Robert Scoble today brought up an interesting idea on one of his postings to Google’s new ‘Buzz’ service:

THE MOST PRODUCTIVE thing I’ve done this week is to use Gmail’s “More Actions/Filter items like these” to rid my inbox of spam and bacon emails, which makes my inbox much more useable.[…] I so want this same feature for Google Buzz. Imagine if you could say “get rid of Scoble anytime he talks about Twitter.” Or, if you could filter out something like any message that includes the words “Tiger Woods.”

Wouldn’t you want this too?

buzzI’ve been thinking about filtering a lot since I became a regular user of Twitter and Friendfeed in 2008/2009. Here is my riff on this question, expanded from my initial comments over on Buzz:

Yes, intelligent filtering is the future. If Google Buzz can pull off per keyword, per user (or per group) filtering, they will win. It is a huge flaw in Twitter that I basically still have to view all (follow) or nothing (unfollow or block) from a given user, and if I choose “all”, then everything arrives with the same priority.

This is simply not how we’re going to overcome information overload. Remember that in an information economy, attention becomes the only scarce resource. So it is worth saving and protecting your attention. On Twitter or any other social media or wider “information stream”-type of service.

(Yes, that includes Email as well. Your email is simply yet another inbound information stream you consume. Sometimes you reply to something, sometimes you forward something.)

Whoever does the best job in helping you to do this has a true business proposition, and will be rewarded by the marketplace. (Here is a nice summation of the problem by Louis Gray in slide deck format.)

Now the reverse case is also important: Per user (or per group) surfacing (“track”) of keywords, that pops items of key interest to you to the top of the heap of your inbound stream, past all others.

E.g. when Scoble talks about “Twitter Lists”, on ANY service I am aggregating, I want to know.

(For the purposes of this discussion, I am assuming for this to happen on Buzz. But it could be anywhere else as well. Buzz just happens to be in a position of being able to 1) be relatively unencumbered by ingrained user habits, since it is so new. And 2) have the assembled computing and engineering power of Google behind it.)

Now Friendfeed was getting close, but never put all of the pieces of the puzzle that they had together in a truly usable form. Specifically, it was (really is, as it’s still running, yet not being developed anymore) not letting saved searches be piped back into its “Friend Lists” (their name for their grouping of users).

And the saved searches (“filters” really if you think about it) themselves were stripping too much usable meta-information from the results items, as to then still be as useful in a “high priority inbound” stream. E.g. no Twitter avatars imported from Twitter Search keyword feeds, asf.

There is much heated discussion on Buzz right now on whether people’s Twitter streams imported into Buzz are polluting Buzz with noise. But this discussion is really missing the point, as information overload is never a failure of the sources, only of the FILTERING!

Because there are likely to be important items coming from Twitter that I absolutely do want to see right away, only on Twitter it’s still near impossible to manage that.

(Twitter has shown little interest in providing a more granular search experience, e.g. search on your friends only, or per List only. A current workaround is Alerts, but that goes to your email inbox, hardly a real-time environment. And desktop clients like Tweetdeck are also of limited help, because their search/filter function for groups/Lists requires that you have those opened up as a column.)

Have you yourself experienced instances where you saw a link to a story days or even weeks after it was first published, and felt that you really would have wanted to see this information right as it became available? Tons of really useful stuff is floating by us, as we simultaneously complain about too much noise in our inbound social media.

EVERYTHING is potentially polluting your Buzz inbound stream, IF it has you miss some key item you really did want to see right away.

I am currently only following a little less than 200 users or so on Buzz, and there is already way too much to scroll through (even without Twitter items) to not waste a lot of time, and keep me from seeing the things I could/should be seeing instead.

Robert Scoble deserves thanks for tirelessly bringing this stuff up, he was already at the forefront of the discussion over on Friendfeed, back before that service was bought out by Facebook and for all intensive purposes “mothballed”.

I believe that Buzz itself will thrive or wither based on whether they can outdo the baseline that Friendfeed set with their attempts at filtering. And on how quickly they can move to iron out the considerable feature lag and mistakes before people lose interest.

Again, one would think Google could pull it off on the engineering side of things, as long as they listen to and learn on the social, user centric side as well.

While on the subject of filtering, productivity, and Email (since Buzz is – sort of – integrated with Google’s Gmail) that Robert raised, how would it be if key inbound emails on a per user basis would pop into your Buzz stream (e.g. your direct reports, bosses, key clients, spouse, etc.)?

