others that I internalised. From a time where most information thrown at me was chosen by others (school e.g.). That perhaps instilled the notion that the value of information is determined by the sender. In abundance the value is in the attention I pay to selection and to the hunt for the types of surprisal I want to encounter. For many years now I’ve been practicing (and regularly failing to different extends) an inside-out perspective where my current interests and tasks determine what’s worthwile to take in.

There I see my network of peers as a large scale antenna and a filter that work because of distributed conversations taking place between us. They share with me, I share stuff with them, the feedback loops lift signals above the noise. I’ve learned to trust that if it’s important to me it will surface again, because of those feedback loops. At the very least it made me unafraid to click ‘mark all items read’ daily in applications, and treat my never diminishing unread stacks of books as an anti-library available to explore when I have an actual interest to pursue. Keeping up in such a perspective is ‘easy’, as it is my own speed that I need to keep up with and not the global firehose of everything produced under the sun. There’s no need to see it ‘all’, just enough. It keeps being a struggle though, with all media trying to keep pushing everyone’s ‘pay attention to me’ buttons.

Maybe, I need to make peace with the fact that I cannot keep up. I cannot keep up with the growing list of brilliant books. I cannot keep up with the gifted writers churning beautiful essays. And, with a heavy heart, accept that I am okay with it.

Disengaging from passive consumption has helped me. But there’s too much good content that I can’t keep up with.

Amit Gawande

In previous posts I showed how I filter information, and which tools I use. This posting is about the actual routine I have. I will start with the inputs, and keep the processing and output parts for later postings.

Most important input is my RSS reader.
I follow a bit over 300 RSS feeds at the moment, which are separated into different groups:

  • general subscriptions on people’s blogs, and a number of feeds of those same people, and subscriptions to a few mainstream media sources for headline news,
  • a ‘keeping track’ section, with feeds from blogs, fora, wiki’s, and bookmark collections of communities I directly participate in, so I know what is going on in those specific groups. Also a feed with most recent Flickr uploads from my contacts is in this group,
  • a ‘tracking tags’ section, to which I add feeds for different topics (at the moment web2.0, long tail, personal knowledge management, innovation and the like) from Technorati, Flickr, and This brings a general picture (also through the number of daily results) of what is happening around a specific theme,
  • a ‘clients’ section which contains RSS feeds of clients I work with, so I know what is happening, and stay in touch with their context also when we are not directly in touch all the time.
  • a ‘local environment’ section which contain feeds from people and sources that are interesting to me because they are in my geographic ‘vicinity’, and maybe not directly interesting regarding context. So I know what is being talked about locally. Feeds like the local chamber of commerce, anything tagged with the name of the region I live in, ‘local’ bloggers not in my usual area of interest, (possible) competitors. By local I mean the Netherlands in general, with my region Overijssel/Twente specifically, and Germany in general, with nearby Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphal specifically.

Each morning I load the RSS reader once, usually around 5:15 when I get up on most days. When I have time I look through all new items as one page in the train to work. This mostly takes about 30 to 45 minutes, but I may cut it short when I have less time. I do all my reading off-line. 

During the browsing I drag parts that draw my interest into Qumana via the drop pad. (for later publishing, writing) and into my wiki (for filing or further processing) on a page called BlogsDailyRoundUp. Observations or sudden ideas that come to me through browsing end up in that wiki-page as well. Entries in the BlogsDailyRoundUp page usually have formats like:

  • put in delicious [account] [url] (account being my own, my company’s delicious account or that of a community I partake in)
  • comment at [name]’s about [topic] [url]
  • follow up reading [entry] at [url] (meaning go check out the links in that posting: I read off-line remember)
  • file [quote] from [url]
  • mail [name] about [topic] [url]

Basically I am building a To Do list based on what I read in my RSS reader. The things I want to blog or write about go into Qumana, where they basically form a list “Things to Possibly Write About”

If I am short for time, or don’t feel like going through all of it, I *always* look at the ‘keeping track’ and ‘clients’ section. Those are most relevant to my day to day activities. If I missed anything important from other people, I count on it to show up again in my reader later through other channels. I never worry about postings that I leave unread.

