Wondering if signal is the new noise
Thursday, September 30th, 2010
Six months ago I proposed a panel for Web 2.0 Expo called “Is Noise the New Signal, or is Signal the New Noise?”
Here’s the panel description: “Every two days the global info glut balloons by 5 exabytes, an amount exceeding all the knowledge created from the dawn of humanity through 2003. And our personal contact lists now far exceed Dunbar’s number, the 148 people who, theoretically, can form a cohesive social unit. Can our brains remain afloat amid web 2.0’s deluge of data and faces? Will we manage to create new devices that function like the card catalog for Gutenberg’s age or the search engine for web 1.0? Or will mechanisms like trust-networks, whuffiebanks, version-trackers, badge shelves and tag clouds just add to the confusion?”
Well that panel is today. Trying to get my mind around the topic in recent days, I’ve had some conversations with panelists and others who’ve had time to squeeze me into their noisy days: Laura Fitton, David Weinberger, Marshall Kirkpatrick, Duncan Watts, Silona Bonewald, and Jonah Peretti. I’m going to post notes from conversations with the nonpanelists first. Then, so I don’t dilute anyone’s best lines, I’ll post notes on panelists’ thoughts post-panel.
Though I’m apparently more pessimistic than most, I think our current state is best summed up by a Disney cartoon. Remember Mickey and the brooms in the 1940 Disney classic “Fantasia?” Left alone in the sorcerer’s workshop, Mickey bewitches a broom into doing his cleaning and water bucket carrying. The broom misbehaves and Mickey chops it to pieces. Soon the single broom splinters into thousands of brooms carrying so much water that Mickey and the workshop are swamped. (The key scene starts at 6.40:
Yep, I think that’s a good summation of our current relationship to technology. We’re regularly swamped by the tools we’ve created to help us bail. Our tools are creating (or suggesting or collaborating with) their own tools. We’re left gasping and gawking.
Mickey notwithstanding, the overall drift of my conversations with friendly tech wizards has been optimistic — signal is the new noise but we’ll eventually succeed in turning this noise back into signals. But I will say that a note of personal anxiety about the rate of change that we’re all forced to keep up with cropped up at least once in almost every conversation.
Before diving into insights, a little more context. After nearly a decade focusing all my mental energy on selling ads, I decided that in 2010 I’d devote 30-60 minutes every day to trying my hand at some of the many tools friends have been playing with. I’ve invested time in services like Plancast, Foursquare, Gowalla, Klout, Twitter, Brizzly, Dopplr, Dailymile, 4chan, KnowYourMeme, Hunch, Buzzfeed, Goodreads, and UrbanDictionary. (I’ve even gone from just friending on Facebook (since ’06?) to actually posting photos and conducting conversations there.)
As 2010 progressed, I’ve begun to wonder if I’ve got too many services and signals and tools and dashboards to keep up with. But I like them each and all and so, to various degrees, keep using them. Is my own sense that things are moving too quickly — that we’re surrounded by too many tools, too many feeds, too many filters, too many metaphors, too many signals — just a sign that my half-century-old mind can’t keep pace with the young folks, or is it an expression of some emerging broader social confusion or some truly novel ontology in the great arc of human consciousness?
I took comfort last night when I hit Bloomberg.com and happened to hear Vinod Khosla, first CEO of Sun Microsystems and esteemed VC, answering the Bloomberg host’s chirpy “what’s new?” Khosla, attending TechCrunch’sDisrupt conference, replied:
What’s very surprising is the waves of innovation. You think everything is done and then Google comes along. 12 years ago, people forget, it didn’t exist. And you think search is done, and Facebook comes along. And then you think social media is done and Twitter comes along. You see waves. Almost like sitting by the ocean, watching them come in. You see a whole new set of interesting new ideas, and it’s hard to tell which ones are going to be small and immaterial.
Hey, if Vinod Khosla (bio) can feel surprised by continual innovation, I can be too. There’s no doubt in my mind that our proliferating tools for transforming noise into signal are now, themselves, creating a huge amount of noise. To swich metaphors (again!), we’ve created ten thousand stethoscopes hooked up to ten thousand megaphones and, together, they’re all creating an infinite feedback loop of billions of deafening decibels.
So what do the wizards think? I figured Marshall Kirkpatrick, lead writer at ReadWriteWeb, is on the front lines of the battle between signal and noise. When asked what he thinks about the tidal wave of noise AND signals, he seemed almost giddy with optimism, not overwhelmed.
He noted that FCC is poised to free up a huge swath of new bandwidth, more bandwidth than was used to create wifi and baby monitors. In fact, Kirkpatrick had just written a story about this move, concluding that “Where data can be transmitted, it can be analyzed – and where data can be analyzed, patterns and thresholds can be detected. Where patterns and thresholds can be detected, services can be invented based on those patterns and thresholds. Where a new greenfield of data emerges as the foundation for new inventions, we may find a new and important platform for economic and cultural innovation.”
