Drinking from the firehose

About a week ago, I asked David Sasaki for his tips on drinking from the firehose of social media, and living to tell the tale. How did he parse all the information he came across on any given day? What tools did he use and what tips could he share? He responded with an “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours”-type challenge. Just before the bank holiday, he posted his response on his blog, and it’s really good. Below is my answer to the same set of questions.

My alarm clock wakes me up an hour into BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. It’s not always the most soothing way to greet a new day. But although some in the web world shun the idea of broadcast media altogether, I still think it’s an important way of finding out about what’s going on. Anyway, a lot of my work requires me to pay attention to the broadcast news agenda: as a campaigner, you know that legislators are being influenced by what gets airplay on Today. And for a brief while, I wrote a column satirising the mainstream news agenda for the New Statesman.

From 8:30/9 until at least 11, I try to ignore the outside world altogether, as I’ve found this is a time best set aside for writing. The first thing I’ll do after that is check my emails. A lot of the stuff I read online I’m pointed to by people on the various email lists to which I’m subscribed. Some of these are public lists, some of these – like the FIPR and ORG advisory council lists – are limited to a few people. It’s a great privilege to sit on these lists as they’re full of very clever and expert people. I get much more than I give – I’m a classic lurker.

I use Gmail for email and Chrome to browse the web. Links I’m sent via email get opened in separate tabs as I clear my inbox. Once that’s done, I’ll review the pages that I’ve opened. I’ll be skim reading here. If I like something and it’s relevant to some aspect of my work, it will get saved using one of two social bookmarking services – delicious, for stuff relevant to my work with the Open Society Institute, diigo for stuff relevant to a book-length writing project I’m doing called Barefoot Into Cyberspace (you heard it here first!). Really, I’d like to use separate delicious accounts and move away from diigo, but although the delicious bookmarking toolbar used to support multiple accounts, right now it appears not to (at least, I haven’t found a way to make that work). The stuff I save to delicious is mostly stuff I know I’ll want to refer to at a later date. Occasionally, I’ll find something I want to read in depth, and very often I’ll print that out as well as logging it in delicious/diigo, so I can take it away from the screen and read it over a coffee or something later. Printed material will eventually get stuffed into a relevant box file on the other side of my study, usually never to be looked at again. The hope is that by that time the important bits of it will be written to my own mushy version of an internal disk.

I share the delicious account I use with the rest of the OSI Information Program team, another bunch of switched-on people I feel very privileged to work with, and each day I’ll check out what they’ve been saving to the feed. About twice a week, I open up my Google reader and check out what’s coming through on RSS. I’ve got 60 subscriptions at the moment. About half of that number are Information Program grantees whose blogs, websites and campaigns I’m tracking just in case I see an opportunity to publicise something they’re doing through the main OSI website. The other half are actors and influencers in the information politics space. There are a few I follow just for fun, one of which is Adam Curtis, whose blog for the BBC I absolutely love.

The drill here is as with email, I clear the reader and open anything I want to look at properly in a new tab. Then I work through the tabs saving stuff to delicious and diigo or (occasionally) printing it out.

The reason the delicious feed is so central is because every week I go through everything on it and select the stories and features which will go in the weekly Information Program Digest, an email update subscribed to by roughly 60 people from around the OSI network. If you’re interested in what that digest looks like, you should know that I also usually publish it to this blog. That’s pretty much all I publish to this blog, unless I’ve done a research paper I want to talk about or have thought of some other thing original to say. Or if I’m promoting a gig of some kind.

I have a few places I go to distract myself – usually in the afternoon. One of them is Twitter, where again, I’m a lurker. I don’t use Tweetdeck or any other Twitter client, I just go to the website. I follow just under 200 people, not all of whom are active. So far I’m disappointed with who the newish “Who to follow” feature on Twitter is suggesting I follow, so I guess that means I’m not following the kind of people I’d like to in the first place. But I do get sent to interesting places from here – again, I’ll log these on delicious or diigo if relevant material comes up. Facebook is another place I go to distract myself but this is just to spy on friends, and not much that’s loggable turns up.

The other two places I go when I’m distracted are the top stories of the day on Reddit, and if that hasn’t sated my web appetite, BoingBoing. Most of what I do online is work-related, but if I’ve made it as far as here, I’m officially off duty.

