While technology has been a main catalyst for information overload it may also provide a cure, or at least help to reduce it. There are quite a few useful tools in this respect and here are three of my favorites:
1. Google Alerts
The simplest tools are often the best and this is certainly the case for Google Alerts. It monitors the web for fresh content on topics you are interested in, and notifies you if there is a match with the keywords you’ve picked. You can limit the search to different types of websites (discussions, blogs, video etc.) and also choose how often you would want to be alerted (i.e. either immediately or in a daily or weekly digest).
In order to help to reduce information overload, however, it’s important to use unique keywords which don’t appear too often (i.e. only appear in content you’re really interested in). This usually works well with unique words and expressions such as your website name or your own personal name (e.g. to see who’s talking about you).
If your topic of interest cannot be tracked by unique keywords it’s getting a bit more challenging, however there are ways how to go about it. One strategy is to pick long strings of text (e.g. keywords in a defined order, starting and ending with “s). As those are typically very specific it does not hurt to set up quite a few of them. I’ve developed a system how to identify those strings and will elaborate on it in a future post. (By the way this concept of more alerts, but more specific ones, is similar to the idea behind SpecificFeeds)
2. IFTTT (If This Then That)
I discovered this nifty little tool only recently. It’s a smart approach to saving you time by automating various processes online. You just define the trigger (the “If this”, in “IFTTT”), i.e. what needs to happens at online services such as Dropbox, Evernote or YouTube, as well as what should happen as a result (the “then that”). Users can create various combinations, defined as “recipes”, and also share them with others.
For example, the tool allows you to:
- Receive a notification if it’s going to rain (Recipe No. 48)
- Save email attachments automatically to a Dropbox account (Recipe No. 39)
- Send starred Google Reader items to Instapaper (Recipe No. 178)
IFTTT’s potential to prevent information overload comes especially from the tailored alert services you can create. For example, the first Recipe above allows you to ignore the weather information (i.e. reduce your information intake) as you know that if something happens you’re interested in (in this case rain, but you can set other triggers as well) you’ll get alerted.
IFTTT also prevents information overload in another way: its website interface is as much “down to the point” as you can get. No unnecessary information, only very little text with big letters leading the user through the process of setting up a recipe which everybody can understand, be it IT expert or Blogger mom. For me it’s a model example for how to make an interface user friendly.
3. Yahoo! Pipes
This tool is quite useful once you got the hang of it. Yahoo! Pipes’ motto is to “Rewire the Web” by providing a powerful content aggregation and filtering tool unmatched by any other. It can manipulate content (usually RSS-Feeds) according to specifications set by the user, so that only the content which matters to you gets delivered.
Admittedly, some might be intimidated by its programming language-like GUI (which includes graphs, connectors, and command lines – quite the opposite to IFTTT!) but after spending a bit time on it it becomes clear that only this allows the wide scope of applications. Similar as with IFTTT, pipes can be shared with others for their use or further modifications, so you don’t necessarily have to start from scratch.
In my view the tool becomes especially useful if content from several RSS-Feeds is narrowed down to what you are interested in, thereby reducing information overload significantly. For example, you can pick the most popular blogs in your industry, create a pipe which channels all their messages, and then add a filter which defines which keywords have to appear in the messages titles, bodies or tags so that only those messages get forwarded to you. That way you can be sure you won’t miss out on any important news without suffering from information overload. Another interesting use is the “Search EZTV for TV Shows”-pipe which allows you to get alerted when you favorite series is on TV.
Those are the three online filtering tools which have helped me most to reduce information overload. Do you know any others?