Too Much Information Makes People Something Something

When we started this team, three years ago, most people we talked to hadn’t heard of Facebook or Twitter and associated MySpace, assuming they’d heard of it, with something kids do.

Some people knew LinkedIn and that often helped get the wheels turning about social and how it could benefit work.

It was a lot like 1997 all over again, when the Internet’s best use cases for work began to gather momentum.

By 2000, every company had an external website and most also had internal ones.

The same is true for social; now three years later, seems like everyone tweets and facebooks, but I don’t feel like the work use cases have kept the pace.

I stated before that the best use cases have yet to be discovered, but it’s not happening as quickly as I expected.

Why? I suspect the firehose of information that comes out of Twitter and Facebook and n number of other sources has people completely overcommitted. Like Rich observed, we all try too hard to stay informed, which inevitably leads to backlash.

So, when you ask people to use something new or try this or that new product, they cry uncle.

This over-information problem is actually hampering innovation because the domain experts who would tinker with new product and apply their expertise to discover new use cases are already buried in email, feeds and half a dozen other tools they use to communicate and stay informed.

I’ve seen this lead to a new type of trolling, which manifests as continual griping about the lack of business use cases for social technologies.

A bit ironic, since presumably the person is too busy to discover use cases, but is not to busy to complain about how they are missing.

It’s a shame too. Facebook has more than 400 million users. Twitter is nearing 10 billion tweets.

And yet, the people using these services are too busy to apply what they like about social to their everyday work.

Maybe it’s going to take something like Google Wave to pave the way for efficient and useful collaboration first, or maybe existing tools like email, IM and content management are too deeply entrenched.

Or am I way off base thinking that innovation is being squeezed by a glut of information?

What do you think? Find the comments.

Update: Shortly after publishing, I realized I covered a similar angle a few years back in a post called “Too Busy to Innovate“. Since then, the load of information has gotten twice or thrice as heavy.

Too much information is a real problem for innovation, even innovation that would help control and filter the information suffers.




  1. I strongly agree. I find myself consuming and consuming more and more but producing less and less. And I suspect I am not alone. Just don't tell my boss 🙂

  2. I don't have time to read this post, but I suspect there is no a business use case associated with it… 🙂



  3. I like the characterization of producers and consumers, creating an information economy. Maybe that will become a post. Although, I'm sure smarter people have already covered it.

  4. Well it is starting to move… But as I said here… – those people already have facebook, twitter.. and such to cope with in their personal lives. So why also using their biz counterparts?

    I guess those enterprise social tools have to focus on enterprise scenarios… Like Salesforce Chatter which is closely integrated with the actual CRM data – so people can socialize (and thus enrich) around their data.



  5. Yeah, that's my point. Most people are consuming a ton more information than they were two years ago, from Facebook, Twitter, etc.

    I do think many people take a narrow, silo-ed approach to work vs. personal life, which is fine, but removes cross-pollination of ideas on how work could be better.

    Focus on enterprise scenarios will be hit and miss, since we haven't found all the really compelling enterprise social use cases yet.

  6. I think it's a Sizzle v. Beef kinda thing.

    When I was computerizing small businesses (early 90s) one of the things I concentrated on was to not make little changes in people's work-flow. I figured that would be perceived as friction, or noise. And that's irritating. And it's hard to work with irritated customers.
    I figured there was something like a quantum effect: when the change was small, the improvement was incremental, which means it got buried in the noise of irritation. But when it was big? Totally different scenario. What comes to mind is demonstrating how much a good set of spreadsheets can produce in a matter of minutes. You know, well designed reports.

    What I'm getting at is this: what comes out of the Twitter/FB fire-hose is only “end product” when looked at as fun and entertainment. It's usually more like raw material than it is end product. So what need does it actually meet? Where's the actual improvement?
    Doing X I get M amount of un-structured information. Doing Y I get M*2, or M*5, or even M^2 … so what?

    I'm not saying there isn't some improvement. I'm saying that if it isn't clearly quantifiable (in a quantum sorta way) then it isn't perceived as real gain.
    Folk will climb incremental learning curves for more fun and entertainment … innovation of that sort is like Chinese food or salted peanuts. But anything more substantial?

    Going from 0 spreadsheets to, well, I used “crytal ball” as the metaphor … that's quantifiable improvement.

