I Need You: Twitter, Information Overload, and Work Flow.

Hello everyone!

I am beginning a research project to help moderate workflow and interruptions from services like Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Digg, etc.

I need your help.

Most of you who have spread themselves across the larger social media world now seem to be gravitating towards clients that can gather your scattered piles of information and communication into one cohesive place. Instead of simply using TweetDeck, you might use an application that combines Facebook statuses, Twitter messages, email alerts, and more all in one. It makes sense.

Unfortunately, our social networks are getting too big. I recently downloaded AlertThingy and received a new alert every 2 seconds or so (And I am by no means a power Twitter user). This typically results in information overload. So that is one problem. The other problem is that applications like TweetDeck and AlertThingy are often background tools. They are usually not my main focus. Instead, I am trying to write a paper, or research visualization techniques, or have a conversation with a friend in the Midwest.

The conversations on Twitter can be distracting - the ultimate nemesis of productivity. Even worse, I may be chanelling all the RSS feeds of my favorite blogs, news sites, and social bookmarking outlets into the same funnell. But at the same time, I still value them. I still want to know what's going on. I still want to be nudged if something exciting happens. How can anyone get anything done?

Let's get to the main questions: What if I can visualize this information stream at multiple layers of abstraction? Think about Google Maps, where I can view the map at 2,000 feet up and get a general sense of the topology or I can zoom down to see the parked in driveway. What if we could do this with Twitter? If we can, it means that when I glance over at Twitter during a writing spree for a 10 page paper, I can quickly see whether something in the massive stream of information is interesting to me. Just at a glance. I don't have to read through the 25 messages on the screen (even if I did, I might have missed something important in the 26th message). It still might be a distraction... but a .5 second distraction is better than a 20 second distraction.. especially since those 20 second distractions often end up in endless spirals of links and chatter. No need to always tumble down the rabbit hole.

I need you.

And here is where I need you. I follow around 200 people on Twitter. It is a fair amount... but no where near the thousands or tens of thousands of users that others follow. Now, I know that you are not reading every message from every person in your TweetDeck screen. Whether you are doing it explicitly or not, you are filtering and prioritizing information. Maybe you look for certain avatars that represent certain people. Maybe you look for key words. Maybe you give priority to people who are located somewhere around you. Maybe you pay special attention to words that are currently trending in the Twitter world. Or maybe you start paying attention if someone starts tweeting more than usual.

I need to know what you look for when you glance through Twitter messages. That way, as I look to design different levels of visualization, I will be carving out topologies and not counting garden gnomes. You have valuable insights and opinions. Maybe you've even secretly thought of this sort of thing and have some ideas of what is should look like. Well, tell me.

After all, if I want to do things right, I might as well ask the people who really know about it.

Where is this going?- Future Implications

While the idea of visualizing Twitter at multiple levels of abstraction is interesting enough to me, I skimmed over one important question - How can an application know which level of visualization to use? That's where the foundations of my research group come in.

Right now, we are researching Brain-Computer Interfaces. The whole project reaches out into the future a bit, but one measurement we have been working on is mental workload. So depending on how much mental processing you are using on that term paper, we may be able to adjust the visualization of your information stream accordingly. Anyways, I won't go into too much detail, but if you want to know more, you can always go here and read about some of our work.

Another potential application comes from mobile devices. Higher level views of information will preserve screen real estate. It makes sense to use these sorts visualizations on the iPhone (or whatever your device of choice is). Get a lot of information quickly and in a small space. You might not get everything, but you can always choose to dive deeper.

So tell me what you think. Post your thoughts in the comments section, send me a tweet (@EvanMPeck) or even shoot me an email (evanpeck [AT] gmail.com). I'd love to hear your opinions.


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