12 Filtering Tips for Better Information in Half the Time: RSS, Del.icio.us and StumbleUpon

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OK, I need to clear something up…

Despite how orgasmic it makes Gawker feel, their ace of spades insult from my recent NY Times piece is a partial misquote: “Mr. Ferriss says he gets most of his news by asking waiters.”

The NYT article was very well done, but the truth is that I get some of my information from many different sources, including friends, professors, and occasionally — yes — even the much maligned service staff.

But it doesn’t stop there.

Let’s start with something we can all agree on: In a digital world, the race goes not to the person with the most information, but the person with the best combination of low-volume and high-relevancy information. The person with the least inputs necessary to maximize output.

So how do you do it?

For some, filters takes the form of a secretary. For others, it’s a matter of letting the Robert Scobles or Techmemes find the gems… or finding a virtual assistant who creates personalized executive summaries each week.

But what if you had hundreds of people with similar interests filtering for you? An army of attention gatekeepers? Bottom-up instead of top-down information distillation?

That’s just part of this article—collaborative filtering—covered by Ryan Holiday. Ryan, 20-years old and another friend from SXSW 2007, works for NY Times bestselling authors like Tucker Max and Robert Greene. Smart lad.

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12 Filtering Tips for Better Information in Half the Time: RSS, Del.icio.us and StumbleUpon
by Ryan Holiday

In the search to stay informed but free and fluid, I’ve found a way to let collaborative filtering do the work for me. Here is how I do it:

RSS—Really Simple Syndication

This comes as a shock to everyone in the tech crowd, but most people don’t use RSS.

If you don’t use it, you should start. It can fundamentally simplify your online life.

Why would you check back to Tim’s site everyday to see if he’s posted when you can be updated only when it happens? RSS does to your web habits what Tivo did to your television–utterly revolutionizes it. Grab Google Reader and subscribe to Tim’s feed here.

Robert Scoble reads 600+ feeds a day, which nearly no one should, but if you subscribe to his feed, he’s filtering those 600+ for you, hence his nickname, the “human aggregator.” [From Tim, as true with all brackets: Rather than browsing the web for what you need and getting distracted by the irrelevant but interesting, RSS essentially gives you your own personal newspaper with carefully selected content. Here a general rule of thumb – The 70% Surfing Rule: if you surf vs. subscribe, assume you will spend at least 70% of your online time consuming interesting instead of actionable information, and 70% of the time, you won't return to the task you initially set out to complete].

RSS is the first but casual line of defense in your war for efficient information consumption.

Tips for Using RSS Effectively:

1) Don’t Use Categories
Organizing all your feeds by genre is tempting but will burn you out. It is better to list them all out in a single view and use the “j” and “k” shortcuts [hitting the “j” key move you down, hitting the “k” moves you up] on Google Reader to navigate your feeds. This inserts variety into your daily read and lets valuable material stand out, as opposed to reading 30 posts in a row from the same author.

2) Don’t check it on the weekends
By batching it up and adding a sense of urgency to the process, you’re much less likely to waste time on crap. Be ruthless. If it’s good and you miss it, it will come back to you, I promise.

3) Clean House

You’re in charge. Your time is valuable. You’re too good to put up with someone who phones it in. If your friend told boring or pointless stories, would you call them up in the middle of the day and give them your uninterrupted attention? If an author isn’t delivering consistently, cut them out. If they ever improve enough to be worth reading again, you’ll probably hear about it.

4) If it Piles Up, Throw it Away
If you fall too far behind, don’t dedicate 4 hours to catching up on 1,256 posts. Just click “Mark All As Read” and move on. If you’re utilizing Delicious and StumbleUpon correctly, both later in this article, all the important stuff will come back to you.

Stumble Upon

StumbleUpon is a valuable tool as a reader or a blogger. As a reader, it allows you to hierarchically rank the Internet–thumbs up or thumbs down, Gladiator style. Based on your voting history and interests, it lets you “stumble” on to pages that you’ll like (somewhat like Pandora in music). The term “stumble” is a bit misleading because what you’re really doing is outsourcing your searching/filtering to a computer and to a highly dedicated crowd of 2 million people. They help you catch the crucial things you may have missed in your RSS reader.

As a blogger, SU is far superior to Digg, Reddit or any other service in terms of delivering traffic. Last month, Stumble Upon sent 23,000 people to three sites I work on to posts that are almost a year old. 91% of those visitors were totally new to our pages and 69% of them stuck around (31% bounce rate) compared to the abysmal 4% stick rate (96% bounce) that came from a front page story on Digg. This happens because they’re being sent to pages that fit with their interests–because the algorithm works.

Getting the Most Out of StumbleUpon

1) Actually Joining the Community
How can you expect to get returns from a service you never bothered to invest in? Everyone in your organization, even if it’s just you, should have an account, and you should be a regular contributor (which really means an extra click when you see something you like). If you develop a high-quality, genuine account, no one is going to have a problem with you voting on your own stuff–you do like it, don’t you? But your votes won’t mean anything if you haven’t voted often and voted well for other pages you actually think are worthwhile.

