Home Is Online Noise Really Bad for You?

Is Online Noise Really Bad for You?

Early this summer we wrote a post titled Why Online Noise is Good For You. It was all about the personal and professional benefits of spending time consuming unfiltered information from the blizzard of sources proliferating daily on the internet. It was a fun post and was responded to with thought provoking replies by readers in the comments section.

We decided to follow up on and reprint that post here on a late Friday afternoon. We’re sure many of readers either didn’t see it at the time or hadn’t yet discovered ReadWriteWeb. Not everyone who did read it agreed with our conclusions, so after the post below we’ve added some of our favorite pro and con comments from the original, plus a cool personal story from a member of the RWW community. What do you think? Does online noise play a meaningful role in your life?

Why Online “Noise” is Good For You

Blogs, RSS, IM, Twitter and FriendFeed – the number of sources of sources of information online can feel like it’s multiplying exponentially every day. It’s easy, natural even, to feel overwhelmed. Especially when we are more familiar with the tightly controlled editorial policies of mainstream media.

The social media space is noisy, though. There are many times when filtering that noise effectively makes a lot of sense (some tools discussed below) – but there are also many times when noise is just what we need.

Experiments in Noise Control

There are many ways you can roughly cut down on the noise in your information stream. More emerge all the time and this is a very valuable direction for services to be exploring. We don’t want to argue that noise is always good, it’s clearly important to spend some time without it every day.

The most recent entry into the noise filtering scene is probably FriendFeed’s new “best of” feature. Late last night FriendFeed rolled out the ability to view just the items most popular with your friends on the service for the last day, week or month. It’s something many people have been hoping for and there’s no doubt it will prove useful. If you’re not using FriendFeed yet, you can check it out and add me as a friend if you like here.

Other services that are good for filtering out noise are del.icio.us popular for a particular tag, AideRSS and Google Reader’s overly friendly shared items from friends feature. We’d love to read about your favorite noise filtering tools in comments below.

One way to break down two ends of the spectrum, by Hutch Carpenter. Of course most of us jump from one end to the other and live somewhere in between.

On the Beauty of Noise

Filtering isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be, though, and you wouldn’t want to live in a fully filtered world all the time. Social media noise is an essential part of learning and living on the web. Hear are some reasons why.

Unexpected opportunities.

Some people call it “serendipity,” others call it “passive and opportunistic information acquisition.” (Erdelez, see below.) The less limited the boundaries of your scope of view are, the more likely you may be to find things you didn’t even think to look for.

Scanning quickly over large quantities of roughly relevant information can turn up invaluable resources, opportunities, context and contacts that you can passively process or opportunistically leverage at will.

Future Needs

It’s one thing to find something you didn’t know you needed right now, it’s a whole other skill to be able to recall information that seemed marginally useful at best in the past at a time in the future when the need for it arises. Who can’t remember doing that before?

The ability to recall passively collected information that was gathered purposelessly in the past and put it to use in the future is a particularly powerful form of intelligence. A person with a substantial reservoir of generally relevant information is a great person to have on any team.

Maximizing Recall

Some people worry that being exposed to too much information will lead to not remembering very much of it. Scientists say that’s not necessarily the case, though. Sanda Erdelez, for example, wrote the following in her study Information Encountering: It’s More Than Just Bumping into Information

A majority of participants in my information encountering study, when asked about their past experiences of “bumping into information,” were familiar with the notion of accidental discovery of information and could recall these experiences clearly

We may be afraid that we won’t remember key information that rushed past us in a river of news, but Erdelez argues that when prompted about a particular incident of accidental discovery our memories are better than we might think.

We would argue here in fact that the more total information our minds are exposed to, the more particular items we’ll be able to recall in the future. One useful strategy may be to spend some time going through a large amount of information just a touch more quickly than we’re comfortable with.

General Knowledge

Beyond simple recall of particular information in the past, internalized noise can be just as useful in the formation of wisdom and perspective as introspection, thoughtfulness and other forms of attentiveness can be. Spend some time skimming, it’ll make you a better person. You’ll meet new people, learn new things – don’t worry, it’s fun.

Personal Growth

Serendipitous search in the offline world is believed to be one of the ways our understanding of the world expands. David Pescovitz at BoingBoing writes about Swedish ethnologist Erik Ottoson’s PhD thesis titled Seeking One’s Own: On Encounters Between Individuals and Objects:

“Ideals of what is beautiful, useful and reasonable,” Ottoson argues “materialize in conjunction with the experience of what is available and what is absent or out of reach.”

That’s more than just a beautiful reason you should read BoingBoing, it’s an interesting understanding of the way that swimming through noise helps us become who we are.


Quiet time, time off-line, deep thoughts and long books are all beautiful things – essential to a healthy intellectual, psychological and social life. We argue, though, that the opposite of all those things – online social media noise, is also a great opportunity that deserves to have its worth recognized at a time in history when many of us are struggling to deal with it.

So take some time for yourself when you can, find a nice place to sit with a cup of tea and blow through a few hundred items in your RSS reader. If you can relax into it, it’ll help you remember some of the reasons why you love the internet.

Creative Commons photos, Christmas 2007 series, by Flickr user Kevin Dooley.

Following up on this post

We write enough here everyday and read enough around the web that sometimes looking back at a post from earlier in the same year can feel like we’re visiting another planet. This post, though, still feels pretty familiar.

A few things have changed, for sure. Hutch Carpenter, the blogger who made the chart in this posts about different ways to relate to noise, got a job at enterprise social bookmarking startup Connectbeam – in part, he says in announcing his new position, because of his use of FriendFeed! That’s pretty heart warming.

In announcing his new job, Hutch wrote the following:

FriendFeed opened my eyes to the possibilities of knowledge as the basis of relationships. The ways in which content from a variety of sources is a powerful, addictive basis for learning, conversations and collaboration. How activity streams are compelling reads. I’ve been active on FriendFeed since March, and it shocks me how much I know about web 2.0 and technology in general versus last year. I’ve still got much to learn, and FriendFeed will continue to be a good source for that.

Diverse Reactions from Readers

Hutch’s is a pretty happy ending to a story about noise, but not everyone who read our original post agreed with it.

One dissenter summarized a number of peoples’ positions well when he wrote: “The web is about ME first and then comes the noise driven by the hype and the false version of truth that is popularity.” That commenter, who went by the name “directeur,” is building a startup based on this belief of his called FeedEgo.com. It’s a personal relevance based feed reader and it’s worth checking out, even if we do disagree with its creator about relevance vs. noise.

Some commenters said that balance was really what’s most important. “Portland Broker” for example, wrote that “As with most everything, I think it’s a matter of balance. Noise is everywhere; sometimes it’s serendipitous, often it’s not. A world that is overly filtered is lacking, just as one that is not filtered at all.”

How can you as a person online create that kind of balance? Iconoclastic tech/culture blogger Stetoscope suggested the following: ” I think what makes noise unbearable is the guilty feeling we have to not read everything. But if we takes some times to dive in the noise, without feeling guilty of what we have missed, it is just a positive habit.” We like that advice and it sounds like it could work well with some of the tips we shared in a post last Spring titled Seven Tips for Making the Most of Your RSS Reader.

What do you think? Is social media noise good for you? How has it been treating you lately? If you believe in the need for balance, what are your favorite ways to create it?

About ReadWrite’s Editorial Process

The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

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