Jonathan Gosier

General Partner, Cross Valley Capital


This conversation is closed.

How do you deal with data deluge (too much email, too many tweets, etc.)?

Live TED Conversation: Join TED Fellow Jon Gosier

Jonathan Gosier is a designer, software developer, lover of data science and the co-founder of metaLayer which aims to contextualize the mobile and social web. He is the system architect of the SwiftRiver platform, an Ushahidi effort to make sense of streams of realtime data.

This conversation will open at 1:00PM on June 27th.

  • Jun 27 2011: My biggest issue with the high volume of content that I am exposed to is a distinct, increased level of distractability. I find it increasingly difficult to stay on one task, as I am constantly interrupted, and the high level of interconnectivity between EVERYTHING means that every encounter is a natural starting point or segue to the next thing. I can rarely read a full page article without opening 2-3 windows on related topics. Whereas I appreciate the way that it makes the world unfold, it is highly inefficient! Also, people want all their messages now in brief soundbytes. If I type a few paragraphs and send it to someone, 90% of the time, it will never be read. They are more likely to call me and ask for a synopsis.
    • Jun 27 2011: That's exactly what I find - increased distractibility due to connectivity and therefore I have a greater pile of "open tabs" waiting for my attention at the end of the day.
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      Jun 27 2011: Alexis, I do not thing you are alone in this at all. One thing I would suggest is that you can often open a link in another tab... it is then behind the main article you are reading, and ready when you want it. I realize it is a small thing, but it does allow you to finish the task you were on without losing that new starting point.

      As for getting people to actually read emails.. yeah, that is a big problem. I have started sending several smaller messages if I need to cover several topics and send large documents as attachments since the process of opening the attachment seems to prepare people to read a bit more. I hope that is helpful. I am glad to know I am not alone in these challenges.
    • Jun 27 2011: Alexis--you're right, these constant interruptions mess with the natural rhythm of an activity.
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      Jun 27 2011: Alexis, I strongly recommend reading "The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains" by Nicholas Carr. It has a lot of weight and impact to it. There are consequences to this emerging "lifestyle", and not all are good. Both breadth and depth are important, but depth is being sacrificed by many for extra breadth.

      BTW, I have "Tab Fever" as well. If you find a cure, let me know :-)
      • Jun 27 2011: @Tony Cosgrove, I read an article on "The Shallows" shortly around the time that it came out! Never picked up the book, but it sounded poignant in regards to this emerging issue. I am 28, and have been slowly baptized into this tech era, but I wonder how the processing/filtering of the generations behind me will play out.

        Emerging technology is also fascinating, I just learned last weekend how to use Google Docs to import and extract data from the web, as well as filter it. API is crazy, wonderful stuff going on in the background of everyday life. The other downside to the deluge of information is that everyone now wants YOUR information, and we have little understanding (as laypeople) of how that information is disseminated, collected, used, etc. If you perceive that your information is only one drop of water coming out of a hose, it doesn't seem that concerning, until you realize that people are collecting the water in buckets...
    • Jun 27 2011: Alexis, I agree with you on both counts. There are so many interesting links, one leading to another, that it is hard to maintain the discipline to finish a given article without jumping around. Harder even is then keeping track of it all when I want to go back to something.
  • Jun 27 2011: I got on Facebook to find an address and ended up at a TED Conversation. This is how it happens.
  • Jun 27 2011: Hi everyone.

    Something that helps for me is I have a three-tray system or three-label system in the case of emails and links:

    To Action
    To Read

    First thing in the morning when I have my coffee, I allow myself a block of time for reading and "mucking around" where I can sift through all the stuff I am personally interested in keeping up to date with. Twitter is not so easy to do this with though so suggestions on this one are appreciated. One thing I do with Twitter though that does help is I have a separate account for my two major interests - Technology/Writing and then Music. This allows me to not only have that type of information in one feed but also the convos.

    I work on research projects and I love information, so being distracted is also a huge issue for me as well. I find getting this big amount of reading out of my system before I crank into my projects really helps. Then I am free to focus my research process.