2) Guide, but Don’t Direct
If you’re not going to vote for your own stories, you should make sure they’re in the right category. When I looked over Tim’s pages, one of his best posts “The Art of Letting Bad Things Happen” was categorized under travel. It’s not about travel; it’s about living life on your own terms. So go through your archives and make sure anything that has been submitted is in the right place. By keeping up on this, you can optimize your site for the traffic it deserves.

3) Dial in Your Interest, Let Computers Do Your Work
Every time you vote, tag, and review a story, the Stumble Upon algorithm gets to know you that much better. Start by voting in all your favorites, sites who’s feed you subscribe too, and writers you read everyday. Knowing that you like psychology, that you recently voted for an interview with Richard Dawkins and a Wikipedia page on Cognitive Biases, allows Stumble Upon to serve you with Time Magazine’s newest story on evolutionary psychology instead of you having to subscribe to the magazine’s RSS feed, or worse yet, drive to the store and buy it.

4) Use Only the Essentials.
After you install the toolbar, get rid of all the excess. Go to “Toolbar Options?Position Options” and place it anywhere you want (I keep mine at the bottom in my status bar). And then uncheck little buttons in the same window and select “icons only”, and all you’re left with is the thumbs up, thumps down button–everything that you need.

Del.icio.us

Delicious, if you use it right, not only makes your bookmarking system [highlighting good pages for later reference] portable but it hires all your friends as personal news shoppers for you. If you were looking to outsource your morning read, but didn’t want to pay those Indian MBA’s, this is how you do it.

Making your Bookmarks Del.icio.us:

1) Use the “Links for You” section
Delicious’ killer app is its ability to facilitate sharing. When friends read a story they think you’d be interested in, they tag it to you and it shows up in your account to be read at your leisure. I’ve set it up so my network of friends and co-workers hit me with 5-10 of the day’s best stories–the things I can’t do with out. If done right, you’ll have an army of friends out searching for the things you need to read instead of you taking the massive burden on yourself.

2) Give to Receive
While you’re doing your regular read, keep your friends in mind. If you see an article that’s relevant to a friends business, tag it “To:UserName” and it shows up in their account.

3) Mark them “To_Read”
When you see something that you know you have to read, but don’t have time for now, set up a category that delineates that you’ll go back to it. Think of it as a DVR that saves the stuff you need to watch but didn’t want to be chained to the clock for. I mark stories “To_Read” and every few days I go back through and get caught up. The last thing you should do is rush through something important when you can go back later and get the most out of it. I also have “To_Do” tag that I use to mark things I need to install or complete.

4) Be Simple
Use the Classic Del.icio.us buttons and nothing else. In Firefox, it puts them right next to your navigation bar, one for tagging and the other to view your bookmarks. Use as few tags as possible. Use the description section to highlight the meaty part of the article. And lastly, only befriend people who provide quality material. The last thing you need is the website equivalent of chain-emails showing up in your account.

The Bottom Line

Each one of these services is useful in and of themselves, but used in combination, they can dramatically improve your results while simultaneously cutting the bulk of your information load.

RSS is your first line of defense. You pick the sites that deliver quality content and are informed when they’re updated. No need to live and die by it–treat it like scanning the newspaper headlines.

Then, by employing collaborative filtering, you use other people’s time to weed out the things that would waste yours. In fact, Del.icio.us and Stumble Upon polls your friends and people with similar interests for the most crucial sources of information and anything else you might have accident skipped over. If The Wisdom of Crowds has taught us anything, it is that a large group of people is drastically more efficient than you’ll ever be on your own.

Unless you enjoy grinding yourself to the bone, use this principle—whether you call it “crowdsourcing” or otherwise—to stop drinking from the information fire hose. It’s not more information, it’s better information, that distinguishes the real winners in business and life.

Related resources:
Download Google RSS Reader
Subscribe to this blog’s RSS Feed
How to Create a Paperless Life, Never Check Voicemail, Never Return Another Phone Call
How to Take Notes Like an Alpha-Geek
The 10 Most Common Words You Should Stop Using Now

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Odds and Ends: Anyone in Punta del Este?

Looks like I’ll be in South America for a bit enjoying some surf and turf. Does anyone have a room or house in Punta del Este available the first or second week of January? I’m happy to share (same true for good wine), and the closer to La Barra, the better :) Just email amy-atsymbol-fourhourworkweek.com or leave a comment.

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62 comments on “12 Filtering Tips for Better Information in Half the Time: RSS, Del.icio.us and StumbleUpon

  1. Pingback: Goal 2: Writing
  2. Information overload is a massive problem these days. There is so much stuff out there. Even with RSS readers it is a lot. I like the StumbleUpon Concept. I use Pandora and love the hell outta it. Anyone that doesn’t use Pandora is missing out.