Information overload: Is it time for a data diet?

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Turning to Technology

Borsch firmly subscribes to the belief that what technology has gotten us into, it can get us out of. He has studied customizable RSS feeds and "smart" news-aggregation sites that allow him to choose the types of news he wants to see as well as submit content and vote on items to promote their visibility.

On his PC, Borsch has arranged his browser into about a dozen workspaces. Three are always open for e-mail, the Google Reader RSS feed and three news aggregation sites: Techmeme for technology news, Blogrunner for general news and Wikio for global coverage.

Techmeme not only aggregates links to technology stories but also provides a visual sense of how important each story is through a list of links to the discussions each generated. If the list is long, Borsch says, he knows he should pay attention to that item. Similarly, compilation sites like Digg and Hackernews use social promotion techniques to help readers discern what's important. As readers vote on items, the most popular get more visibility.

Borsch says he has spent lots of time customizing Google Reader, editing what he wants to see and organizing how he sees it. He has created 20 folders for topics such as venture capital, video, technology, marketing/public relations, virtual worlds and gadgets. One is labeled "above the fold," for the 15 blogs that he considers must-reads, including Boing Boing. That feed pulls information from 171 blogs and various other sites, for a total of about 225 feeds. On one recent day, Borsch had 926 articles waiting for him. "I'll probably grab a sandwich and skim through them all, unless I get hooked into an article that burns up all my time," he says.

Still, the RSS feeder does save time. "It might take me a minute to scroll through the posts, but if I went to [each] site itself, it would take 45 seconds just to load the page," he says.

With all the time he spends on aggregation sites and his RSS feed, Borsch says he has reduced his investments in books, TV, newspapers and magazines. He's even cut down on his podcast listening time. At one point, Borsch says, he'd collected 36 hours' worth of weekly podcasts with only 10 hours per week available to listen. But with the aggregation sites, he says, "it feels like I've got people's thoughts at my fingertips, and to me, that's fabulous."

"If it weren't for RSS readers, I'd be dead," Borsch says.

Saper also uses aggregators to battle information overload. His favorites are Newsgator and Flock, which he says is a combined browser and aggregator. He says that Flock can aggregate all his social networking activity and feeds into one place. He subscribes to about 40 sources, with topics such as Microsoft, virtualization, mobile technology, networking, environment, public relations and general business.

"Do I read every hit? No," Borsch says. "It gets back to there being too much noise out there."

Tenfold growth in five years

But tools can't do it all, he says. With new sources of information appearing every day, it's difficult to know which are legitimate. That has driven Saper to be more discerning about which sources he trusts. Mainly, he says, he sticks with sources he knows or those that are recommended by peers or friends.

Ole Eichhorn, chief technology officer at Aperio Technologies Inc., which provides systems for digital pathology, agrees. His No. 1 way of finding new blogs is by referrals, sometimes through his own blog. Once a week, he checks to see who has linked to his blog, which inevitably leads him to look at theirs. "They found me, so there must be a similarity of interest," he says.

The human touch can, of course, be automated, Fowler says. Although he seeks recommendations from peers and friends and uses social promotion sites like Digg, he has also found a shortcut: using Delicious, a social bookmarks manager. He marks favorite items on the site, but he also checks out the bookmarks of other people he trusts or those who specialize in areas of interest to him. "I'd expect them to have found the top sources, so why search?" he says. "I can just go to their Delicious site."

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