“We need to go outside of our personal comfort zones in all kinds of ways politically, socially, culturally, to have a better understanding of the information ecosystem that we’re engaged in. “
– Dan Gillmor
About Dan Gillmor
What you will learn
- Why getting better information starts with upgrading yourself (03:09)
- Why we should look for sources of information outside our comfort zone (05:27)
- How deploying the best current tactics and tools help to deal with the overflow (08:02)
- What repetition tells you about a story (10:35)
- Why you should not depend on a single technology (14:09)
- How to use categories of worth (17:03)
- Why pay attention to articles that elicit a response from you (20:30)
- Why information overload is still more pros than cons (23:14)
- Retain healthy scepticism, not cynicism (27:19)
- Help the people you care about understand things that are difficult (30:31)
Dan Gillmor: Thanks for having me.
Ross: So information overload is a special topic of yours, as you’ve taught it amongst other things.
Dan: Yeah it’s something I’ve been looking at for quite a long time. It stems from recognizing that media is democratized, the technology is democratized, so that it’s in everyone’s hands, that everyone can participate in public conversations, as well as private ones, and one result of that is a massive amount of information, and we have to sort it out.
Ross: Absolutely. We can look at it as a systemic problem, as in, there are certain things which we could, and maybe should, do to address it in terms of a systemic problem, but ultimately it comes down to us as individuals, we have to deal with the reality of this profusion of information, correct, incorrect, spurious and relevant.
Dan: Yes, we do. We need to get the help of players in the ecosystem that are powerful, and that could help us a great deal.
Ross: Just for a moment on that, who are the players? And what can we do?
Dan: My philosophy on all this is that we need better information, no doubt about that. When I think of that, I think, in part, in the journalistic sphere, that we need a lot better journalism than we have, and trustworthy sources of information. That’s a supply-side question. While we do need to upgrade supply, what you’re getting at is that we need to upgrade demand. I believe, and my work has been focused on upgrading demand at scale, which is to say, we need to improve us, we need to upgrade ourselves.
Scale requires help from major institutions in our societies, starting with the education that is at all levels, continuing on to media, which brings scale to information; journalism, entertainment should be playing a role, advertising, public relations, and others should be part of the bringing upgraded demand scale. Then finally, the institutions that pretty much define scale in the modern world, the technology, media companies, which need to do a lot more than they have been doing to help us be better ourselves as individuals and in our communities.
Ross: Absolutely agreed. I do want to get to what you do, personally, as an exemplar of this. You mentioned education. I think education is, of course, lifelong. This is not just throughout our formal schooling, and it has always befuddled me why they never teach us to deal with information since that’s basically most of what we do through our lives. What would you say, at any level of education are the things that we need to be learning to be better at using the information that we have.
Dan: I think it falls in two areas. One is principles, which really don’t change much, things of basic common sense, but which we need to restate periodically, so we’re clear. One is that we need to be skeptical of everything, but not equally skeptical. Use judgment to find things that we have reason to trust more than not. I think it’s a mistake to trust anything 100%, but there are many things I trust implicitly, and I trust them, even more, when they make mistakes, because they correct them, and tell me they made mistakes.
Then we need to ask questions, which people don’t do very often, which they should do. No, we can’t expect people to go re-report the BBC report from Kabul, Afghanistan, but we can, especially when it’s locally based, ask our own questions and get good answers, or at least useful ones. We need to go outside of our personal comfort zones in all kinds of ways politically, socially, culturally, to have a better understanding of the ecosystem that we’re engaged in. Then we need to understand how media work, not just technically, but how media are used to persuade, and in fact, manipulate. All of those are basic principles.
Then there are tactics, which do change because the tools change, the technologies change. We need to deploy the best current tactics and tools to help deal with this overflow, and the fact that so much of what we encounter is either mistaken, not out of any malign intent, or disinformation, misinformation, out of definitely malign intent.
Ross: To illustrate that can we get a sense of your practices and what you do? Do you have any information routine? Do you go to particular sources at particular times of the day? How do you define your purpose and what you’re looking to get from information? Do you have some kind of structure for how you take on the information around you?
Dan: I don’t think I have a connect the dots and paint in the numbers routine. It’s important for anyone listening to this to recognize that I live in this world of information. I’m not typical. I’m constantly swimming in this ocean. Most people have a life, and they don’t have time to do the stuff that I do. I have to separate the fact that I’m part of this and engaged in it in a very deep way, from what I think other people do and have time to do. But having said that, I can answer your question in several ways. First, is that I have a bunch of news websites that I visit every day because I think there’s value in a curated collection of information from editors, whom I think are more likely to have a good sense of the world than not.
Again, I emphasize that they don’t get it right all the time. I am in constant despair, in fact, over the bad journalism I see. However, I still go to those places, New York Times, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, BBC, and a number of others, to just get a sense of what the top editors in journalism think at the moment. I have a bunch of Twitter lists that I’ve collected of people who are experts in specific areas, and whom I trust to flag stuff that I’m going to be interested in, just by nature of who they are, what they do, so I can scan that. I often see a lot of repetition and that’s a good hint that something’s important if I see the same thing flagged three or four times.
