The war on noise

George Takei believes its his right to make sure every single message he posts to Facebook gets through to his fans’ screens.

Jason Calacanis says that Facebook is in a bad war with George Takei.

I told Jason he’s wrong. What we’re really in is a war on noise.

Our computers bring us HUGE amounts of noise. On my screen right now is a new tweet every half a second. New email arrives every few seconds. It’s gotten to the point where I simply can’t answer more than about five percent of my email now. On Facebook new posts arrive every 10 seconds or so. On Quora? Every few minutes. On Instagram? New photos every few seconds on my accounts and I’m only following 300 people there. Chatter? Every few minutes a new post shows up on my screen from coworkers. And on and on.

I’ve been swimming in this noise  for a while and I’ve noticed a few things.

1. Marketers suck. Including me. Look at my big tech company list over on Facebook. Do you actually learn much?  A little, but marketers push themselves too much, and say too little.
2. No one is focused on what you want. Including me. I have a list of tech industry investors. Rich people. I want to hear from them about when they talk about investing, the economy, starting companies, trends, that kind of stuff. But do they stay focused? No. They talk about movies. Their vacations. Their kids. And more.
3.  Everyone is emotional. Including me. I have a list of tech industry VIPs. People who have changed the world. Invented Twitter. Or the Web. Or built Microsoft. Etc etc. But when they post about emotional topics like politics, religion, babies, pets, death, birth everyone goes crazy and reshares their posts.
4. Everyone has gone Gagnam Style. Including me. We love resharing. Retweeting. Talking. Liking. Pushing. Watch my tech news list and you’ll see the same story rehashed, repeated, reshaped, remashed.

We are great at generating noise.

So, what does this mean now that we’re leaving the social age and entering the contextual age?

Noise is about to get worse. A lot worse.


Sensors are generating noise. Look at the tweets coming off of people’s Nike Fuelbands. Noise.
Wearable computers will be more important. If you are wearing a pair of Google’s Project Glass wearable computers (coming within 18 months) do you want a constant stream of tweets to hit your eyes? Hell no. Even worse, if you are driving those might be a major distraction.
We’re posting more media. Look at the increase in photos on ALL services, especially Instagram. Aside, my new page on that service rocks. But you see the noise problems, don’t you? If you don’t care about my family and only care about when I photo stuff about tech, why is Instagram showing you the wine I drank, the bacon I ate, the sunset I shot, the beach I walked on?

The contextual age means we’re going to have to go to war on noise.

That means that George Takei will have to sit down and shut up. Even if I like him (I don’t, but my wife does, so I see many of his posts just because she likes them, which shares them with me) we see too many of his items. They waste our time, bring us low value compared to, say, the Economist. It’s rude that he is demanding that every one of his items gets to our screens. Really? Even when I’m driving? Even when I have a project to finish?

I’ve spent hundreds of hours studying Facebook’s EdgeRank (its noise reduction algorithms) and they are quite good. Far better than anything on Google+ or Twitter so far (or Quora, or LinkedIn, or Pheed, or, or or or or or).

Here’s another way to look at it.

If you only had five minutes to read every morning, which means you could probably look at 20 items, what’s the best 20 items to show you?

George Takei, in the past 24 hours, has published seven items. Let’s say I liked 50 things that are like George. Are you saying, George, that your seven items should crowd out all other items? That’s bullshit.

I want Facebook to pick the best 20 items to show me every single time I refresh that screen. It does very well at it. Far better than Twitter and Google+ and others, so far.

Now, could the relevancy algorithms at Facebook be improved? Absolutely.  But they are the best we have so far and are showing the way into our new age of context.

I can’t wait for the war on noise to get really going.

Oh, some day I’ll tell you about why I wrote more than 1,500 Gmail filters. They throw away more than 300 emails every day. Every day. It’s the best thing I ever did for my productivity.

About Robert Scoble

As Startup Liaison for Rackspace, the Open Cloud Computing Company, I travel the world with Rocky Barbanica looking for what's happening on the bleeding edge of technology and report that here.

63 thoughts on “The war on noise

  1. I think one of the biggest problems with Facebook is that when you friend somebody it goes into the generic friends list. Under 60 or it’s fine, over 300 or more that’s impossible to handle and remember who is who.
    I only add people that I know personally or have known.
    I think there should be something like the contractually bucket game where you put people in buckets or “circles”.
    These circles will have pre-determined rules.
    For example if I have a work colleague from another city I don’t want to see all their children/pet pictures every time they put a new one.
    Thought if their dog/baby is doing something super funny and all their “best” friends are liking it and comment, then it makes perfect sense for FB to show me that.
    The idea about Google + is good though because they haven’t found a way to make people actually put other in circles or define who to post without the hassle of clicking the group you want to share something.
    Algorithms that will be contextual depending on which device, place and time will matter.
    Some things at work should not come up.
    I’m not going to post something about golf while i’m at my desk laptop. (usually).
    Etc. etc

    And yes I agree, manual filters are not the way to go.
    Things change to quickly to be able to maintain a manual rule.