    Background: I've had the design for a discourse-based decision support system sketched out for over 5 years. And I've found precisely 0 interest in the implementation. The bla-yada-blah conversation on the topic? like participation in policy debates? It's probably doubled in volume every year. Interest in getting in done? Vanishlingly small. Go figure. (I mean it! The latest 2 startups, one just last month, used design paradigms that had been tried in the late 90s, stuff I identified as dead-end more than 10 years ago. That's not innovation.)

  7. “End product” I like it, very double-entre 🙂

    Rich pointed me at Cadmus (, which shows you stuff trending among the people you follow. It's fine so far, but far too static for me.

    I finally broke the lazy barrier and reciprocal followed a ton of people today, and Brizzly is way more interesting that it was before, if only b/c I'm seeing new updates.

    There have to be smart, algorithmic ways to control this firehouse.

  8. Ok, let's go with your “algorithmic way to control firehose”. I betcha Al Ghoretzmi or whatever the brother's name was would say, “Go ponder the wisdom of water on rock” or something equally biblical … desert people, yaa? Pure Tao.

    So anyhow … ever worked with AI? The math defeated me, but I have a hardware geek's way of getting into the bowels of things. (Losing my point here .. ohhhh yaa.) Enough to appreciate the distinction of AI / “expert system”? Cuz it's Mac/PC … really … apples/oranges. (No pun intended; I'm not clehvur as you!) Thing is that expert system only uses algorithms functionally, for sorting and fetching and indexing and such. But with AI … algorithm is the very heart-beat of the beast. Which isn't always an advantage. (With our system's Built In Test Equipment we opted to develop with ES because we couldn't quantify resource required with AI … maybe it would only be difficult, and the results brilliant … but maybe it would be near impossible. Which is deadly for a small R&D shop.)

    Ok … let's see if I can find my track here. Oh right.
    Think of an algorithm that can't be gamed! *rustles through yesterday's tweets* #FAKE – Program to populate fake blogs with re-tread comments extracted from other sites > < #pathology … so there's one danger: any too.mechanistic method would leave the user open to subtle/successful SPAM.
    It isn't the sort of thing I document / record but there more and more material on how email scams are becoming increasingly sophisticated. You familiar with … what's it called … Eliza? The computer program that seems to hold up it's end of the conversation? Deadly combination.

    Ok, I'm thinking while keyboarding here … sorry … point is that lack of definition = unclear results + unanticipated consequences. (Our project was lead-pipe simple: land the plane i.e. don't break the can full of mushy passengers.)
    System Requirement Specification comes before Detailed Design Document.

    I started pondering the nuts&bolts of what I saw as a need back in 1975. The system design finally came clear December 2003. That's working as a less than brilliant / under-resourced 1-man shop. But ignoring the time-scale, that's the cycle. ThereIsNoOther.

    Oh BTW, coupla weeks back I came across a paper on “Balkanization” in my Primary Sources directory. I have like 1.5Gig of docs … daunting! The bottom line of their work: as the number of connections increases the variety of social interaction increases until a certain point at which the increasing number of connections results in increasing homogeneity. So, really, FB and Twitter can very easily lead to yet.another aspect of Daily Me. No reason for blind optimism. The most obvious manifestation of “controlling the firehose” is simple: only what I'm comfortable with only from people I like.
    I'm sure that's not what you're after.
    Me? My design took that as prime directive … it occurred to me late 70s, using university CS resources for anti-apartheid work. (Praxis is t.h.e shiet!)

    K … will peek Cadmus.

    p.s. re-treading old material in a new blog: … plan being to index / process that body of material using such as Commentpress. Next step after that is to roll out WPMU and create a constellation of blogs.

  9. hunh … same thing happened last week on another blog: I like the fact that Disqus has “Edit”, but it fails to save. Coincidence?

    Anyhow, wanted to add RFE … I suggest you tweak CSS so that links are underlined. They sorta fade into the wallpaper as is.

    As for Cadmus, yaaa, saw that … didn't remember it. So here's the specific: we really haven't wrangled “tags” VS “categories” and how all that really works with a large volume of un-structured information. Even in a restricted case it's not clear. (When I bring it up with WP geeks they just groan and roll their eyes. *grin*)
    The more homogenous the material the more of it will pass through the filter I've set up to stream it in my direction. Is that really what I want? Not so sure.