Does Kirkpatrick ever feel overwhelmed? He says he’s in the business of separating signal from noise. Kirkpatrick thinks journalists are the filters that will help keep the rest of us sane. He scans thousands of RSS feeds from start-ups. He monitors when friends follow new people on Twitter. He tolerates a lot of noise because sometimes that’s where the payoff is. “I might be willing to accept a weaker signal noise ratio if the signal has a significantly large impact.”
Kirkpatrick said RWW has even put together what is essentially a five-stage ‘breakout story machine’ that runs various lists of blogs and posts through multiple layers — human sorting, Onespot, Postrank and Mechanical Turk — to figure out what is the next hot topic in a given field.
“The grand finale is we write a story,” he said. How will NYT compete with this fancy filtering? “They’ve got connections,” Marshall said, laughing.
Next I turned to Laura Fitton, who as founder of Twitter tool-hub Oneforty, has a birds eye view of the crazy proliferation of Twitter Apps. Her service is, after all, a tool to sort through all the other twitter tools. Fitton thinks that people and their usage behavior are the best filter for what’s good and what’s bad. She notes that the oft-quoted tally of 300k Twitter apps is a vast overstatement but that this figure is just the number of separate API calls to Twitter and some services make multiple calls. “Only about 3k of those services are worth cataloging in Oneforty.com,” she said.
I asked: is our effort to create new tools like an infinite series of nesting Russian dolls, with each tool-maker trying to build a tool to encase everyone else’s tools? Fitton thought the metaphor was too simple. “With matryoshka dolls, it’s a lot clearer where one starts and one ends. Whereas here it’s a bunch of messy overlapping circles, some concentric and some circles and cycling into each other. It’s messy. It’s very fractal in the way that a mile of coastline is actually infinite in length, because it’s so curvy.”
Swept up in the metaphorical gust, I suggested maybe we’re living in a fractal mobius strip. Ooooh! “No, it’s an Escher drawing,” said Fitton. “A fractal Escher drawing.”
Looking at the market for Twitter tools as a proxy for the overall boom in new tools and filters, Fitton thinks we’re in the midst of a expansion cycle and we’ll soon reach a natural limit in the number of tools the system will support. Then there will be a population crash. “We’ll go through a series of expansions and crashes until we reach an equilibrium.”
Last, I turned to David Weinberger, ex-philosophy professor, Cluetrain co-author, and the man behind the great book “Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder.”
Reflecting on the last twenty years, Weinberger said, “The arc has been that the solution to the overload problem is more information, namely meta data, and then when you get enough metadata, and you have to get metadata for that too.”
Like Kirkpatrick (and Adam Smith), Weinberger thinks the market will solve most of our problems eventually. “The market creates lots of different types of solutions. The sort of solution depends on the need, the context. Amazon has a sophisticated way of finding new books you know you want. eBay works pretty well for all the things it deals with. People get what they want.”
Will all this innovation ever abate and give us a rest?
“When you look across the various media that we’ve had throughout our history, in general, the navigation tools have settled down over time,” said Weinberger. TV guide turned TV shows into a grid that served well for several generations. In libraries card catalogs worked well for centuries. Newspapers settled into a stable format that everyone could understand. “We know how to parse newspapers.” (Compounding my feeling like a cat chasing his tail, I just noticed that Weinberger has already posted thoughts on our conversation last night.)
“So, here’s the question, will that happen on the Internet? Will there be a stable set of tools that last for a couple of generations that we all use and all work well enough? Or is navigating searching and browsing going to be a field of perpetual revolution? I think it’s the latter. But who the hell knows?”
I asked whether it’s possible that we’ll settle into some walled garden that’s imperfect but “good enough” just because we’re tired of dealing with all the change and tool shift and relearning?
Weinberger retorted that we’re not forced to adopt anything — we’re always incented to learn the new system, adopt the new filter, and pick up the new tool. Using the new tool, you get new information not available in the old system. And that makes it worthwhile.
What does this constant change mean at a personal level?
“I think we’ve all given up trying to master any of this,” said Weinberger. “I’m so far behind on the things I should have read, just on the net alone. For example, when someone assumes I’ve seen some web piece, like Malcom Gladwell’s piece about the failure of the web to bring about peace and democracy. A lot of the people I’m hanging out with assume that I’ve read it. I’ve had a busy week and I’m not even embarrassed anymore to say I haven’t read it. There’s soooo much. I’m not embarrassed to say I can’t keep up. The meaning of ‘keeping up’ has changed.”
As an academic, you pretend all the time to have read something your colleagues are talking about. “You nod — Uh-huh. Uh-uh — and hope they don’t ask a question about it.” Now, the pretense is gone and Weinberger tries to just keep up with the few articles that pass through two filters: the calendar and his peers. “There are some tent-pole articles that come along and achieve sufficient mass with-in my social network that I think that it’s of sufficient importance and value and has enough persistence. If, after a few days, people aren’t talking about it, I’m never going to get around to it.”
I’ll post the panelists’ views after the panel is over…