Building Effective Information Systems using Social Tools

Social media systems, tools which enable us to emit little nuggets of information whenever we like, run the risk of being analogous to using a fine-mist spray to fill a water glass at 50 feet. It’s not a terribly good way to get a drink. The trouble is, we all play two roles in the analogy: we are both the spray head and the glass. We emit nuggets of information, we also consume information which other people have emitted. It’s all a bit haphazard and directionless: it needs control in order to be effective.

Let me move away from the analogy and back to social media proper. As a Google+ user, I often send out updates – usually links to blog posts of my own, or to news articles or posts which I’ve found on the Internet which are either interesting in of themselves or else worthy of comment. These sorts of updates go out publicly, and I like to think that there might be a few people out there who would find them useful. If they could find them. And that’s the problem I am trying to highlight in this post: building social media tools which don’t just allow us to emit information, but allow information to find us.

Anyone who’s read my book An Infinite Number of Monkeys, or follows my blog, will see this as my common theme. But here I’m looking specifically at why social media sites are currently, in my view, providing far less value than they could.

On Google+ I follow a few friends and family (Google+ still lags way behind Facebook for actual social interaction, and in fact few people I care to share with are on Google+), and also a few organisations and individuals who I don’t know personally. Particularly, people such as Guy Kawasaki, Robert Scoble and Tim O’Reilly .These guys are some of those who Google have picked out as being particularly worthy, and I follow them because they occasionally have something to say which I find interesting. But not all the time. Look on LinkedIn (influencers) and on Google Currents (curators) and you’ll find the same system of curated content – individuals picked out and promoted by the system because they are deemed interesting. They gather a huge number of followers because of this.

This is great, but there are two problems.

Firstly, not everything these guys pump out is interesting to me. Sometimes they put out interesting and considered posts on a topic which they think worthy of note, other times they send more simple pointers to things or simply personal updates. I don’t really want to see all this, because their interests don’t coincide 100% with mine. Which you might say is fine: I should just skip the uninteresting bits. Except that it’s not fine, because I can only deal with a certain amount of “stuff” coming in on my digital information stream. The junk, or rather the bits that to me are not interesting, take up way too much of my time and, perhaps more importantly, obscure or leave no time for other, more useful content. I would really like to see more stuff from more people, but I can only do that if the noise can be filtered out.

Secondly, system-promoted curators are actually a bad thing because they reinforce the cult of celebrity and fail to deliver on one important aspect of social media… they fail to make our world more open and democratic. What we really want to do is to find people who say things that are interesting or useful, rather than people who have become famous – for whatever good or bad reason. System-promoted curators by definition have to “become someone” first, outside the system –  the system doesn’t really do much to help individuals to become someone, to identify them as a valuable resource which other people can tap. Yes, people who post informative content regularly can become, over time, recognised for their valuable contribution – but it’s a very slow process, and reliant on a life-impacting level of ambition. This is not clever.

My suggestion, which would help to resolve both these problems, is a simple one: automated curation based upon personal feedback.

Most systems have aspects of this built in already, or at least appear to have, but they don’t seem to be working too well. The main way in which people find interesting content is by actively searching for it. So I might search for “gold panning” on Google+, find a few people posting about it, and choose to follow someone who seems to know what they’re talking about. Now I get all their updates about astrology too because the feed is unfiltered. Great. What I really want is for the system to remember what I like: to keep a track of who I like, what I search for, keywords from content I tag or “like”, and keywords from posts I make. From this it could assemble a tick-list of keywords which, over time, would form a useful guide to what I might find interesting.

Keyword-matching is about as simple as it gets. Meaning-based analysis would be better, but whether it is feasible to do that, for us all, without making the system too computationally expensive I don’t know. Whichever approach is taken, being able to see a set of “hand-picked”, in a manner of speaking, posts of specific interest to me would be far more useful than simply being able to see a list of posts from people and organisations which I’m following – and/or sample posts from “influencers”.

And by pulling up posts which it thinks are likely to be of interest to me, the system can identify – by what I do with those items (skim read, read in depth or ignore) – how well it did, and learn. It can identify new interesting people from my interests, and connect us up.

To fulfil the true potential of social media, the systems need to get away from system-promoted curators, though they have their place especially for newcomers, and get more real with information analysis and distribution. Only then will clever, insightful and informed contributors of all kinds get their voices heard in the vastness of the social babblesphere.

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About mikbarne
I'm a writer and freelance communications and collaboration consultant with nearly 20 years experience in UK telecommunications, specialising in VoIP, Unified Communications and Collaboration, and building effective communications architectures. Visit my Google+ Profile

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