Keeping Up with Social Media--The Chocolate Factory


It's Twitter's fault. No, it's Facebook, or email, or—wait, social media is about people, so it's our fault. There's just too much to keep up with these days, and more people are pointing it out. Rubel crashed. Scoble cried uncle. Calcanis went bankrupt. And everyone is talking about signal-to-noise ratio. As in, if you want to get the good stuff (the signal) in social media, you have to pick it out of a lot of junk (the noise). They're right, but that's just the start.

Yes, words are useless. Gobble, gobble, gobble, gobble, gobble! Too much of it, darling. Too much! That is why I show you my work. That is why you are here.
Edna Mode, The Incredibles
I had an idea of reframing the increasing burden of information sources using thrust-to-weight ratio and exploding rockets, leading to thoughts about how to scale efforts to keep up, when—out of the blue—I realized that it's more like Lucy in the chocolate factory.

(RSS subscribers, click through for the video.)

The signal-to-noise metaphor is all about source selection and filtering—finding the information you care about amid all the other stuff. The chocolate factory is about scaling processing capabilities—what you do with the signal once you've separated it from the noise.

Bodies or tools
Improving S/N is crucial, but it's only the first step. As the total volume of relevant, useful information increases, you have to increase your capabilities to keep up. Your options are the usual suspects: bodies and tools. Adding bodies is easy to understand, if a bit unworkable on an individual level. Even the most diligent worker can't work more than about 28 hours a day.

Which leaves tools. On an individual level, that includes email automation and using RSS to bring information to you. The new lifestream aggregators, such as FriendFeed may fit this description, though honestly, I've been too busy to try them.

In organizations, you get to choose between bodies and tools, but you're still limited by that 28-hour day thing. Do you add people or invest in better tools to know what's going on (or do you declare market intelligence bankruptcy in the face of the overwhelming riches of available data)? Do you hire an outside company to track it for you? How do they answer the bodies vs. tools question, and what does that mean to you?

(If it's all too much, these questions go to the heart of the research and consulting that I offer.)

What do you do?
This topic is perilously close to the human vs. computer analysis question, which we'll come back to soon. For now, what tools do you use to keep up with the growing flood (at the individual or organizational level)? Is it still about improving signal-to-noise for you, or have you reached the point where the signal itself is too much to handle with your current methods?


I love Edna's character in "The Incredibles" great to pull out that quote from her!

The people vs. tools question is an interesting one--my recommendation to potential clients* is to know what their objectives are when looking to do monitoring/research/analysis. Those objectives will fit somewhere on the wide spectrum of products out there. It's important to find a good match and not get too caught up in gasping at the sheer volume.

*Full disclosure, as Nathan knows, CustomScoop, the firm I work for, does media and blog monitoring & analysis!


Several years ago I attended a talk by a futurist who spoke about Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns (sort of the social implications of Moore's Law), and information theory's perspective on modern change. His argument was that beginning in the last decade, we have reached the point in which we produce more information in almost every discipline than we could manually process in a lifetime, and the gap is widening. His example was astonomy- it was originally done manually (visual observation), then using photographic plates which would be compared manually for changes. Now the process is digital, and we must develop pattern recognition tools to parse the exploding mountain of astronomical observation data. His argument is that humans are now just experiencing the same phenomenon through interpersonal communications, and we are developing smart filters slower than we are increasing our information flow - drinking from the fire hose.

Personally, I'm still using RSS+filters and rule-based email processing, and keeping my eyes open on the research on smart aggregators, summarizers, and and software agents.

I have a colleague who hires an Indian freelancer to pre-read and prioritize his communications for him. It's probably a great solution, but seems to be a "kludge" fix to me.

Jen, we routinely back up and watch one or two of Edna's highlights again when we watch The Incredibles. Wouldn't you love to know her?

I'm learning new ways of thinking about managing signal levels, and it should be no surprise that I think tools are a big part of the answer. A conversation with FirstRain today really upturned some of the usual assumptions for me. You're absolutely right on the need to know what you're after before you pick a strategy or tool, though. FirstRain is different because their objective is completely different.

Guy, I thought of the virtual personal assistant thing, but it struck me as a bit too exotic for most of us. Some days it's a very attractive thought.

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About Nathan Gilliatt

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  • Voracious learner and explorer. Analyst tracking technologies and markets in intelligence, analytics and social media. Advisor to buyers, sellers and investors. Writing my next book.
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