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The secret of an un-junked life is your own filter

Posted on: September 23, 2009

Do you remember the days when you needed a ‘big man’ to present you to the world?

I barely remember, yet it was not so long ago that we had to find a patron, if we wanted to be heard.

  • If we wrote a book, we needed a publisher.
  • If we were into politics, we joined a political party.
  • If we kept counted the beans in business, we found ourselves an employer.

Some of these ‘big men’ were indeed patrons of quality

When we wanted information and advice of quality, we went to the same ‘big men’.  People of quality gathered around them.  We could randomly pick anyone of them. They would probably be OK.

Clay Shirky explains why we needed ‘big men’

Taking newspapers as an example – printing on paper was expensive.  Journalists couldn’t invest in the prohibitively expensive printing presses and distribution networks.  And newspapers proprietors wanted to be sure their printed papers would sell.  So newspaper owners had a vested interest in promoting quality and they become the arbiters and promoters of journalistic quality.

The internet has broken the ‘big man’ model

The internet has made publishing cheap and easy.  Working together has got cheaper and easier.  In short, the internet allows us to present ourselves to the world without going through a ‘big man’.

Every man and his dog has a story up on the internet and we feel drowned in a deluge of material – unfiltered and of indifferent quality. Junk food, junk mail, junk bonds, more junk.

The flip-side of everyone being their own ‘big man’ is that refereeing quality, and promoting quality, has become our job – perhaps our only job.

The secret of an un-junked life is our own filter.  And as the art of speaking is the art of being heard, for the first time we are faced with the task of truly understanding how other people filter.  We cannot rely entirely on ‘big men’ to do it for us.  Too much is going around and past them.

How do we filter the deluge of junk?

#1 Work with the ‘big men’ who remain

Political scientist, Matthew Hindman, reminds us that the old patronage systems are still up and running.

In so far as these systems provide a quality filter, there is no harm in using them.  We still go to university.  We read good books.  We even watch good TV programs!

What we have to get our heads-around is that as little as five years ago, the ‘big men’ provided the only channels, and the only filters. We lived with their definition of quality – like it or not.

Today, we do have a choice.  And we find ourselves having to judge the quality of the ‘big men’.  Do the filters that we’ve used for so long have the quality they promise?   Sadly, the alternatives, even the alternatives produced by amateurs, are exposing many ‘clay feet’.

#2 Actively reconstruct our filters on a regular basis

The power, and responsibility, for judging quality has shifted to us.  Our next step, fortunately seems to come quite easily.  We figure out what matters in the world.

Much of what happens is not worth reacting to.  I loved President Obama talking about racist responses to his initiatives.  Looking utterly relaxed on the Letterman show, he began, as if to make a serious point, then with good timing, reminded us he was black before the election.   It is true, he reminded the audience, with mock insistence.  How long have you been black? said Letterman.  Our mental models have become important. It doesn’t do any more to borrow from the great and the good.  We must have mental models of our own.

Julius Solaris, intrepid London networker, also wrote today of pruning his huge networks, much like my neighbors pruning their roses. A healthy network is free of dead wood and dead heads.  And for that matter, free of ‘dittoheads’ as they have become to be known on Twitter.

But do other people actively filter? Will they hear us among the deluge of junk arriving on their screens?

I count 5 ways to understand how information reaches, and doesn’t reach people.

#1 Old forms of patronage count

We shouldn’t dismiss the power of old establishments.  They might not fully comprehend the loss of their old monopoly, but they will defend their territory, and they will use the weight of their considerable resources to defend their position.

Be wise and take the back road to the high ground.

#2 Recommendations of friends still matter

Though many people are incredibly trusting of the old filters, they still trust their friends more.

Old fashioned communication systems remain influential.

Get close to the people who matter to you and be in touch – literally.

#3 Understand Google

How do we find information on the internet?  We can put up a website but does anyone ever look at it other than us?  Understanding the algorithm used by Google is part our our new literacy.

#4 Join social networks

Our lives are now lived virtually as well as on the street.  Join up to major social networking sites and take part.  To be off the network today would have been like refusing to read newspapers in the 1960’s.  Odd to say the least.

#5 Become a respected filter

Build your own web presence as a filter that other people can rely on.  Let people see the world through your eyes.

If you are a fan of junk food, then yay, the world can discover junk food in your wake.  If you have an understanding of the deep structure that underlies good food, like Daniel Young, then show that to the world.

Working consistently on our web presence helps us understand our own filters.

Using the many statistics packages available (like Google Analytics) helps us track what other people respond to and deepens our awareness of their filters.

Sometimes this is deeply depressing – but hey, knowledge is power. If people come to this site to find out if they are good looking (told you it gets depressing), or at other extreme, how to do HR in the recession (deeply depressing), it tells me a lot about them. And it tells me a lot about how I manage my relationship with the world’s cybermediary, Google.

It is a brave new world. The deluge of junk can get overwhelming.

This is no time to be lazy.  Our job in this age is to define how the world works, to gather quality information around us, to digest it, and to put our understanding back out there for the next person to use.

Can you imagine doing anything less? If you can, I would like to know.

Because the quality of our filters seems both to preserve our sanity and be the basis of our earning power.

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