Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Overcoming Information Overload - Layers of Abstraction

With all of the new web services coming out, seemingly on a daily basis, it is easy to feel overwhelmed with the amount of data that is available to us on the Internet. It used to be easy: pull up your favorite search engine, type in what you're looking for and voila! Now, there are search engines, social sites, RSS feeds, blogs, forums, and the list goes on and on (each with their own built in search engines of course). Plus, trying to keep up with updating several different pages -- Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, flickr , Blog of choice, and don't forget good ol' fashioned email, is quite the daunting task... at least for anyone with a normal social/family schedule. The question then becomes, how do get (and provide) the information we need in a way that is simple, relevant and relational?

Simple: In order to find data easily, there needs to be one interface for doing so. While search engines try to provide this service, it is nowhere near complete. RSS readers like Google Reader are great tools for collecting feeds that you enjoy, but don't solve the relevant and relational pieces completely. Even then, you're responsible for finding the feeds and adding them. On the social front, applications are just starting to scratch the surface on data integration -- a current example would be TweetDeck, which allows you view Twitter and Facebook statuses simultaneously. It would be nice to also have one interface for updating your own personal statuses and websites from one location. Sites like Posterous and Tumblr are really making great progress here, but there's still room for improvement.

Relevant: Sifting through the tons and tons of news articles, tweets, updates, and blog posts (and beyond!) to find data that is relevant to you personally can be quite the chore as well. It would be great to go to one interface that would present you with all of the data you would be interested in across several web services and search engines. Sure, there are plenty of suggestions and recommendations for who to follow, what to subscribe to, who to listen to, etc., but it would be even better if we could extract the relevant data from each of those sources and have it be presented in one unified interface. PostRank is a service that definitely has the right idea. Even their slogan is right on: "Find & Read What Matters." Beautiful. Sites like TechMeme, Google News and Newspond, also attempt to crawl the web to find the most breaking, relevant stories for a subset of topics.

Relational: Web 2.0 has, in large, been about socializing everything on the web, and I think that it has inspired some truly amazing content. There's no reason to slow that down. There needs to be an easy way to view and share everything that you find with your friends and colleagues. It would be great to have one interface that would allow me to reply appropriately (based on the sharing context -- whether the source is Twitter, Facebook, Google Reader, etc.) to a friend, or just share data with anyone. The problem right now is that there are so many social services that we can belong to, and trying to keep each one up to date -- which I touched on in the "Simple" section. Finding and sharing items with friends is a must in the next iteration of data discovery on the Internet.

So, the next question, then, is how do we achieve these goals? My opinion is that we could accomplish this through the use of layers of abstraction. For example, Techmeme could be considered one layer of abstraction in that it gathers news articles from various baseline sources and presents a subset of those articles. In order to present relevant information simply to an end user, I would suggest that we would really need at least another layer of abstraction. Collect the news articles from sources like Techmeme, Newspond, Google News, etc. and present the user with data that is relevant to them based on interests, reading habits, recent conversations, etc. From that new abstract interface they would be able to share any of those items with anyone and any service, updating all of their profiles, blogs, etc. accordingly. All of this would be one small slice of the pie, considering you would also incorporate search and other social functionality among other things. So, I guess you could say that I see the current web services as necessary building blocks (that will need to remain in place) to reach that next level of finding and sharing data in an attempt to overcome information overload.

I'm sure there are plenty of services that I have not yet discovered -- so feel free to share your favorites in the comments section below!

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