Signal to Noise: Twitter, Blogging, and Your Other Crap

Signal to Noise Filter

One of my favorite authors, Seth Godin, recently touched upon the subject of signal to noise in social media and the web in general. It’s interesting to me that his perspective comes at such a fortuitous time as this. Literally, the day a few of us will be getting together to discuss the very issue.

Signal to noise ratio. It’s the term used by radio operators to describe the amount of quality sounds they’re able to hear over the static. Blogs and Twitter are perfect examples of this. There are zillions of blogs out there now, and thousands more being created every day. Are any of them valuable? Twitter asks “what are you doing” and I have to admit I put much more than what I’m doing into that little box. In fact, Lisa Brewster and David Horn have dubbed the problem infamously “Nate limiting” (as opposed to “rate limiting”). As honored as I am to be a part of the meme, I also want to find a solution to the issue.

There’s quite a few people now talking about this issue. What we need now is not aggregation. That just puts all the noise in one place. Although, aggregation might be a necessary step to see that it doesn’t work first.

We’ve gone from a top-down approach to publishing content into the era of “user” contributed content (don’t get me started on the word “user”). Now we can publish anytime, anywhere, on almost any consumable media.

So, what happens next? AllTop, Guy Kawasaki’s creation.

AllTop cracks me up, actually. If you don’t remember the original Yahoo!, you probably don’t understand why. Yahoo! started out by being a directory of organized interesting and relevant (“top”?) websites. Then Google came along and kicked their ass because we wanted more content than just a directory. Now we’ve got too much content and we just want the “best”. See the pendulum swinging again? It’ll go back and forth like this until someone solves the issue with a filter of some sort.

Enter “Nate limiting” and the content, priority, and “friend” filter. There will be a solution, it just might take some work on the human’s part to tweak it right.

The only thing that’s come close so far has been Facebook’s feed preferences (screenshot below).

Facebook signal to noise filter

We need more than a closed filter though. What do you think the solution is? Would the general population even use a solution like this?

Nate Ritter lives in the Pacific Northwest (U.S.), popularized the #hashtag and creates web applications for a living. He also does miles and point hacking to enable cheap travel for his family. More here →

7 Comments on "Signal to Noise: Twitter, Blogging, and Your Other Crap"

  1. Mike Walsh says:


    I agree – it’s difficult to know where to spend time and attention. When you figure out the filtering algorithm and solution, please let me know. I think that we’re connected on LinkedIn, facebook, twitter and email; so you should be able to find me.

    Come to think of it, there are 100s of soap vendors, 100s or 1000s of beverage vendors, a million great books to read, etc – I guess it comes down to preference and choice.

  2. nate says:


    That’s exactly the point. Preference and choice. Hence the need for the person to actually say what their preference and choice is. That’s why aggregation doesn’t work and search is unwieldy. What we need is the ability to make our preferences and choices known. They are our filters and we (individually) can do a better job at filtering than any computer algorithm.

    Yay, +1 for humans. :)

  3. I’ve thought a bit about this lately as well, although I’m sure not in the same scope, but I think we need to be looking at something similar to netflix or digg for personal content aggregation. You’d have to be able to analyze content for topic, length, source, etc, but essentially, the user could choose a simple + or -, quell the noise and strengthen the signal.

    While I think facebook’s filtering is great in concept, it still feels more complicated than necessary for the average user. Allow the user to click one of two options to fine tune their preferences over time (and perhaps something similar to facebook’s filter as well for the more advanced -or impatient-user).

  4. Forgive me because I may be missing the issue here. Why can’t we as humans rely on our innate sense of intuition to filter out the content that suits us best? Why do we need more technology to solve an issue that humans can due naturally?

    I admit at one point I was extremely overwhelmed by the amount of email I was getting, even the increasing amount of articles that were showing up in my Google Reader was driving me batty.

    Finally I came to a point where I realized that I can’t read every single item or piece of information that crosses my path. Nor, will a good portion of those items be any good. Once I came to accept that, I made the conscious choice to focus only on information that is important to me and just let go of all the incessant noise that existed.

    After doing this I no longer feel overwhelmed by the amount of information that’s in front of me. Plus, the amount of static I used to be concerned about has gone down tremendously and the amount of quality sounds have increased dramatically.

    I simply made a decision to change what I focus on and the Signal to Noise issue was solved.

    Why do we need technology to solve this?

  5. nate says:

    Chris, that’s a great point. The main reason is because we want (sometimes need) to consume a large amount of information. “Knowledge is power”, right? But it’s not knowledge just about anything. It’s the right knowledge at the right time.

    Unfortunately, not many people have the same ability you do to filter out the noise just by mere concentration or focus. Wouldn’t it be easier if you didn’t have to expend the energy that it takes to filter it out?

    For me, it usually comes down to an all or nothing game. Either I have Twitter on, or I don’t. I don’t have a “working” mode where only the most imperative info would get my attention – the things that _should_ get my attention even though I’m working… the things I _want_ to get my attention during those times.

    So, instead of having a filter, I just kill the information flow altogether. On/Off is not optimal in that sense, therefore a technological solution seems in order.

    At least, those are my thoughts on why.

  6. Chris Hyde says:

    Sweet audio metaphor, Nate! As an audiophile and someone who sees the world in metaphor it clarified what might have otherwise been a “static” concept.

    It seems like Google could have an advanced “advanced” area where you could apply not one search term or phrase and your preferred language, but a series of five or ten search terms and some other creative choices that would allow to filter out more of the static (like non-commerce websites ect.)

    So, if you wanted to find an expert who specializes in non-profit work related to a specific endangered species of insect in Argentina you could in put a series of search terms that would use a special algorithm to filter the heck out of the results. (Non-profit, Larva Beetle, Argentina, non-commerce, ect.)

    I know I am simplifying the process and that there is room for all the background programming voodoo that would ultimately determine how open or closed this type of filtering system is. But it seems like people would use it contingent only upon the fact that we are ever hungry for more specific information in shorter amounts of time.

    An even more personalized version might be a service that allows you to build customized templates (like a new user would use Homestead to build a webpage) with a myriad of filters and options. This would allow the user to have several saved templates for a variety of uses. This way you might have a template for purchasing rare antiquarian dog books. This is doable now, but it takes time to troll ebay, search Amazon, do general Google searches ect.

    Perhaps there are already some of these option out there?


  7. nate says:

    Marshal Kirkpatrick just emailed asking if I had seen this video (I think this is the one he was referring to). I hadn’t seen it, and it is interesting, but I don’t find a compelling argument inside it.

    The point is still that the email about what they had for lunch is still not important to me, and I won’t respond to that. So, not EVERYTHING is important.

    Unless there’s a compelling argument to be found in that video that I’m missing, I’d have to say I disagree wholeheartedly with Gary Vaynderchuck.

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