  10. Re. RFE, I have this on my list of to-dos. For some reason, this is the one of the default CSS that come with Disqus, or Rich tweaked it to play a joke on us all. I'll get to it eventually.

    Tags and categories remind me how badly all I want is search, see my post on that if you like:

    Point is, I shouldn't have to organize.

    Anyway, you've done a ton more thinking about this than I have, and Rich always says “algorithms are hard”. Still, that doesn't keep me from going back to this every few months. The personal algorithm idea has legs.

    Maybe FB will build a good one, since they control a lot of the moving pieces that would make it tough. That would be a disservice to the rest of the intertubes, but we end up in a Demolition Man/Total Recall type world living in the sewers/outside the bubble of utopia.

    I wandered off the reservation a bit there.

  11. I was peachy.keen delighted when I discovered IntenseDebate and later Disqus, but … giving over control just didn't sit right. Still, though, the core function is central to my thinking i.e. something like federation of comments. It pains me no end to see 100s of 1000s of good comment material siloed away in 10s of 1000s of posts. (Have you checked out > the “Commentpress” plugin for WP <? I've been surveying this sorta stuff for, well … 2 decades or more. see my > “Annotation – GPLv3 PLoS and Jack Slocum EXTJS blog” < from 2007 where I talk about > the Stet Comment System used in the GPLv3 draft process <)

    Anyhow, I think it comes down to really understanding the requirement. Nobody seems interested in putting aside the speculative philosophy and actually doing that. I did it … and came up with a very workable design. heh … nobody much interested in that, either! (A comment on contemporary social psychology? danged straight!)

  12. Commentpress looks cool, but to your point, Disqus has our comments locked away, for now. I'm curious about their export, but not enough to try it.

    Rich told me about the Salmon protocol (…), which aims to do what you suggest. We're investigating it and for our internal use.

  13. Salmon is push? Hmmm … I think there's going to be some sorta shake-out / consolidation in that area. Here's > Brad Fitzpatrick on the difference between PubSubHubbub and rssCloud. < And > “RSSCloud Vs. PubSubHubbub: Why The Fat Pings Win” < (TechCrunch).
    Have you explored Buzz / GWave? Methods in search of a use case, seems to me.

    Years ago (shortly after 9/11 … I felt our communications tech really let down our first responders) I tried to design a trunking system for voice communications, how to pipe channels with granularity such that anybody could talk to anybody without just being overwhelmed by babble. What I realized was I needed some over-arching metaphor, some way to make the whole sensible to an individual who's stressed and distracted in the moment.
    Can we do something like that with web activity? Using existing or new protocols to monitor activity in terms of … what … change of state. (I'm remembering working with Telco when teletype was our main means of communication. The *bing bing bing* at the end was the exclamation mark, but the steady chunk.chunk.chunk of the print head served as a very effective “heads up” … very effective at a cognitive level. When 2, 3 or even 4 machines were chunking you got a sense that something was brewing.)

  14. We're going PubSub. I haven't read much on Salmon, but it seems like the only standard for comments right now.

    Unfortunately, the protocol wars will need to settle out before any real channelling will begin. Actually, FB will probably solve it on their own, and see my previous comment on that 🙂

  15. I just re-read the TechCrunch article. A close reading. Comments too. Gotta luv it when guys who are actually working the stuff talk about it … “praxis”, yaa? (Bob Wyman wrote how he “was doing explicit publish/subscribe over networks as far back as 1983”. That impresses me.)
    When I thought of making an RSS reader what I came up with was functionally similar to NetVibes, which I think handles the granularity thing well. 1st level shows blog titles, 2nd level post titles, 3rd level a long post extract c/w sidebar of other posts' titles … dandy, I think.
    I can imagine a twitter-like stream of titles + post slugs quasi-realtime in chrono order.

  16. Ah yes, TC comments are always an experience. You've given me an idea about a reader for Twitter . . .

  17. We've tinkered with both Buzz and Wave; search for our reviews. Agree with your assessment. Although providing APIs should shake out some good use cases, eventually.

  18. Ah yes, TC comments are always an experience. You've given me an idea about a reader for Twitter . . .

  19. We've tinkered with both Buzz and Wave; search for our reviews. Agree with your assessment. Although providing APIs should shake out some good use cases, eventually.

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