We are drowning in content. Can technology help us rise above the noise?
Let’s face it – there is a flood of content available on the web. Most of us never even begin to scratch the surface of what’s available and instead pare down the websites we use or read regularly to a manageable number. But now the problem is getting worse than just too much information, as part of the content is untrustworthy.
The last election, and the recent rounds of public conversation about “fake news,” have exposed a trend that many observers were long aware of, that the web has enabled exponential growth in the numbers of voices that can be heard. However, the technology we have today does nothing to help us separate the sheep from the goats.
This challenge seems to go against the original dream of the internet, which promised us access to as much information as we’d like. The web was supposed to liberate us from the confines and expense of traditional publishing and allow anyone to share their ideas and messages with the world. It’s clear that in fact, this is exactly what happened. Anyone who now has an opinion can find a soapbox to share their thoughts instantly with potentially the whole world.
But as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. By opening the floodgates we have unleashed a flood of information. The sheer volume of content available on the web makes it difficult to navigate the tricky waters of finding accurate and insightful information.
Let’s start with the example of someone trying to become more informed about the current US political situation. A simple Google search for Donald Trump yields nearly 400 million results. There is obviously no way for a human to filter or organize, let alone consume this amount of information.
So what do most users do in response to the tidal wave of info and content available on the web? To start, most users don’t even begin to scratch the surface of what’s available. Most users only visit a handful of different domains each day. On the occasions that they do visit different domains, it’s often to accomplish a specific task or make a purchase (banking, e-commerce, travel etc).
This is an understandable and expected response to the volume of information available. If there is too much content to make sense of, it’s better to rely on a few trusted sources. It makes sense. In other words, most users voluntarily narrowing their reach, to a fraction of the web.
Other solutions exist, with Twitter being one of the best examples. In this case, it’s not about finding trusted websites, but rather following users that you trust or find interesting, and they will direct you to content that is relevant for you. Pinterest is another example with a more visual focus but the premise is the same. You follow curators and they point you in the right direction. However, current curation platforms are very limited in the way they allow curators to share information since they are heavily focused on presenting information in a streamlined or glanceable way.
Ostensibly, platforms like Facebook and Google are applying their algorithmic prowess to helping us find interesting content. These platforms are constantly working to refine their systems so we find the information that is the most engaging. The problem with that is that the engaging content that is being offered isn’t necessarily high quality. A post with Ten Amazing Cat and Baby Videos is certainly engaging and viral, but it’s not going to help us understand the world any better. Algorithms are designed to provide results that achieve the best results for their platforms, usually clicks, engagement, and generally more time spent on the platform. But those factors don’t necessarily help us learn something new or discover worthwhile information.
There must be a better way, and a path that allows technology to help us filter past all of the web junk food, so we need ways for trusted sources to provide us more quality information in a manageable way. The idea should be not just to let trusted curators do the filtering for us, but also provide them with more tools and options that allow them to share that information in a more effective way.
Technology, whether leveraging AI, Big Data, or providing a new streamlined way for people to experience the web, has the potential to help us unlock the vast stores of information locked away in hidden corners of the web. It can also help us do so in a way that isn’t exhausting and that exposes us to new ideas from trustworthy and intelligent sources.