    There is a great little BETA app called Scrible I am using at the moment, with a toolbar that allows me to annotate and highlight webpages and then save that version to an organised and tagged system. I recommend it for anyone who does web research regularly. Only thing is because it's BETA at the moment, there is not a lot of memory yet and I use it a lot!

    Thanks for all the suggestions here, they are all helpful.
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    Jun 27 2011: I need to figure out how to teach time management to my high school students. Learning to prioritize is a great idea. Any thoughts about the teenage brain evolving to manage a bombardment of stimuli in a non-linear order? After experimenting with the Back Channel in the classroom, students told me that they can follow multiple threads of information coming at them at once, some are processed they say unconsciously. I understand what they mean. They seem able to rapidly shift back and forth picking up cues to what they have "missed" and know what is going on. I imagine it is like driving--if we processed stimuli in a logical sequential manner there would be accidents. Usually we process visual information holistically (hence the feeling that it is unconscious) taking in multiple cues at once. The brain miraculously knows which ones to respond to. Of course it is exhausting to drive and process tons of stimuli all the time. Hence the need for rest stops on the road and in life?
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      Jun 27 2011: That's really interesting. I'd never heard of Twitter being used as a back channel for the classroom, but it absolutely makes perfect sense. The reality is, the amount of information stimuli is growing exponentially so it really is a valuable skill (and thus one worth teaching) to be able to multi-task and actively multi-process.

      And I like your point about 'rest', and I'd even add 'play' as being equally important. I'd be interested in hearing more about your own experiences with Twitter in the classroom. I came across this post about Monica Rankin and Kim Smith after reading your post -
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    Jun 27 2011: One of the biggest problems is the expectation people now have of you to stay informed.
    Before news was able to travel the world quickly, no one could be blamed for learning of the end of a war months after the fact. As more information became available at quicker speeds, people with access to the information appeared to have a certain edge over others.
    Now, we have taken this to an extreme, where information is not just the news of the day, but also what our friends are having for breakfast. Each tweet is sent with a certain amount of expectation that most or all friends might have a peek.

    When I began to turn myself off to twitter, I began to hear things like, "I tweeted that, didn't you read it?" and "I thought you knew about those changes, we tweeted them yesterday."

    Where do we find the line between what we need to know and what we can delete when important information sneaks its way into the convoluted and superfluous ocean of junk tweets?
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    Jun 27 2011: I've been thinking about this issue a lot, since I actually founded a company to solve the problem:

    We aggregate everything that might be somehow relevant to a team's shared inbox. It might be tweets, emails, wiki edits, project management tool notifications ("someone added a feature request") or anything. That inbox is combined with the team's group chat, so the team can discuss any of the items in real time, and kind of show what's important. If something doesn't catch anyone's attention, it's usually ignored for good.

    Such an intense use case also requires some way of tagging relevant pieces of content for later use. We use #hashtags for that purpose, so you're able to tag an email as a #feature request, or add a tweet to your own ToDo list. That way categorizing the stream of information is done by everyone in the team, and it's a very light-weight process.
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      Jun 27 2011: I can see this. Some organizations swim in data and still miss things that should be obvious. Our domestica nad global financial institutions come to mind. I suppose the real question is how does quantifying everything lead to behavior change?
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    Jun 27 2011: Use different email addresses and tweet usernames according to the activities you follow.
    Finally are you using RSS? One to many communication should never land in your inbox - only peer to peer.
  • Jun 27 2011: Hi Jonathan, great subject, i personally think that everyone has in his mind his own architecture, but tacit architecture to organize all the data deludge, for instance, i make always links between people and events ... etc in my mind between all the entities or social networks, so i think it's like building database, by synchronizing different ones, to have one interesting social knowledge system ...
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    Jun 27 2011: what if we were more visual...moving away from text, we would be able to have much more data-excess.

    A picture is worth a thousand words, and a video is worth a thousand pictures, an animation or visual infographic go beyond that again giving more focus, so is the media we speak through extremely relevant?
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        Jun 27 2011: Exactly, if we were to learn through text, it would take a 400page volume, learning through video is a 5min youtube clip, hence why this is so interesting.....

