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Stowe Boyd is a well-known media subversive, and an internationally recognized authority on real-time, collaborative and social technologies. His new blog is Message.
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June 01, 2005

Thought Leadership and The Two-Orders-Of-Magnitude Overload Conjecture

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Posted by Marc Eisenstadt

I was starting to write an entry on how feed overload was just like every other kind of overload (email overload, web surfing overload, etc), when I noticed this one from Canter:

I'm falling more and more behind in my feed reading - breaking 6,000 unread posts for the first time. I looked at my blog, and I haven't posted for 5 days. All I can tell you folks is that means that we're getting a TON of work done!

Perfect timing for this post! Now, I know Marc's productivity is indeed high, and I'm certain he is getting tons of work done right now, but I wanted to comment on something else, namely the deluge that's engulfing us. But this is not a hand-wringing moan - consider it an observation concerning the benefits of tapping in to thought leaders.

RSS aggregators, as a way of managing zillions of feeds, always struck me as something of a short-term fix for the problem of how to deal with, well, zillions of feeds. They are of course a critical daily tool, and the real benefit for me has always been providing a 'radar alert' to keep in touch with what I'd like to call 'thought leaders' (forget 'A-list' and all that nonsense): the people and services who, in my opinion, have something to say to me.

My conjecture is that tools like this (e.g. RSS aggregators) give users, especially early adopters of new technologies, a two-orders-of-magnitude (i.e. 100x) 'power boost' in dealing with the 'knowledge flow' (forget 'information' and 'content') whipping around us. Indeed, such tools are particularly valuable in helping foster and even accelerate knowledge flow among other early adopters (who tend to correlate highly with the 'thought leaders' involved in the knowledge that you want to be, well, flowing)! But whenever there's a three, four, five, or six orders-of-magnitude (i.e. 1000x, 10,000x, 100,000x, or 1,000,000x) increase in 'adopters of new technologies', not only are such technologies not new any more, but a two-orders-of-magnitude 'power boost' is insufficient, so we turn to new technology to improve the signal-to-noise ratio.

'New technology' is not the only route we could take. In fact, there are three related ways to go: 'more power' (e.g. slicker aggregators, filters, etc., but using essentially the same technologies); 'more knowledge' (some kind of intelligence or delegation to help us partake in the knowledge flow); 'new technology' (branch off in some other direction that involves a much smaller number of people, so one can participate more readily with the thought-leaders).

It seems to me that we see-saw between new technology, which is both useful and seductive, and more power (while keeping the technology steady), which helps us manage the technologies. 'More knowledge' is still the research dream, e.g. of the Semantic Web, but it is the other two (technology and power) that have tended to have the upper hand.

This see-saw and orders-of-magnitude overload is just what happened with email, listservs, discussion forums, usenet, Gopher, the web itself, Yahoo's first directory, IM, blogging and now RSS. For example, in the early years of email, it was not only a great way to foster social exchange, but also a key medium for keeping up with the latest developments, and a fantastic enterprise-wide tool for political leverage and strategic advantage. As it became more commonplace, it became less of a leverage point, and more of a burden.

Usenet was a great source of ideas and debate, and when it started getting overloaded, 'more power' tools helped navigate and manage the overload, but only up to a point: when a five, six, seven-orders-of-magnitude increase swamped it, it became a third-rate source of leading-edge knowledge flow and idea exchange. Still good for a quick fix in certain niches, but not the leading-edge knowledge flow that has been cornered by blogging.

Can you remember the earliest days of the web, when Andreesson's Mosaic hit the streets, and there was a great page called "What's new with NCSA Mosaic?" (heh... survived from June 1993 to June 1996; check out NCSA's awesome archives of those pages). It was a wonderful place to look around for new ideas. If you were an early adopter, the ideas of other early adopters permeated the atmosphere. But soon a three, four, five, six, sever order-of-magnitude increase took over, and sites like that were unsustainable.

