Managing the tide of delicious information

When I was in grad school I asked a mathematician friend of mine how the real math insiders stay current. It was just inconceivable to me that they would sit at home and plow through giant stacks of the latest journals. He told me the secret: it was all done with preprints and word-of-mouth recommendations from a small network of trusted friends. Nobody read anything that hadn’t already been vetted by a buddy.

That’s all well and good, but how do you find those high-quality recommendations? That’s exactly the problem that web technologies can solve, first with blogs and feed readers, and more recently with Twitter.

I am an avid feed reader. I spend a significant chunk of time every day with Google Reader. It’s my preferred way to kill time. It’s hard to believe this now, but there was a time when the big problem with surfing the net was “where do you start?” Now if you’re not finding really interesting stuff within minutes of sitting down at the computer, you’re just not trying.

In fact, as everyone now knows, the problem is just the opposite. Too much informational richness all the time. Sturgeon’s Law says ninety percent of everything is crud. The Feedreader’s Corollary is that you never have to see any of it… unless that’s your idea of a good time. You can eat quality information 24 hours a day. Sometimes I worry that there must be some kind of psychic gout that corresponds to the ills of gluttony on rich food.

By way of managing with this embarrassment of riches, it has become popular to write about how you cope. Recently my friend Dan forwarded a useful note on how to manage inbound information: Feed Reader Down, Reading Up. The author, Connie Reece, describes how she has run up against the curve of diminishing returns with feeds. Now she relies more on Twitter and a tightly bound community of like-minded people. She also likes to use Instapaper, a nifty little application that was news to me.

I still like reading my feeds, but I’m trying out Instapaper and Twitter. Here’s my Twitter page. I’ve heard it said that Twitter is an acquired taste. It’s taken me some time to come around, but it’s starting to win me over.