        Although my friends and I did try to learn to C-walk a few years ago through youtube, and were not successful. :( !!!
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          Jun 27 2011: Right on, I learned this lesson fairly early on running a massive open source project. I t wasn't until I started making videos that anyone ever really 'got' what the project was and started participating.
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      Jun 27 2011: James, I would assert that only well edited video is worth 1000 pictures. Countless online videos are unedited or edited poorly, and the wasted time is a frustration to many. What everyone is craving is economy of expression in the media they consume.

      Also, I think it is critical for members of a successful society to balance their online/offline time. One example: We see many chained to their smartphones while in the midst of dinner with friends. This comes across to many as rude and unacceptable, yet many still feel they must respond to texts/tweets immediately.

      I'm glad to see proactive conversations about information overload, such as this conversation.
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        Jun 27 2011: Totally agree. I was referring to the high end edited video's.

        I would think the interface between the virtual world and the material used to be the computer, now is the smart phone and tomorrow will be almost invisible and seamless. The question will always remain 'how do we switch off and out?'
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    Jun 27 2011: Hi Jonathan,

    I use filters and different email addresses all ending up in my Gmail which sorts it out really well!

    And as Birdia said I prioritize, instead of looking for info in crappy newspapers or random sites I go to TED and the links shared here since they are mostly really good.

    And I've hid/deleted every spammer on Facebook!
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    Jun 27 2011: I found keeping a time log helped me focus because I was very aware of what my priority was at that moment. It allowed me to ignore other things coming my way and focus on what was most important. I also set my email to only collect once an hour which means I do not get new message pings every 5 minutes. I also use Bruno's suggestion to use multiple emails. I have one for every major role: Exec Manager, Newsletter editor, Special Project Manager... that allows me to sort out the multiple hats I need to wear in a very small organization. Finally, stuff that is interesting or cool is printed to pdf and put in a folder that syncs with my iPod so I can read it when I have a few minutes waiting for an appointment. That obviously does not work for time sensitive stuff.
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    Jun 27 2011: Focus on your unique power to transform our world and gather the relevant information and means to further strengthen this power.
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    Jun 27 2011: The usual answer to this is filters but I don't really trust most external filters to prioritise stuff the way I want them to be. What I have found works is a GTD type workflow so that initial processing can be quick but that it doesn't fall off the map either.
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      Jun 27 2011: Would having control over what those filters do help you out, Gautam?
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        Jun 27 2011: I tried GTD software and found it did not work well with my work flow because a lot of my work is cyclical and I could not set up a template for reoccurring tasks. I really want to be able to set up projects with tasks and then assign an email to that project, then when it is time to work on it have the system alert me. Something like: Board meeting in 1 week... a link to the folder where my messages are stored, and all the emails that are part of that task would be there because I assigned them to that project when they were received. Regular folders are a bit too "out of sight out of mind" for me so I commit the GTD sin of having a very cluttered in box.
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    Jun 27 2011: Last night at Dinner, a friend of mine was explaining how Twitter and Facebook 'overwhelm' her if she isn't using them all the time. Her approach was, I'm following all these people, and so I need to know everything they are saying. I can absolutely how thinking about things in that way would be overwhelming.

    My perspective is different. I follow as many people as I possibly can on Twitter, I add every blog I stumble across to my Google Reader interface, I have about 15 different business related emails all feeding into one gmail account. All of it because I love an excess of data! However, the key to not being overwhelmed is to trust my own ability to configure smart filters that help sort this information on the fly.

    In Google Reader I've created categories like 'Design' 'Tech' 'Education' etc. for the blog verticals, then I use search and 'Sort by Magic' to help surface content that I didn't know I was looking for.
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      Jun 27 2011: I think it is important to get clear on our relationship to information. Just because a tweet or blog entry is there does not mean we do not HAVE to read it. We do not HAVE to answer a ringing phone if we are busy, or answer our door to a sales person. I try (note the word try) to become aware of a piece of information, decide if I need it or not, and if not, let it go. If it is important it will surface again, and if I want it it is probably searchable on the web. I have found myself waiting at my computer before like I was waiting for it to tell me what to react to next, and that is the wrong way 'round.
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    Jun 27 2011: I let websites like reddit do the sorting out for me.
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    Jun 27 2011: I compartmentalize my intake. Using filters, labels, and multiple calendars in the Gmail and Google Calendar services I have created a system so that the important interactions of the day are the only thing that hit my main inbox. I can finish my email in an hour every morning, and then reply only to active conversations. Then once a week I handle departmental labels like accounting, marketing, etc...