In case I have some extra time but not enough to browse everything I look through the new items from a few feeds in the ‘general subscriptions’. Usually spurred on by things like “I wonder what Martin Roell has been up to” or “I bet Michael Froomkin has an opinion about what happened in the US yesterday”. So selection then is based on social context and spur of the moment. Much like how I would be talking to people at a party or a reception when I can only stay for a short while. Relationships are more important than the actual information being shared.

As I wrote before when I have time to look at everything in the reader, I only look at the patterns: what is being talked about and might it have relevance to me? Postings that deal with things that I already have on my radar as relevant to things I am doing now I read entirely.

All downloaded RSS items are stored on my laptop, and accessible to my desktop search tool. This allows me to search back through time for different themes or topics.

E-mail I read througout the day, and may result in tasks in which case they end up in the calendar or in the wiki. I hardly have any e-mail list services I use left. Less than 5. One for my old fraternity, one for a local community, and one or two for professional discussions. In those last two I do not actively participate any longer.

Other Conversations
Conversations, face to face, phone, or IM, likewise result in notes for the wiki, or tasks for the calendar or the To Do list in the wiki. I routinely log IM chats, and keep them indexed in Copernic, the desk top search tool. Notes of face to face conversations often are taken on paper, and I transfer them to the wiki as soon as possible afterwards. Either directly at the end of a meeting, or on the way back home in the train, or at the first opportunity that shows itself.

Main stream media
Main stream media have become a very marginal factor in my direct information in-take. I have cancelled both subscriptions to newspapers I held, as I have cancelled all magazine subscriptions except one (a Dutch magazine about philosophy). I may glance at a newspaper I find in the train, but nothing else. I hardly watch the news on tv, only if there is a breaking story like the July 7th bombings in London. I do check the Dutch national text services a couple of times a day, but only through the web (and I hope they will provide RSS real soon). The headlines of three news services are in my RSS subscriptions. I do encounter a lot of what MSM produces however when it is referenced in other (blog) sources I follow through RSS. This is a big change for me, as I used to be a real news junkie with several papers and magazines subscribed to, always watching news editions on the tv, and looking at the discussion and in-depth programmes. Of course I still am a news junkie, but I look to other sources now. MSM has almost completely become an indirect source for me. Meanwhile I find myself often being better informed than those following MSM. I regularly come across items I have seen days earlier on the web, being presented as news in a newspaper or on tv. Documentaries and in-depth programmes I watch as archived streams on the web, not when they are aired on tv, and much more selective than before.

This is how information comes to me on a daily basis. I will discuss processing and sharing information in other postings.

In my earlier posting on information strategy I discussed how I look at the way I filter information. This posting I will talk about the tools I use to filter incoming information, select, process and share it.
Let’s have a look at the basic picture I drew last time.

Filtering information

Of course this picture doesn’t show only the filtering. The arrows for Actions and Sharing imply that some processing and output is taking place as well.

In terms of functionality it looks more like this:

On the left hand side you see the different input channels. I read and select from that for both processing and filing. The output of the processing results in taking actions (decisions, taking stuff into client projects etc.), or in sharing through the different channels mentioned.
Let’s have a look at the tools I use.

For blogs I use the RSS reader Lektora
E-mail I read with Thunderbird and Gmail (private), and Outlook Exchange (business)
Podcasts come to me through iPodder and I listen to them with my iRiver H10 MP3 player.
Bookmarks I collect from and Furl, through my RSS reader Lektora
Photo media come from Flickr, through RSS again.
I also routinely take photo’s of workshop sheets and sticky notes, which I load into my personal wiki (on which more later)
Conversations take place via Skype and GoogleTalk, and through IM in Trillian (I use IRC, Yahoo, Icq, MSN, AIM through Trillian). The reason I use all of these applications together is to increase reach. I also use a webcam for some of these applications.
Other conversations take place face to face, or via regular (cell) phone. Of all these conversations I take notes, either in my personal wiki, or pen and paper, to be transferred to the wiki later.