  2. (1) We are great at generating noise.

    (2) The coming contextual age with its sensors is also generating noise.
    Our defense = filters, relevancy algorithms, and shuting up
    Huh, I learn a lot here.

  3. This is funny, because I had to stop following Scoble on Twitter over a year ago because the massive retweeting he was doing was crowding out other more relevant stuff I wanted to see..

  4. Read this post a while ago, Robert, but someone I trust tweeted it again tonight, so I read it again. I agree with almost everything you say until you got to EdgeRank. It’s not noise reduction, comrade, it’s communism; Uncle Zuck thinks he knows what’s best for me. Except, I’m older than Zuck and I damn well know what I like and what I do not. If you’ve got a problem on Facebook, like fewer things or prioritize. Facebook isn’t qualified, and will never be, to exclude posts from people, brands or things I like.

  5. Here’s the thing… your twitter feed, facebook feed, G+ and on and on… those are producing “noise” because you have a buttload of people you’re following. Way too many I would guess. Those of us who have these things in life called “filters” where we don’t feel a need to like, follow or friend everyone who has ever said something of interest or exchanged two words with. All you hear is noise because you don’t know how to listen.

    Facebook has no business deciding what I should or should not hear from the people I want to listen to. I can filter that myself by only following people I actually give a damn about, rather than friending every bozo I ever had a class with in grad school, undergrad, high school and that one kid that ate my paste in kindergarten.

    Maybe you need Facebook filters because you’re not capable of handling it yourself (and Facebook? They LOVE people like you). The rest of us? We can filter it ourselves, thank you very much.

    1. Amen. I agree. I don’t want somebody else filtering my facebook for me. I can choose for myself and you are also right at that Robert is clearly following too many people. Folks need to be adult and take responsibility for thier own digital noise as well as their real default lives. It’s the same is changing the channel on the tv if you don’t like the show. Instead of trying to dictate to others what kind of shows they can creat or show on their network, change the channel. Nobody is forcing you to watch it. Just like notbody is forcing you to follow 300 freakin’ people online or to read this or that. Choose for yourself – stop being sheep.
      I have alot of FB friends but I CHOSE that and if it becomes too much, I’ll filter them myself thanks.

  6. From:

    Facebook newsfeed is an embodiment of our war on noise. We depend on the newsfeed optimizer to protect our limited attention span, and as a consequence, Facebook gets to choose what stories we do and don’t see, just as Google chooses which search results we do and don’t see. Conceptually, this seems very lucrative: Facebook is auctioning off our limited attention span to the highest bidder, as long as the bidder has a candidate newsstory to promote.

    This is what Like-gate is about.

    Welcome to the attention economy.

  7. There is a simple solution to both your and George’s problems, and that is to offer the user the choice of whether to filter content for them.

    Personally, I don’t subscribe to an over-abundance of content on any social networks. Therefore I would much prefer to see all (unfiltered) content and have it sorted by timestamp. That way I can be sure that I won’t miss anything of potential interest, and yet that is still uncluttered for me.

    On the other hand, for people in your situation, It makes your life easier to see your content filtered by relevancy according to some algorithm.

    But why restrict all users to one or the other? That is my problem with Facebook’s approach. As a user and an IT professional, I value the ability to customize content to my liking. I loathe being patronized and having crucial decisions shoved down my throat when I know that it would be a simple matter to program in customizability (read: respect for the users’ intellect).

    Also, I find this solution to be far more realistic to implement as opposed to trying to convince content creators to stop generating “noise”. (Who even decides what that is?)

  8. Robert, there is no proper way of making this comment making it not sound like a woisio commercial but the “solutionlessness” of what you have laid out is the challenge we had in mind when coming up with woisio.

    As the whole media ecosystem is going through an evolution to find a new power balance with the current decentralization, the biggest challenge is the resulting mismatch between the number of sources and the human attention span.

    The whole system had an equilibrium during the age of mass media and we all know how that operates. We wanted to build something where the selection process is driven by people’s collective choice to establish that balance required between “the human attention span” and the flourishing new media jungle.

    Have a look at and let me know what you think..

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