Thursday, November 17, 2011

"What's hot" considered harmful

If you log into Google Plus and click on the "hot" link on the left hand side, you'll see a stream of articles that have received a large number of +1s from users. But is this useful? I contend it's actually harmful, here's why:

Back in the day, we used to expect news to come in large batches, once per day, either in the evening news or a newspaper. As information distribution became easier, we've increased that to a nearly constant stream of data in the form of 24-hour news channels and various Web-based feeds. The problem is that there's no more going on in the world, and so we have to turn up the gain on what "hot" means. For example, right now in my Google Plus "what's hot" feed, I see:

Now, none of these are useless articles (well, perhaps some) but there's no real sense of what "hot" means, here. In the long run, the harm comes from the overload that we all get trying to keep up with what's actually interesting in the world. Why do these fluff pieces float to the top? Because there's no sense of what "+1" means. I might "+1" an article about a cat jumping really high and a gas explosion in my home town, but those two don't have equal meaning.

Google is a company that knows how to manage information, so you would think that between Reader and Plus, they would find a way to analyze and digest for you, not just articles that others or you would find interesting, but articles that actually have a deeper connection to the real world and events taking place. For example, news of the evictions in New York of the Occupy Wall Street folks or the death of a world leader are not just "hot" but "important."

Perhaps there should be a "what's hot" like feed that doesn't try to stay full all the time, but rather attenuates the flow of noise down to just those few updates. Tailoring it to interests is fine. It's entirely possible that there are folks out there who find the release of a new iPhone far more compelling a current event than the fall of a fascist dictator, and that should be reflected, but it's the desire to "keep the pipe full" that's causing problems, not the weighting of topics.