Filters: Part 2: Thinking about the network as filter

Note: This is a continuation of my earlier post Filtering: Seven Principles. Over the next few weeks I hope to expand on each of the principles, adjusting and refining as I learn from your comments, observations and guidance.

Learning from email

There was a time when I liked email. A time when it was quick and informal, when typing in lowercase was fine, abbreviations were in common use, messages tended to be short, externally-initiated spam was very rare and internally-initiated “corporate” spam was but a glimmer in centralist eyes. That was a long time ago.

Over time email became more and more formal; as happens in so many cases, there was a tendency to force-fit the future into the construct of the past, a variant of paving cowpaths. Soon there were formal beginnings and endings, names and addresses and dates; layouts started imitating snail-mail. The carbon-copy of the past, a useful way of keeping a copy of what was sent, became the cc ass-c0ver of the present; strangely, even though most mail systems had a Save Sent Mail function, the cc persisted: probably because of the sheer gravity of the asses being covered. I trust you so much that I’ll keep copying your boss in when I talk to you. Worse was to come. The blind copy “bc” button, a means to solve propagating distribution list contents, was subverted into something far more insidious: I trust you so much that I’ll copy your boss in to our conversation without telling you.

As mail became an enterprise utility, more and more of its collaborative function was corrupted, as signalled above. It could not be a trusted medium with functions like cc and bc in common use. There were other problems. Email was fundamentally a broadcast mechanism. Control lay in the hands of the sender. And there was no real cost to sending. Unless there was some meaningful price or penalty, spam was inevitable, both external as well as internal. Furthermore, threading was not always available, so discussions became fragmented and hard to follow. As people began to use attachments, storage vendors chortled in their joy and version mismatch became a common problem in meetings. Which presentation are you looking at? That’s not what my slide 5 says.

Fragmented conversations were a real problem in other ways. Hierarchical organisations have inbuilt frictions, and as they scale the risk of internal politics increases. In such organisations, the fragmentation caused by email sometimes takes a darker route. Person A sends an email to a group of people. Some of them reply-all, seeing that it is the right thing to do. A few others then corrupt the conversation, by taking a few people off the recipient list and adding a few more, with liberal doses of cc and bc. Before you know it there are now multiple conversations with different carefully-chosen groups of people, with only a few, usually politically-motivated, members playing puppetmaster to all the conversations. Cut-and-paste then comes into play, as segments of one set of conversations get viewed in other, exclusive, environments.

And then we have the ultimate, the Infinite Loop. The phenomenon that grinds decision-making to a halt as people strive to obtain consensus via mail. I was on vacation at the time. I didn’t see that message. Constant re-openings of the same debate as people try and get a synchronous outcome out of an asynchronous tool without the agreements and conventions in place to do it. Sometimes I think that Infinite Loopery is the single biggest cause of male pattern baldness. Tear your hair out time.

When we think about a world where everyone is connected, where everything is a node on the network, where every node can publish and subscribe, we can understand the need for the stream/filter/drain architecture. When I speak of network-based filters in this context, it behooves me to view the stream as a successor to mail, at least to begin with.

    The network as filter

People use “social” to mean many things. A social worker; social sciences; social media; the social enterprise. I am not here to debate all these meanings or fight for one or the other. One of the joys of any language is the natural ambiguity that uses context to help discover meaning. For example, I love the way that in many Indian Sanskrit-based language, the word for yesterday is the same as the word for tomorrow.

I think of social as a filter. Let me explain.

In email days, if I went on vacation, my inbox would pile up agonisingly. A week away meant a few thousand emails to read. And to respond to, given that social conventions now expect you to answer all emails. One of my erstwhile colleagues, Stu Berwick, when talking about different modes of communications, remarked that instant messaging was unusual in that it was “polite to be silent”. When new modes of communication emerge, this is often the case. It was so with email as well.

Back to me on vacation. Thousands of emails in mailbox when I return. What do I do? Start with the oldest, onslaught of replies, frustration level growing as I see later mails on the same subject, mails which would have had me reply differently. So with that experience go on to plan B, start with the newest. Same problem, because the conversation thread is not quite integral. Fragmentation frustration.

So what’s the solution? More precisely, what was the solution? For many people, it was this. Feign some mild stomach disorder or plumbing problem. Go regularly to loo. Sneak a quick look at the blackberry (remember them). Respond to urgent and important items before they complexify.

That was in a publisher-has-power world. Today’s social-network firehose-stream world is different. You choose whom you follow.

Amongst the people you follow is this class of person called your friend. At work and at play, in business as well as in personal life.

These friends know you, know what’s important to you. Sometimes they even know what’s important to you despite your not recognising or acknowledging that importance.

These friends are your social filters. You no longer have to read every email. When you come back from vacation, whatever has passed in the stream unread can stay unread.

Why? Because you have a network of friends. They will DM you or private message you about the things that are important. They will SMS you or text you or IM you or Whatsapp you about the things that are urgent.

And they, as a friends collective, will RT and +1 and Like stuff as well. As part of an even greater collective, the firehose, they will make things trend.

You get all those filtering benefits. Because it’s based on subscriber power and not publisher power, the spam risk is lowered. (Although I am sure there are organisations that mandate your following someone or something and thereby creating network spam).

Your friends will tell you what you missed, which conversations you need to be part of. What’s important. What’s urgent. What’s trending. What’s not.

Your friends, people you trust. People who trust you. People who know you. As individuals and as a collective. People with whom you have a relationship, with the investment of time and effort. A relationship, with all the openness and vulnerability that brings.

Your friends. A very powerful filter. A very very powerful filter.

Your friends don’t just filter in this form. They annotate, comment on, rate,review, recommend every digitally shared social object there is. More on that later.

They solve other problems as well, problems that mechanical filters need help with. Ontologies and taxonomies. You say tomayto. Tagging, hashtags, semantic notation. Integral components of sense making in this flood of information.

Collaborative filters are just the icing on this cake, the ability to discover and be educated by patterns. People who did this also did.

More on this later. Please keep the comments and observations coming.

7 thoughts on “Filters: Part 2: Thinking about the network as filter”

  1. JP,

    Liked this post very much. The “friend as a filter” paradigm is a very interesting one. It certainly eliminates a lot of the filtering issues with traditional lists on the internet such as email and RSS. And I didn’t realise I was using Twitter all wrong until I learned to let go of the unread count of what I’d missed during the 5 days I’d been offline. But using the “friend as a filter” paradigm requires that one already have an established social network within an organisation or be very good at building that network quickly. If one doesn’t quite have the hang of how to make “friends” on Twitter or a similar network, suddenly the usability and benefits of the network are limited. My own personal example – I have a core group of friends whom I care about the most. We all went to the same university, have similar interests, and have great, thought provoking conversations around these interests when we meet in person. However, none of these friends of mine are users of Twitter or other such social networks so I, as the only user, lose the benefit of their RTs and +1s.

  2. @krishna to get network effects you will need a network. No other way. It looks like you participate in analog networks and see the benefits, now you have to convince your friends that the digital equivalent has promise as well. Persisted communications, search ability, the capacity to switch between asynchronous and synchronous, working with geographical separation, there are many advantages.

Let me know what you think

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