I recently got an iPod nano for my birthday – my first portable mp3 player in ages – and I’m slowly getting back into podcasts. Audio is the killer app of the portable media age, and because I spend a lot of time travelling in and out of London, and driving around the countryside, there are lots of opportunities to listen to podcasts. Right now I’m mostly subscribed to books and writing-related podcasts. For tech and politics, it’s currently Shift.Run.Stop and Little Atoms.

Music-wise, I like Last.fm, and I’ve tried Spotify, but I’m not as interested in music as I used to be. Most of the CDs in my collection date back to the late nineties. Starting from then a fatal succession of events occurred: I briefly worked as a music journalist, littering my digs with promotional CDs and making me sick of the sight of them; then I started living with a guy who didn’t appreciate my taste for early Seattle grunge and DIY punk; then my late twenties set in, a time when I know many people’s music taste starts to ossify. I stopped filesharing after the closure of Napster. I tried eMusic but their download client crashed a lot, so I quit. Perhaps there’s a service yet to be invented that will bring me back to the musical fold. If so , I hope the oligarchs of recorded rights see fit to sanction it someday. Until then, I’ll listen to BBC 6 music while I’m cooking dinner, and later in the evening to Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie Radio 2, if I haven’t gone out, or switched to TV by then.

The in-house tech support has made homebrew audio-visual media centres his life’s work. Since at least 2006, he’s been running MythTV on a Linux box in the sitting room. Its reliability and user interface have both improved steadily over time. Theoretically, “the Myth” means there’s always something worthwhile to see if we feel like watching television. But that’s only if we’ve remembered to record anything – otherwise, I’ll switch back to broadcast, a move which never goes down well. Another impact of having the Myth is that quite frequently I’ll have sat down to enjoy something I’ve recorded only to instead spend fifteen minutes watching shenanigans in the command line as some bug gets fixed. And we’ve also been directly affected by the BBC’s decision to poison its HD stream with DRM. Thanks, OfCom!

The IP TV client Boxee has also recently been added to this Linux box, and the apps I use most here are the iPlayer app (far superior than watching on a browser) and YouTube. Which reminds me that I’ve been meaning to shout about this excellent YouTube curation piece from Pedro Almodóvar.

Postscript: As I mentioned at the top of the post, I’m writing this partly in response to a similar post by David Sasaki. What I didn’t mention is that I hadn’t read his post before I wrote mine – I wanted to write this blind because I thought that it would make it more interesting to compare the two. So…

  • Firstly, I’m surprised and delighted at how similar our routines are. He does sound like he’s using more devices than me, although beyond the Mac/PC thing, the only difference is that where I use dead trees he uses an iPad.
  • There’s also a difference in the amount of syncing he does, but it appears to me that’s because I’m relying on the cloud more than he is, or rather, we’re probably both relying on the cloud, but I’m indexing and he’s archiving.
  • Perhaps even more marked is the fact that I’m a lurker and David clearly isn’t. Although I’ve talked about a couple of outputs in my post – delicious and the Digest, this blog – I haven’t talked about what I think of as the mulching process. Most of what I’m reading is becoming mulch, from which I hope I occasionally grow something useful – a connection between two issues previously not thought of as being similar, say, or just a growing and refining thesis of some kind. But perhaps I’m just saying that to cover up the fact that I’ve become less good at sharing, which is my bad.
  • One thing I liked about David’s post is that he hinted at a note-taking system he uses when working through documents. I didn’t mention my own note-taking system (although I’m quite proud of it) and that’s mainly because it’s paper-based and it only extends to organising the work I have to do and taking notes of face-to-face meetings and telephone conversations. David has reminded me that I need to be more systematic about note-taking when I’m reading text in depth.
  • There were a couple of other tools I wanted to look into after reading David’s post. Unfortunately, it looks like Pukka, the tool he mentioned that lets you tag items for different delicious accounts, is only available for Mac and FlipBoard is an iPad app. Life suddenly looks a lot cooler in the cult of Mac😦
  • In general, I think David gets through a lot more material than me each day – I check my Google Reader twice a week, and even then it only has around 200-300 items in it each time. He says he gets 600-800 a day. I also think it sounds like he’s guided by the broadcast media agenda to a far lesser extent than I am. But I think it’s fine that we’re different in these two respects.

Finally, I want to quote back this passage from near the end of his post, because I think it’s really important:

“At least once a day I try to spend time simply staring at the ceiling and/or going for a walk around my neighborhood. I am trying to spend more weekends out in the mountains away from connectivity. Cooking dinner has also been a recent source of calm for me.”