Yahoo's earliest directories fit the bill nicely, and some still use directories like that, and indeed the Mozilla Open Directory Project continues to provide a nice structured entry point to content. But 'knowledge flow'? Well, we look to blogs, wikis, RSS feeds, and trigger alert services like PubSub, Technorati, and Bloglines to give us that sort of entry point today.

Yet we are now being swamped, just as in earlier examples. One interesting thought is that any radical new technology is useful for 'whittling down the masses' -- i.e. as the thought leaders (or even if just the self-selecting nerds) migrate to it, there won't be very many users, and therefore the signal-to-noise ratio will be pretty high, for a while at least.

Much as the 'long tail' (of millions of bloggers) is an interesting and important phenomenon, we all have our noise thresholds, and as soon as something new comes along, it is very seductive precisely because it increases the signal-to-noise ratio: so we jump ship, and move to the new technology.

This means that although 'more power' and 'more knowledge' would be the intellectually more satisfying route, the 'new technology' route provides the quick fix: hence the part of my conjecture claiming that as the overload becomes unbearable, we will continue migrating to new technologies that appear to mitigate the overload, but only until the swamping effect kicks in.

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COMMENTS

1. Geoff on June 1, 2005 06:19 AM writes...

Totally agree with this "there won't be very many users, and therefore the signal-to-noise ratio will be pretty high" well put.
Although using an aggregator like newsgator I can just read the latest posts (much like MSM latest newspaper) and dump the other few thousand that appeared whilst I was on holiday (who reads all the back issues of newspapers after their holiday?

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2. Marc Eisenstadt on June 1, 2005 06:27 AM writes...

Yep, good point, Geoff... I'm a big NewsGator user myself... and of course I was alerted to your comment not by RSS (though I can do that too), but by a vanilla email trigerred by your posting!

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3. Andrew on June 1, 2005 08:26 PM writes...

This all makes the rather sad assumption that 'cutting edge' information is somehow more important than information held by people who have not yet bothered with the newest of new tech. I'd argue that much of that info is not even interesting, let alone important or in any sense vital.

As you run away from those who have yet to fall in with tech fashion, you enter ever more tightly defined fields of nerdism; that's certainly a free choice; but don't run away with the notion that a lot of people care about nerdish 'thought leaders'.

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4. Marc Eisenstadt on June 2, 2005 05:02 AM writes...

Andrew: my view is that 'it varies', i.e. cutting edge information, for better or worse, often is very highly valued. Naturally, it depends exactly on what that information is!

Also note that I never equated thought leaders with nerds: hence the all-important "or" in this sentence from the original posting reproduced below:

"...as the thought leaders (or even if just the self-selecting nerds) migrate to it..."

Also, thought leadership is very much a personal matter: hence the "benefit for me" in this sentence from the original posting reproduced below:

"... and the real benefit for me [of RSS aggregators] has always been providing a 'radar alert' to keep in touch with what I'd like to call 'thought leaders'"

In effect, we all have our own favourite 'thought leaders', and these represent the community we want to keep in touch with... but it's a personal choice, so there's not necessarily an implication of 'running away': it depends on which community you want to be tuned into. If they stay put, there's no need to move. If they move, you'll probably be motivated to move with them. I think 'running away' is way too heavily-loaded a phrase.

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5. David Holli on June 4, 2005 01:18 AM writes...

Here's my comment, I'm not sure quite what blogging is exatly, but hey! IF it gives me and you the opportunity to expres our points of view once in a blue moon then, that can't be a bad thing can it? I'm probably in the completely wrong forum or whatever you might call them but I just attempted to buy a great friend of mine (Pat Halloran)a subscription to, what is in my opinion, a top magazine, Business 2.0. Anyway my opinion of the mag is unchanged but the marketing department sucks! The option to buy subscription for a friend or relative does not exist, what are you thinking 2.0??? Oh well, perhaps it's just me but when you get excited about something don't you want to share it?

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