What I select from all my reading, listening and talking (which as I said in my previous post I do based on pattern detection, and current relevant questions I have) gets processed, for which I use three tools I am extremely fond of:
Wikka Wiki, which runs locally on my laptop on a local webserver. The wiki is the one place I use for working out ideas, filing, keeping notes, and the like.
For writing blogpostings and other items to be published on-line I use Qumana (the original full version, not the current Qumana Light Edition which is very good in it’s own right, but lacks the library and work pad function I need badly for my writing in progress. I am not an ‘in the moment’ blogger). Qumana has a very easy drop pad to select morsels of information, and allows me to post to any or all of the 8+ blogs I write in.
For searching outside Wikka I use the Copernic desktop search tool (which indexes the archived RSS as well).
Next to these three great tools I use Picasa and Irfanview for managing photo’s.

For sharing I use Movable Type and WordPress (both on my own server, as well as elsewhere), sometimes Blogger, for blog posting. Different Wikka Wiki installations, Media Wiki, and proprietary platforms for different CoPs. for sharing bookmarks, and Flickr for uploading photo’s. E-mail of course (same as inputs)
Work related things end up, apart from company blog and company account, in a Sharepoint Portal which forms the back-office of our company.
All this next to conversations (again through the same tools as the inputs), presentations (PowerPoint) and documents (Office, OpenOffice)
Now we have seen my view on information filtering, and the tools I use, I will spend one or more coming postings on my daily routine.
In the mean time I am curious to hear more about your way of working. Differences with what I’ve described thusfar, similarities etc: I’d like to hear more about it.
To me understanding how we are reshaping our information strategies from what they were before blogging/social software/web2.0 is key in explaining others what they might do about what is perceived as information overload.

Last april I wrote about how I read RSS.
I described two main approaches:

One is to simply browse through the feeds to get a feeling of what is going on, what themes are getting attention. To detect patterns. Because I try to see RSS feeds as parts of a conversation (I subscribe to people not feeds), listening to what these voices are telling me, is using my social network as a filter, a community filter. Gossip 2.0, so to speak. In this mode I hardly read any specific postings, and if I blog something because of it, it is triggerd by patterns I see.
The other approach has its starting point in myself. Whatever I am currently working on or interested in, questions I am exploring etc. (such as information strategies right now), trigger reading specific postings, commenting and blogging.

The first approach is based on pattern recognition, and filtering sources through an understanding of their origin and context. Objectivity is replaced by multi-subjectivity to weigh information. Information items do not stand by themselves but are built into social contexts (the experience and attitude of the source are factored into the perceived value of the information), and are only evaluated on an aggregated level. Observed patterns are then categorized as requiring action, requiring observation, or they are ignored. This is very much an outside-in approach and requires awareness of which sources of information I have and purposefully seeking out large numbers of additional sources.

In short in this first approach it is you, the collective of yous, that is my filter. This filter is based on its social characteristics, and it gets better when additional people (that I have some knowledge of: context is needed) are added to it. So this filter thrives on having more information not less. This is the main reason I say that information overload does not exist.

In the picture below, all of you are the filter on the left: I see what you think is important for me to see.

The second approach is inside-out oriented and is based on heightened self-knowledge and self-reflection, either as an individual or as a group in terms of (collective) ambition and goals. Here information items are considered by themselves, though imbedded in their social context, based on direct personal or group relevance in guiding action.

In the picture above, I am the filter on the right: I look at all that comes at me, and pick-up on what is relevant for me now. Other stuff might get filed. One of the important actions to take is sharing.

Sharing parts of the outcome of these two types of filtering (you and me) with all of those that include me as a source of information is a key element of your overall information strategy. This is what creates feedback loops. Because what works as filtering for me, works the same way for you. See the picture below.


Now if at least part of your input channels, have your output as input as well, we create feedback loops. Feedback are an important factor of the emergence of patterns. This way sharing helps to sustain and strengthen my own ability for pattern recognition, it reinforces the power of my filtering. There is one caveat though: if all the inputs to both our filters are too much alike, we end up in an echo-chamber of our own making. So that is something you have to do a reality check on every now and then. Self knowledge, the filter that is me on the right hand side, is what helps you prevent your outside-in filter becoming the wall of your echo-chamber.


(The original filter picture I drew during a great conversation with my good friend Patrick last August in Switzerland. Apart from being a bright guy to talk to, he also makes a terrific Swiss cheese fondue)