    I also have followup rules, and put the follow up in time using the calendar. With the calendar I use color coding with a calendar for each department so that it is useful at a glance.
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    Jun 27 2011: Hey Jon, I just started using netvibes to aggregate the information I seek. Its very intuitive, creates widgets easily and I can have all my info there waiting for me.
  • Jun 27 2011: Just wait a few years, IBM will have figured out how to fit Watson into your pocket (with Facebook/Twitter Integration) :P

    In the meantime, I would be interested to see a higher level application that could accept Social Networking inputs, format them on the back-end and provide a very open API to developers to develop methods of working with the data.

    We've seen interesting things that are possible: word clouds, link parsers to pull news/pictures out of Twitter feeds, automatic translation between languages. But never in one interface, mostly because nobody has ever created one... similar to how we saw all kinds of cool widgets for cellphones until Apple/Google created the underlying OS and made it accessible for everybody. I think we need something similar for the social side of things.
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      Jun 27 2011: James have you herd of the following companies:,, or I only ask because all three do just what you've described with real-time content. In full disclosure, the last one (Swiftly) is one of my projects.
  • Jun 27 2011: Great conversation Jon!
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    Jun 27 2011: Do you all think there's a place for better filters in specific industries? For example Health Care, Finance, Government...they all have massive amounts of information, yet they continue to make what some would say are the 'same mistakes'. Is this a data problem or a human problem?
  • Jun 27 2011: My solution lies in interacting with data rather than just consuming it. I also subscribe to every feed I can, and query these selected feeds (numbering over 500 at this point) helps me get to the more correct, better quality answer. I don't worry about missing feeds/tweets/posts knowing that I will eventually get to the required info when I need it.
    • Jun 27 2011: Exactly - Any information you might have missed will likely be archived anyway, so you needn't stress about seeing it at the time.
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      Jun 27 2011: What feedreader or app are you using Alexander? I use Google Reader
      • Jun 27 2011: I like Feedly because it pulls all my GoogReader feeds, as well as my Twitter and FB accts. I subscribe using Google, then consume/search in Feedly.

        Its a great app and they *finally* released an iPad version recently which works quite well.
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          Jun 27 2011: Awesome! I use Flipboard in a similar way on iPad and Google Reader for the desktop. I don't pull all of my tweets into Reader but then again, I'm only on Twitter to catch what I can when I need to, the other content I can casually ignore.
  • Jun 27 2011: With so much information out there, how do you research or find out about the best sources of information related to your interests? I know there are aggregator sites but how do you even find those if you really want to spend less time on searches and more time consuming the best content?
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      Jun 27 2011: Never under estimate the value of asking your local librarian to find information for you. It is their job, they love to do it, and they are good at it, especially if you are not sure what sources to trust. Raised by a librarian, I know my mom will not rest until a reference question is answered, even in retirement.
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    Jun 27 2011: Creating mobile occasions that extend brand experiences and actively involve people requires a non-intrusive almost intuitive system of data extraction and use.
  • Jun 27 2011: Separate e-mail accounts for work and play (with my play account acting as a filter for notifications from social sites), two different Twitter accounts (work and play), actually, pretty much two different accounts for work and play on every site. I get far more messages for play than I do for work, so I feel free to ignore it till I have time in the evening or weekend.

    After all, it's just play, right? I can choose to participate or not.

    But the real problem is remembering to clear out my inbox after the related situation is resolved.
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      Jun 27 2011: I agree, not only prioritize the content itself, but also prioritize your own attention. That's a big one, you can't consume everything, so it helps to know just where to focus first so as to save you time later.