It would really just be another surfacing filter as described above. Who cares that the text/images/content was sent to you via email/SMTP protocol. It could be just another Buzz source (like your Twitter, flickr image, and Google Reader RSS streams right now), only these email “posts” would have to be private.

You can already create Buzz posts by emailing them to from your attached Gmail account, which is a standard that started with the mini-blogging services like Tumblr and Posterous. You can also click “email [this]” on any Buzz post, and while the interface is still a little clunky, your a Gmail message write box will insert itself under the post for you to send the message:


You can see that it is not very far from there to place your key emails (by surfacing filter) into your Buzz stream. The key to making things really usable is that Buzz would need to offer handling options intelligently based on what the inbound source is.

For email, show reply/forward/etc. but also maybe a “Rebuzz” (with caution, assuming it’s appropriate), asf. The latter could speed up the current lag of moving stuff from email systems back onto the Web.

That’s where Friendfeed was failing, because it didn’t have a Retweet button on Twitter items, etc. If Buzz were to become a better Twitter client than Tweetdeck or Seesmic, WITH good persistence, archiving, detailed discussions beyond 140 characters, WHITESPACE in comments (thank you Google!), and powerful search of everything you aggregate into it, then who’s going to stop them? They could run the table.

For right now, one has to improvise, e.g. with a little application called to send one’s Buzz posts back over to Twitter. This kind of thing had really already become fundamental, and yet Buzz doesn’t have any outbound forwarding besides email to start. Instead, a young guy from Sweden had to set up this work-around.

OK, back to the integration issue: While we’re at it, why not have your Google Alerts pop into your Buzz stream, instead of emailing you as it does right now? (Or have a filter set to pop those Alert emails into your stream as described above.) The possibilities for integration of various Google services appear wide open.

If Buzz can keep driving deep integration with other Google services, and thereby out-innovate the competition, it will go far. Filtering and the email integration could make Buzz the near undisputed inbound stream to manage your social media attention, and really possibly most of your online attention.

For that to happen however, the Buzz team will have to put on the afterburners. Google should be able to pull it off engineering-talent-wise. The question is, will they have finely enough tuned social sensors & vision to do this?

The opening salvo of misjudged privacy issues, urgently missing features, or unthinking adoption of some of the most problematic features from Friendfeed, certainly made one wonder if Google can ever get social right. Is there a social tone-deafness that jinxed all of its previous attempts besides the YouTube purchase (Jaiku, Dodgeball, Orkut, Wave, etc.)?

Let’s hope for our scarce attention’s sake that Google can get it right this time, and apply its unquestioned engineering talent in ways that actually become truly useful to social media. Filtering will be the key.

9 thoughts on “Can Smart Filtering Save Both Us And Google Buzz?

  1. I like the idea of a “Rebuzz” button. There's a lot of talk about intelligent filtering, not sure how I feel about that, I don't want to miss posts just because google's magical algorithm thought i wouldn't be interesting in that one. I think they need the ability to hide certain user's sources, much like how friendfeed did this. I touched on this in my post when Buzz first came out. Where I could see smart filting coming in handy is if Google's algorithm could figure out what i would be interested in more than others, and pulled those to the top. Another way to kind of filtering is through lists – I'm betting we'll see both these features soon. Until then, like you said, there's so much noise right now, it's basically un-usable.

    1. I was referring to *user originated* filters, i.e. stuff you set up yourself, not by algorithm. Agreed that if it's opaque (as Buzz' pop-to-top and apparent power-user throttling is right now), it is less desirable. Machines just aren't that smart yet… 😉

      1. “If Buzz can keep driving deep integration with other Google services, and thereby out-innovate the competition, it will go far.” and “Filtering will be the key.”

        Absolutely, absolutely, 100% agree. On your latter point about “Machines just aren't that smart yet”, definitely agree there too – items should be order chronologically. Unlike SERPs where we're specifically searching for most relevant, when we look at any other stream we want the most recent stuff on top. While the inbound filters are non-existent, I rather like the control of outbound filters via making a buzz private and selecting groups from google contacts. That being said, I'd much appreciate the addition of a space for adhoc query strings so that messages could be targeted more granularly – but that's just the email marketer in me talking.

  2. I think guys like Robert Scoble help break off the rough edges of social technology. This is a great overview of the issues. Discussion only helps spread the word and bring the “wish lists” to light. Thanks for the post.

  3. You are dead on Alex, there is a great need and demand for these types of filters. I personally use a mix of tools and rules to keep an eye on things. It's a lot of work.

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