Remaining Afloat in a rising Tide of Data

Is there a way to balance the competing needs of access and privacy? Should the Social Security Administration try again to make some of their information available on the Web?

by / October 31, 1997
T here's the newspaper in the morning. The radio in the car. Billboards on the highway. Memos and meetings, phone calls and faxes, water-cooler chitchat. Special-interest newsletters and general-interest magazines. Books. TV.

And if you weren't already treading water in a sea of information you can barely fathom, let alone make use of, now there's the Internet, with its million Web sites, 70,000 mailing lists and 30,000 Usenet newsgroups.

The old noggin is only so big. Try to fill it beyond its capacity and you'll wind up wandering around the streets asking for directions to the Yellow Brick Road.

How can you best manage the information that you know is out there, that you know you should be receiving, so that it benefits your work life as well as your personal life?

As a "knowledge worker," my job is to find, filter, process and disseminate information, full-time. "Infoglut" is my enemy. Here are some tips to ward off information overload I've picked up that you may find useful, whether you work with information full- or part-time.

Do a Ranking

Evaluate your current information consumption. Which sources involve the most efficient use of your time? Which could you dispense with?

One trick is to temporarily keep an information journal. Using a paper notebook or computer program, jot down the name of each information source you use, the goals you have for it, the amount of time you spend with it each day, and how useful it is during each session.

After a month, look back. Along with identifying your most and least useful sources, you may be able to identify information holes you need to fill with sources you're not currently using.

Be a Prospector

Prospect for the best information sources. Though there are exceptions, often the more costly an information source, the more time-efficient. For example, state-of-the-industry reports and newsletters that summarize important industry-specific articles from other publications can be pricey, but they can quickly keep you up-to-date.

Watching T.V. news might be free, but we all know how easily television can turn into a mindless time sink.

Filter, Filter, Filter

Filter out the junk. Don't feel compelled to read everything that crosses your desktop. Computers can be a help here, or a hindrance.

By connecting to the Internet, you can quickly tap into a gold mine of authoritative information relevant to your needs. Or you can waste hours scanning the Web sites of hucksters and hobbyists and reading e-mail, mailing lists and Usenet messages written by rumor mongers and idle babblers.

If you're visiting a new Web site, look at it the same way you'd scan a book before reading it. Check the table of contents and author biography before diving in.

Using a search site such as Excite, my current favorite, can unearth worthwhile information you'd be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. But make sure you first bone up on the site's search procedures or you might have to wade through scores of irrelevant hits.

Paying someone else to filter information for you can be worth it on the Web as well as in print. Electric Library provides full-text articles from hundreds of magazines and newspapers. Don't pay when you don't have to, though. A new site, NewsWorks, lets you search through 125 U.S. newspapers, for free.

"Webcasting" services such as PointCast "push" information about subjects you specify right to your computer screen. Until these services provide better filtering, however, it's easy to get overloaded.

Following online discussions can be an effective way to find nuggets overlooked by the conventional media, as long as you don't get overwhelmed by irrelevancy. Mailing list groups are usually more focused than Usenet groups. With both, moderated discussions are always more focused than the more common unmoderated ones.

Searching through archived Usenet and mailing-list messages is even more time efficient. Check out Deja News and

If your e-mail and Usenet software permits filtering -- most up-to-date programs do -- you can screen out messages about subjects or from people you find irrelevant, and you can create folders for messages that warrant immediate attention.

Short and Sweet

To avoid getting bombarded with e-mail, selectively respond to e-mail, and match the length of your response to how eager you are to chat. A short, polite response indicates you've received the other person's message, but need to move on.

Save what's worth saving and toss the rest. Avoid letting useful information sink into pile purgatory. After you've finished scanning or reading, file information into clearly identifiable folders in a file cabinet or on your computer's hard disk.

Ours is an information society. Information can lead to knowledge and knowledge to wisdom, but managing information requires some wisdom of its own.

Reid Goldsborough is author of the book "Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway." He can be reached at or.

November Table of Contents

Reid Goldsborough Contributing Writer
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at or