The Evolution of Information Grazing

One lens through which to look at the recent innovation in the memetracker space is frustration. If you look at where the frustration is in how we track memes (ideas), you can get a decent picture of where the innovation is going. If you want to predict the future, find the frustration!

Like an antelope eating grass on the Kalahari, grazing is eating small quantities of food at frequent but irregular intervals (Apple Dashboard dictionary). Recently, the term grazing has been adopted to describe our efforts at finding information on the Web. The following is a very general picture of the four types of “grazing” we’ve gone through, or are going through now. Each level had it’s own share of frustration, which led (or is leading) directly to the next level.

Update: James Corbett disagrees completely.
Update #2: Well, not completely.

One lens through which to look at the recent innovation in the memetracker space is frustration. If you look at where the frustration is in how we track memes (ideas), you can get a decent picture of where the innovation is going. If you want to predict the future, find the frustration!

Like an antelope eating grass on the Kalahari, grazing is eating small quantities of food at frequent but irregular intervals (Apple Dashboard dictionary). Recently, the term grazing has been adopted to describe our efforts at finding information on the Web. The following is a very general picture of the four types of “grazing” we’ve gone through, or are going through now. Each level had it’s own share of frustration, which led (or is leading) directly to the next level.

Site Grazing

Site grazing is typing in URLs to see if there is any new content. The URLs often come from a list of bookmarks or memory. This difficulty was noticed early on in the blogging world by Rebecca Blood, who says that even as early as 1999 it was too difficult to read all blogs:

“At this point, the bandwagon jumping began. More and more people began publishing their own weblogs. I began mine in April of 1999. Suddenly it became difficult to read every weblog every day, or even to keep track of all the new ones that were appearing.”

The frustration with site grazing is what led to the popularity of RSS, as it immediately relieved the need to visit sites over and over without knowing if something was new.

Feed Grazing

Feed grazing is what most of us do in our feed readers: checking a bunch of feeds to see if there is anything new. Usually the reader notifies us of new content, by either starring the content or sorting it based on newness, or both.

In my feed reader, Shrook, the feeds that have been updated more recently are presented first. The feeds that haven’t been updated are pushed to the bottom. Whereas site grazing is a bunch of HTML urls, feed grazing is a bunch of RSS urls. So feed grazing works at the feed level. A feed list is often called a Reading List, and is captured in an OPML file. Here is my reading list.

The frustration with feed grazing is that we soon have too many feeds, and many of the feeds overlap content. Ironically, however, we still want to add more feeds if they are relevant to us, and so we prune our feed list over time.

Grazing Lists: These are a variation of feed grazing, and where the term “grazing” came into play via James Corbett. (obviously, I think that grazing is a great term to describe all of these levels) Anyway, a grazing list is a dynamically updated feed list like the one that Adam Green has created out of the tech.memeorandum site. In this paradigm, you subscribe to a Reading List that dynamically changes over time, so that you never know what feeds will be on it.

The frustration with grazing lists is that it is unclear as to why feeds are in the list. Is it because the feeds themselves are about the hot topics of the day, or because they happened to have one good post in them? Adam, on the other hand, likes to use them to discover interesting feeds.

Post Grazing

I would say post grazing is getting nearer our end goal. It is grazing for the latest, most interesting posts, regardless of what feed they come from. Right now, there are a few services out there putting out feeds with which we can post-graze, such as tech.memeorandum, Tailrank, and Findory. As I was telling Kevin Burton of Tailrank the other day, I’m completely in awe of folks who create these services: Gabe, Kevin, and Greg, in this case.

Each of these services offers different levels of relevance, and clustering. As far as I can tell, the service that provides the best solution along these lines will certainly gain a strong following, at least from the tech bloggers I read.

Relevance Relevance is the make or break of these services. Many of them use a link-counting method to find the most talked-about content, often combining that with some measure of authority to present the most relevant information.

Clustering Clustering is extremely important because otherwise the content becomes an echo chamber. It is very useful to have related posts clustered so that we don’t see the same news over and over. Just this morning I read that Google bought Measuremap in about 85 different places. Enough!

To use an analogy from offline, post grazing is similar to reading a big-time paper, which filters news from various news organization (Reuters, AP, etc) in addition to their own content. They are getting those stories that are of the most interest and providing a one-stop place to read them.

When you move from one paper to another, however, you realize that there are different filters, and that each has it’s own strengths and weaknesses. For example, Fox News is a completely different filter than is NPR. So there is a level of editorial as well. So then another frustration sets in, you don’t know what editorial is being applied to the filter you’re looking at. Instead, we want news that is filtered by ourselves, or based on our needs.

Personalized Post Grazing

I think this is the golden path. This is when we get post-level news recommended to us based on our personal preferences and reading behavior. The three services I mentioned above are moving in this direction, but as this comment thread on Scoble’s site shows, they are not quite there yet. (this is a *great* thread, if you consider how it might change the way that we read news). (hat tip – Father Richard)

So, in addition to working at the post-level, this works at the personal level. Combine what the group has found to be valuable to what the person has found valuable in the past, and you get a great sense of what might be valuable to the person in the future.

The Evolution of Grazing

However, there may still be frustrations at the personal post level as well. One is our changing tastes. What if we track tech news for years and then find ourselves burnt out, and yearning for a different kind of news? What if we don’t feel that we’re discovering enough diversity in our personal recommendations…what if we feel like we’re missing out? With every level that we reach, we’re happy for only a short period of time. We will continue to want increased efficiency, and increased denseness of information.

Published: February 15th, 2006

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