Filters and Filter Failure: Part 2: 1st stage filtration

If you have read part one of this series of blog posts on critical web literacy, information overload and filter failure, you will be familiar with my prototype for a ‘two-stage filtration model’ which I suggest may be a (tongue in cheek) way to manage and improve filtration of information, so that we can feel not only more in control of the amount of information we encounter every day, but also more confident that the information we are consuming and using to construct knowledge and understanding is accurate and credible.

If you are encountering this prototype idea for the first time, here’s a summary:

The two-stage filtration model is dependent upon information travelling through two filters in order to parse high quality, useful and timely information from ‘the rest’. It suggests that we take advantage of the various features of computer technology, including social media settings, search strategies and digital content curation to identify the information most likely to be useful. The second stage is the application of brain power, in this case in the form of critical web literacy, to further evaluate information, to ensure it is credible, that we are aware of any bias associated with it and to create the information blend that can be used.

Although this model is created as a bit of fun, its intent is serious; to recognise that although there are many applications available to us to assist in managing information overload and to ensure the information we use is reliable, we cannot solely rely on these tools to ‘feed’ us what is high quality. We must always apply our own thinking strategies to the process.

The first post outlined the model in more detail. This post will investigate the range of technology solutions available to us for the ‘first filtration’. The third and final post will explore the thinking strategies (which I will call critical web literacy) that we need to apply when we are searching for, evaluating and using information to transform it into knowledge.

Using computer technology to filter information: first stage filtration

You lent a hand to sieve out their hardship flickr photo by shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

First stage filtration is there to remove the largest chunks in the mix. We can (usually) rely on computer technology to identify obvious spam emails, and to relegate wildly irrelevant websites from our search results. It’s not foolproof; it is good to take time to check settings, spam folders and (gasp!) the second page of Google results every now and again, to check that the technology is doing what we think it is doing; but it provides a foundation; something to work with.

There are a number of things we can do to refine this first stage filtration, so that we can be more confident that the most important and relevant information is flowing through. These include actively interacting with our social media and email accounts, applying effective and creative search techniques and engaging in digital content curation for ourselves and others.

Social Media and Email

We can use social media settings on our accounts to not only control what is distributed outwardly (as in our privacy settings and security profiles) but we can also use them to control the flow of information coming in to us.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information coming to us through social media. This tweet sums it up nicely.

1.Cull unnecessary subscriptions and follows

Sometimes, taking the time to ‘cull’ all of those pages you’ve subscribed to, news and media twitter accounts you’ve followed and email newsletters you’ve ended up being subscribed to can make a huge difference. Have you noticed that everytime you create an account for a new social media network or web tool, you automatically begin to receive daily or weekly email updates from them? This slowly builds up, until your feed or email inbox becomes more of a junk collection than a source of useful information.

2. You don’t have to block! Explore ‘muting’ or ‘unfollowing’

Another strategy is to explore the various ‘mute’ or ‘unfollow’ options for your friends and connections. While you may not want to offend or upset anyone by unfriending or blocking, sometimes you just need to reduce the number of family and holiday photos and funny/unfunny memes being distributed every day. If you have 200 friends, and each one sends a meme or ‘wise saying’ every day, your Facebook newsfeed can fill up very quickly. Many of these tools have an option to stop receiving alerts while remaining connected; which is just the ticket when you want to stay in touch with Uncle Larry, but you just don’t need to see anymore of his rants about x,y&z.

3. Examine the different ways your information flows

While the arrangement of your Facebook Newsfeed, Instagram feed and  Twitter feed may be calculated with different algorithms, there are small (and imperfect) ways that you can take more control.

Facebook has an option sitting on the dropdown menu next to the help button (at the moment) where you can alter your newsfeed preferences. It’s a blunt instrument, but it goes some way to allowing you to make sure the information you want to see is more likely to appear higher in your feed:

Click to enlarge

Twitter gives less options, but you can indicate whether you would like them to identify the ‘best’ tweets first (based upon your previous interactions) rather than showing tweets in chronological order. Personally, I leave this unchecked, as I prefer to decide for myself what I consider to be ‘best’, but it does make you feel as though you might be ‘missing out’ on tweets which may be of great interest.

Click to enlarge

Instagram calculates the way you see photos based upon who it thinks are ‘people you care about’ – in other words, other account holders with whom you’ve had the most interaction. Instagram does not purport to be a news or information source as much as a photo sharing tool, so perhaps control over its feed may seem less important, and in fact I could not see how you could alter what it presents; apart from ‘gaming’ the algorithm by heavily interacting with what you would like to see, so that the things you value most are the considered ‘people you care about’. I’d be interested to hear from others if they use Instagram as an information and news source, and if so, if they take any measures to control their feed.