I go from a macro level to the very micro level of the Facebook group for my small town in Northern California; it’s the only thing around where resembling news happens about that place. It’s moderated very well by somebody who has basically banned national politics unless there’s a direct connection to that town, which is the best thing you can imagine because people who really would not agree, and, in fact, would get very angry with each other on he who cannot be named. Yet we work together quite well as a community on things that we know are important to us as a community. There are many things in between. The work I do I’m very careful to follow journals, people, lots of keyword searches in Google News and other news sites, and things like that. But I don’t have a routine. I’m just a promiscuous browser of everything I can find.
Ross: There’s structure. There are some things that you go to for your sources. In terms of pulling all this into your mental models, or ways of thinking, or frames, or so on, do you take notes? Do you build any models? Is this all just inside your mind? Is it how you are thinking about things?
Dan: I use what amounts to a bookmark collector where I will park things that I want to come back to, or that I want to use. I have different buckets where things are, like, Oh, here’s something that might be a reading for my students, or here’s something I’m going to want to perhaps post a note about on Twitter, here is something I might want to do a blog post about, that sort of thing. I think without that, it would be even more random than it is, and it’s still fairly random by any truly organized person standards.
Ross: What bookmarking tool do you use?
Dan: I’ve even forgotten the name of it. I’ve been using it for so long.
Ross: It doesn’t matter. There are a few around.
Dan: I’ll have to find it. Oh, hang on, it’s Pinboard.
Dan: Yes. It’s something I pay for. It’s very modest in cost. After another tool I was using went away, I adopted that. This is one of the problems, things you use, their lifespan is basically how long the person can either stay in business or not get too bored to continue.
Ross: Yes, there have been some losses in particularly the bookmarking space.
Dan: Everyone I know had Delicious at the beginning, not everyone, but that was the tool of choice for almost everyone. Then it got destroyed after selling it to a big company. This is how things go.
Ross: You also mentioned tactics. In terms of other tools or structures, you may have already mentioned some of these, but are there any other specific technologies or aggregators, or things other than you mentioned, that you use or find useful in your information perusal?
Dan: I think there are some very high-value aggregation-type things. Again, it’s how do we rely on things to be with us? These are the issues; the more you get used to any one tool or site, the more risk you’ve taken at some level to suddenly find yourself lost when it just goes away. That’s really an unfortunate situation. I try to use things that either I make myself or collect things in places where I can always download everything if the worst happens. It’s a question that’s really interesting because I don’t think anyone has gotten aggregation right.
For years, I’ve believed there’s a big opening in news aggregation for someone to do it right, and it just hasn’t been done, which is at least not the way I would do it. If I were 20 years younger and didn’t have a lot else on my plate, I would probably just do something myself.
Ross: It is interesting that just a couple of days ago, news initiated with this piece, hit an unfortunate end. They’re not the first ones to have a go.
Dan: I would change the adjective unfortunate to predictable because that was a very bad joke to begin with, and it didn’t elevate beyond that.
Ross: There are different frames around what a useful aggregator can be in the scope of what it picks up. In terms of your role in educating in helping people to deal with this, you mentioned at the beginning this idea of being able to ask questions, or to inquire, or to try to discern how to deal with what is purported to be factual and may not, so what are some of the things which people who are coming to this can efficiently try to pass content to see whether it’s worthy of their attention?
Dan: I think it’s important to separate worthy of attention from worthy of trust, and maybe a third category, useful; because those are not the same. My goal is generally to find things that are either wildly entertaining when I want to relax a little bit or things that are both worthy of attention and useful. I believe that implicitly includes honest and done right.
I’ve lost my thread there, but the things that I actually have to work hard to try and keep myself in training not to do, is to be diverted by expert trolling and steering me off into some sack that waste my time, one of the worst. If I’m going to waste my time, I want to do it by watching a movie where I empty my brain into the screen. Even then, that’s not a waste of time but I don’t want my time to be wasted by someone whose goal is to reduce my ability to think well, and to reduce my time to do productive things. There’s a lot of stuff like that out there.
Ross: Are you referring particularly to social media or also the articles that are effectively trawling?
Dan: Tabloid journalism has been doing this very expertly for a very long time; certainly, over a century. I think it probably goes back to as long as there have been newspapers and media. That sensation and wildness have always been more financially successful. Certainly, then what we think of as serious news. I don’t think serious has to be boring, I don’t think useful has to be boring, and certainly entertaining, by definition is not boring.
Ross: As you say, you get articles where you might say, Okay, belief is one inappropriate response but also outrage is an inappropriate response because it’s just losing yourself and your attention to something where it doesn’t to an emotional or other response.
Dan: In general, if something makes you angry that you read, not always, but in general, if it’s a headline or short, and it makes you angry, it’s probably designed to do that. It’s probably, not necessarily but likely, I don’t have good data on that, but I think, in general, things that are designed to make me angry, are more often not trustworthy than they are trustworthy.
