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Stumbling Around – Waste More Time, Become a Genius

In 1987 RS Wurman examined the amount of information available in an average edition of the New York Times. In his book, Information Anxiety, he discussed how if you were to read the NYT from cover-to-cover on a weekday, you’ll encounter more information than the average person did in their lifetime 300 years ago.

10 years later, in 1997, Reuters Magazine printed an article entitled ‘Information Overload Causes Stress’ discussing the proliferation of new information in our society. In it, researchers concluded that “in the last 30 years mankind has produced more information than in the previous 5,000”.

That was 10 years ago, and today the New York Times has predicted that we will soon produce information at such a rate that it will exceed our capacity to store it and that more books and articles are published in a single day than one person could read in their lifetime. It seems that the 21st Century is the age of Information Overload.

You’ve undoubtedly already heard the phrase ‘Information Overload’ – it’s one that has been coined to describe the overwhelming amount of data becoming available to a person, which in turn means there is too much information available to make a fully informed decision or to remain informed about a topic. This is especially potent in the computing field, where technology advances at such a pace that to not keep abreast of new technologies is to fall by the wayside. The problem we are faced with isn’t in trying to find a way to stem the flow of information; it’s in finding new ways to absorb it.

As our reliance on technology increases, we’re becoming lazy learners. People are not willing to learn on themselves, and feel that technology should come up with a solution for this ‘overload’. And it does. With the ‘invention’ of XML and RSS feeds, we can ‘subscribe’ to a number of sites, scraping the content from them and producing them in an easy to read format in a ‘feed reader’, such as Google Reader. This improves the signal-to-noise ratio by removing unwanted graphics, links, and even design from websites where all we want is the content. This signal-to-noise ratio┬áhas again been improved upon by ‘Yahoo! Pipes‘ where these RSS feeds are aggregated, and you give the reader a set of rules to display only content that is relevant to your criteria, removing unwanted posts and creating a single post from many!

Entrepreneurs are constantly coming up with ways to limit the impact of Information Overload by reducing the amount of information we come into contact with, and I believe this is the wrong way to go about things. We should stop relying on technology to ‘learn for us’ and should instead just concentrate on the information that is relevant, rather than the information that is, well, pointless. But herein lies the predicament: without technological advances, how can we find this relevant information?

With this, I want to introduce you to StubleUpon – a new ‘web app’ that has been developed to do just this: it sifts the wheat from the chaff, the signal from the noise, and presents us with pure, unadulterated Internet goodness – websites we’re going to like that we’ve never heard of and would never have normally visited.

For those of you not using StumbleUpon, I assume you’ve either not heard of it before or are just sceptical about another highly lauded, so-called ‘killer app’. After all, these things come and go every day and only a few of the best stick. Ever the cynic, this past week has seen me eventually give StumbleUpon the time of day, and I’m very impressed. This is going to stick.

The ‘app’ takes the form of a toolbar that you add to your web browser of choice and then use to rate websites you visit with a simple thumbs up or thumbs down button. StumbleUpon then builds a ‘profile’ of your browsing habits and compares it to other users’ profiles. Simply clicking on the ‘Stumble’ button will then take you to a random website that others with similar tastes to your own have visited and rated. The longer you use it, the better your profile becomes, and thus the sites you are sent to are increasingly relevant to your personal tastes.

StumbleUpon is something that helps the Information Overload in exactly the way I discussed above. Instead of reducing the amount of information we are presented with, it does the opposite – it increases the amount of information we encounter, but ensures it is relevant. Within days of using StumbleUpon, my profile’s ‘success rate’ is impressive, and in turn my bookmarks and RSS subscriptions have increased dramatically… and I’m wasting more time on websites I love!