4 responses to “Drinking from the firehose

  1. I’m glad we did this – it’s fun to look at the different ways we try to make sense and value out of the media we consume. Something I’ve been wondering for a while is if there are inherent personality and value differences between sharers, over-sharers, and lurkers. If you take a hundred of each and give them personality tests, will clear patterns emerge? I imagine that someone has done this already.

    Generally speaking I think that it is important to share information as much as possible because of the hierarchical power dynamics that tend to emerge around information flows. But I also find that ‘lurkers’ tend to be more thoughtful and reflective about the information they consume.

    This might all boil down to personality differences, but I wonder if they are also tied to our values. For example, you published this post under your “vanity” category, but I don’t see anything vain about it at all. If anything, I find it to be helpful and generous.

    These questions are important to me because I spend much of my time trying to convince people who are classical lurkers (program officers at foundations, government employees, journalists, researchers, executive directors of NGOs) that it is beneficial to everyone if they spend more time sharing their knowledge and information. In my own estimation I’ve done a very poor job. Do you have any advice for me? What’s the best way to convince a lurker that it is beneficial to share?

  2. barefoottechie

    So I’m not sure it’s personality differences. Anyone who knows me in the offline world knows I’m no wall flower. I’m a highly efficient gossip vector, and I’m pretty open about myself to people, even if I’ve only met them twice. So unless people tend to have one offline personality and one online personality (plausible) I’m not sure that’s the biggest factor.

    Your inclusion of “executive directors of NGOs” in your list of classic lurkers sparked me to go back and look at some of my blog posts written before I ran the Open Rights Group. I think I was slightly more forthcoming then (see this sample of posts from January 2005). When I joined ORG, in some ways, I became the mouthpiece for a collective of experts (the ORG Advisory Council) and citizens (the ORG supporter base). I certainly remember feeling at that point that my voice was not all my own anymore. I think that stopped me from speaking my mind in the online space to a certain extent.

    I don’t want to generalise, but it’s been my experience that a lot of people who run NGOs have quite a dark sense of humour (either they developed it on the job, or they were born with it and it’s what’s helped them survive), and my hunch is that they’re conscious of this, and so they go to some lengths to keep their offline personalities out of their online presences. When you’re running a small NGO you’re often up against much better-resourced corporations and governments who have PR teams that work hard to keep their public profiles nice and clean. You’re well aware of how high the stakes are if you make a wrong call. So perhaps, in that context, I’m a recovering lurker.

    Another context – since I started etching my thoughts into the permanent online record, the audience has grown exponentially. That’s quite intimidating. And on another note, yes, I did notice when I filed this under “vanity”. But I think that might be a British thing – it’s not considered that cool to talk about yourself over here, and so hiding behind the “Hey, look at me being vain” implication of the “Vanity” category is probably what I was doing there.

    I think it’s interesting how the delicious practice – having me and the other Info Program team peeps save the stuff we find interesting to delicious – has gone down well with the rest of the team since we started using it earlier in the year. If it’s been your experience that program officers are another breed of lurker, then perhaps delicious could be understood as a bridging app for lurkers. It’s a level of exposure that many will be more comfortable with, it has a kind of ambient quality which is potentially attractive to this sort of online personality.

    But I do think a lot of my lurking is down to laziness – I just haven’t got into the habit of sharing stuff since I left ORG and became me again. A lot of stuff happened while I was there – Twitter, etc – that I haven’t embraced in the same way I embraced blogging earlier this decade. And I’m planning to work on that.

    BTW, I’ve found an app that has some of the FlipBoard functionality, but is web-based – paper.li. I’m going to have a play with it this week.

    I’m really glad we did this too. I hope some of the above on lurking has given you some ideas for continuing your good work flattening information hierarchies.🙂

  3. In a recent episode of Radio Berkman Australian professor Kate Crawford makes what could be interpreted as a defense for lurkers. She basically argues that active participation is over-emphasized and that we should place more value on listening. I think that trying to create such a blanket dichotomy between participation and listening is problematic, but it’s still an interesting listen.

    (BTW, I got lots of emails and phone feedback about our exchange, but looks like we weren’t able to convince anyone to chime in publicly.🙂

  4. I too received quite a bit of personal communication after this exchange, and I too remarked to myself at the time on the choice people had made to contact me through the back channels!

    Thanks for the link to Kate Crawford – it’s entered the system, and I’ve printed off her 2009 paper on the same topic to read later today😉