When people I tend to believe post things that make me angry, I even have to pay attention, ask myself what is it that they’re doing? What is it that they’re angry about, that I’m supposed to join them in that? Because maybe it’s not as bad as they think it is? Direct mail, as an example, the United States mailing lists, or email lists, are about making money, raising money, and from all angles of the political spectrum, is an outrageous abuse of language. Because it works; you piss people off and it works, they send you money. You scare them, they send you money. That’s a problem, but things we respond to the crisis, we respond to the ganglia takeover.
Ross: Yes, indeed. As you say, there are many experts at this, that are taking us away from what we should be paying attention to. You mentioned the word useful a couple of times. One of the challenges for many people is that it’s often hard to discern while there’s so much out there, which could be useful. How is it that I draw the line and say that that is useful? I frame this just coming back to purpose, what is it that is important to you? Do you have any thoughts around how people can have a filter to work out what is useful to them?
Dan: I don’t have any formula for that. I don’t even have a vague one. The more invested I am in a topic, and by topic, I mean, an issue and to get out of anything remotely political. For example, if I have an issue with some software I’m using, I can find useful help with carefully crafted searching. For all the fury that people have, sometimes well earned, about YouTube, dragging people down a black hole of toxic, horrible stuff, and it does, sometimes; they’re working on that but that’s been their history. For all of that, consider how many people have found the video that let them repair something simply, or get something working simply, that in another age, they would have had to call somebody and pay them. This is miraculous in its own way.
We got to keep in mind that these tools, I don’t know how you could find the data to prove it one way or the other, but I think there has been more value of a positive con created by everything we’re talking about than that catastrophic toxicity, which is there. I think if the toxic stuff brings down our democracies, or is proved at some point to be responsible for that, then I’m going to have to change my opinion. Because then I will have to say, Well, being able to repair my toaster from a video does not outweigh living in a dictatorship. I think I would then concede, but even that is not solely to blame. You can’t blame social networks for things that traditional media have been doing routinely. The Murdoch family’s media properties for a long time have been injecting poison into public discourse for a very long time. I believe that the right-wing media, and Fox News, in particular, in my country, have done more damage by far than all social media posts by all people in all of the history of social media.
Ross: Yes, it’s horrible.
Dan: Yes. Again, people have to learn how to discern things. We’re off our topic by quite a tangent here so I’ll let you wash your brains out.
Ross: To round out this idea of thriving on overload, which is something that you do, and you teach others to do, are there any final thoughts, or recommendations, or frames, which would be useful to people in being able to draw on your expertise?
Dan: I’m cautious about saying that I thrive on overload. I’m not sure that’s true. I think people have been overloaded with the information long before there was digital information. We adjust our view of simplicity based on the era that we live in. I’m pretty sure that in the century after Gutenberg, there was a lot of worry about information overload because this printed stuff was wildly available suddenly, and people were getting views of the world they hadn’t had before. What I think we have to try to do is recognize first that you have to trust somebody. It doesn’t mean that you have 100%, absolute willingness to act for yourself based on what they say. It means that you rely on them to basically get things right when you know they know a lot about it.
Find that, find those people, find those sources, find those outlets, and find them for the things you care most about. Retain healthy skepticism, not cynicism, but skepticism, about much of the rest. Recognizing the news, in particular, is an inherently flawed process when it’s done by people and organizations of integrity. I’ll revise a phrase that I’ve always loved about the arc of justice bending, things bending toward justice, this arc bends toward reality, context, and that we have to trust ourselves at some level; but don’t do it based on your gut if the facts say that’s not right. I’m always finding things that challenge my worldview, and that’s great.
Ross: Absolutely, if you’re searching for those, it’s a massive short circuit of time and energy, if you can find the trusted sources. Establish that trust, and that saves not all filtering or verifying, but at least makes it far more easier.
Dan: Implicit in that is don’t share things you’re not sure about. Help the people you care about understand these things that are difficult. If Uncle George is sharing QAnon stuff, don’t call him out in public. Tell him, Uncle George, I really care about you, and I’m really worried, but do it privately. We have to give each other a break. We have to cut each other some slack. It doesn’t mean we have to tolerate things that are lies, because I don’t. If we don’t make decisions based on our best understanding of reality based on facts, then we are guaranteed to go badly wrong.
We’re in the middle of one of these existential things where in my country, there’s a substantial part of the population that is saying that it was one thing when they wouldn’t wear a mask and risked other people’s health, but then refusing a vaccination not only risked other people’s health but their own. I don’t understand that. I don’t know how people can get so caught up in cult thinking as to treat themselves and the people they care about that way. I don’t understand it.
Ross: Both better information and better ability to make sense of that information, as we started with, is critical on that journey to hopefully having better, and more useful ways of thinking and acting.
Dan: Nobody should imagine that this is all easy. The people who say it is easy, or the people who say that everything can be boiled down to a binary view, and very little is binary in our lives, everything has nuance, but some things just are not true, and some things just are. We have to understand the differences here.
Ross: Yes, and do well on that journey. Thank you so much for your time, and your insight. It’s been really valuable to hear from your very deep experience in being able to make sense of and filter through.
Dan: I appreciate it. I’m sorry; I got off on tangents here. I tend to think in too many different directions at the same time.
Ross: Thank you so much, Dan. Have a good day.
Dan: Okay. Take care.