First stage filtration through search

Much is made of how many seeking information assume that the first few hits on a Google search are most likely to be the most relevant and useful. This is thanks to the incredible brain power of Google’s engineers, who have continued to refine the algorithm to respond to our requests and improve the quality of results. However, what makes Google the arbiter of what is ‘quality’, and what we should and should not see? This powerful business giant, which has it’s very name used as the verb to describe ‘finding out’ (i.e. let’s google that) is just one (albeit massive) port in the storm of information. Using Google effectively is a valuable skill for everyone; but knowing that there are other ways to search for information is potentially more important way to ensure that the information filtered to you is of the highest quality and representative of the whole picture.

1. Consider a tool that doesn’t track; try Duck Duck Go

Duck Duck Go is a tiny business of just 21 employees, which provides a search engine that doesn’t track you . Ever. With no data about what you have been searching, there is nothing for them to sell to advertisers, and therefore, advertising is not targetted. Neither are the results; what you see is what everyone sees, and  Duck Duck Go argues that while you may not receive the most results from their search, you will receive the best results. The reach of Duck Duck Go is far smaller than Google’s however using this tool for searches and comparing them to Google results (particularly in controversial or highly debated topics) can provide interesting results. It is also a useful tool for managing your own digital footprint. If you search for yourself, Google will give you what it thinks you want to see (positive stuff) while Duck Duck Go will simply present everything that is out there within its reach; warts and all.

2. Search databases and primary sources – use your library!

One of the benefits of being a University student is having access to a wide range of journal databases. These provide a different kind of search experience to Google, and may enable you to find more specific, credible information more effectively. You don’t have to be a university student, however, to access this type of material. In Australia, membership of the State or Local library will often enable free and off-site access to a range of databases to meet many different information needs. While we may have become a ‘google’ society, libraries still perform an extremely valuable and necessary role in providing high quality information and literature for no cost. As an example, the State Library of Queensland offers databases on art and architecture, business and economics, family history, health, history, geography and biography, humanities, Indigenous Australians, language and literature, law, music, news, politics and government, reference, science and technology, social sciences and sport and recreation.

And don’t forget (in Australia) Trove –  Trove is many things: a community, a set of services, an aggregation of metadata, and a growing repository of fulltext digital resources. It provides access to a huge array of primary and secondary resources from Australian history, and if it it not available online, the site will direct you to where you can find the source offline.Two other great sites to consider are WorldCat (which aggregates library catalogues from all over the world) and the World Digital Library, which is operated by UNESCO and the United States Library of Congress.

3. Search already curated materials

Search on critical literacy on Pinterest.

In many cases, others have done the hard work for you. While some content curation tools provide a way for you to manage information, others also allow you to see what others have curated. Taking advantage of digital content curation tools such as Diigo, Pinterest or Flipboard, and by following the work of those who curate collections you admire, means that when you search for information, often the filtration has already been done. If an individual has decided that a link is of high enough quality and value to curate it, chances are that it may also be of use to you. By beginning a search by looking at what other searchers have found, part of the journey has already been completed.

Content Curation – for yourself and others

I’ve written before on digital content curation and the reasons why I think everyone (teachers, students, people in general) should cultivate curation skills. Creating curated content helps contribute to the ‘network’s second layer‘. Essentially what this means is:

What should happen, what is already happening, is that a large network of sites like Edu_RSS should emerge, forming in essence a second layer in the network.

The result of this second layer is that the internet will self-organize, that information generated in a thousand or a million places will cluster, become composite, interpreted, specialized, and produce highly targeted, highly specific resource feeds at the output end.” Stephen Downes. Link

Without wanting to get too complicated, if everyone created considered, carefully curated and editorialised collections of information to meet their own specific needs, and shared these openly, these small pools of curated information would become valuable wells to which others to go to, with the understanding that the material within these wells was of high quality and fit for purpose.

Engaging with digital content curation refines the existing pool of unfiltered information, and packages it in a way that makes it useful for others; a worthwhile endeavour!

So I do all of these things; isn’t the information filtered enough?

It may well be. If you are simply browsing for an interesting read, or looking for a new dinner recipe to try, there may be no need to go through the process of second level filtration.

However, if you are seeking information for research, to make an important decision or to form an opinion (or all three), you may want your information more finely grained. This first level of filtration is often what the book publishers, media organisations and other mass communication methods of the past did for us. The next step, applying our brain power to the filtration has always been necessary, but is even more so now, as the filters are removed and we engage with larger quantities of information daily.

So join me for Part Three, as we examine second stage filtration – developing critical web literacy!

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