Tips for Easing Internet Information Overload

Technology contributor Mario Armstrong talks with Farai Chideya about the sometimes overwhelming amount of information on the Internet — and gives some tips on how to ease the pain.

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon and this is NEWS AND NOTES. The Internet is a great tool for research, but how many times have you found yourself overwhelmed by search results, when you're trying to find something fairly simple? NEWS AND NOTES tech guru Mario Armstrong told NPR's Farai Chideya this wealth of information can sometimes be too much of a good thing.

MARIO ARMSTRONG reporting:

Between your voicemail inbox, the fax machine, your cell phone, and your inbox in your e-mail and the Web, it's just becoming too much. And I'm hearing too many e-mails and calls from folks that are saying, I'm just having information overload, I can't take it anymore, it's just constant fatigue.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

How can people better tailor their search methods? Do you have any hints on how to search smarter, because I know as a journalist, I'm on the different search engines all the time.

ARMSTRONG: And we know some of the tips of the trade, and we have some of the greatest tools, like LexisNexis, and others that help us in the media. But for the average person using web search engines, there's a really easy one that a lot of people still don't do, although the search engines have made their technologies smarter, and that's using quotations marks around two or more key words that you want to search as a phrase. So instead of me maybe looking for Farai Chideya of NEWS AND NOTES, I may put Farai Chideya in quotes of NEWS AND NOTES. Or I may leave Farai Chideya as is, and put NEWS AND NOTES in quotes, and the quotation marks make that search a phrase.

That's a simple one, but the search engines are getting better. Another one that I really like is called Google Alerts. This kind of flips the whole search process inside out, Farai. What you do is you go to Google, and you assign key words of things that are of interest to you that you want to track. Maybe your favorite hobby, maybe politics or competitors, favorite sports, news sites, industry information, and you plug in these keywords, and you allow Google to email you on the frequency that you suggest daily, weekly, monthly, of the results of those keyword searches.

So no longer are you going to Google saying, I need to find this information. Google is saying, hey, you've given us these keywords, and new information just showed up on the internet, and we're emailing it to you.

CHIDEYA: Hey, that sounds great.

ARMSTRONG: Yeah, for free.

CHIDEYA: What other technologies are companies like Google and Yahoo giving to consumers? And one of the things I find interesting about this is that of course these search engines are free, and they're relying on their ads being attractive to you. So I guess they're constantly competing to see who can be the best. What other tools are they creating to help you navigate through the searchers?

ARMSTRONG: Google just announced a new one called reader.google.com. Now, what this allows you to do, a reader is really a program that allows you to aggregate information that's out on the Internet. Other terms you may have seen or other acronyms you may have seen are RSS, and you'll see these little orange boxes maybe that says XML or RSS on your favorite websites, that stands for really simple syndication, which is what this reader.google.com site does. And essentially, it allows you to sign up or subscribe to for free to your favorite websites that offer this RSS technology, and then you download an RSS reader, a simple program that you download on your computer that allows you to receive any updates that you subscribe to.

So in other words, in layman's terms, instead of going to your favorite 15 websites that you always visit everyday, you can have those favorite 15 websites send you the updates of their sites to your reader program on your computer. So you only use one program, but you're surfing as many websites as you're interested in, almost kind of creating your own online news channel, if you will.

CHIDEYA: Isn't there a danger that if you do that, that all you hear is what you want to hear, and you don't really get to explore new ideas?

ARMSTRONG: And that's the beauty of the internet. You're surfing around the internet, and you bump into things because it's linked, and you fumble onto new stories or new ideas or things that you didn't think would interest you, but now they do. It's kind of like flipping through that magazine, and you see specific stories you're interested in, but then you come across a couple of pages that wow you in between and you learn something new. This has the ability to filter that new information out, and you end up in this quote/unquote "echo chamber" of just information that is specific to you.

However, on the positive side, I think that's good if you have specific things you're looking for. I think RSS tools and these readers are good if you really need to track something specific and you need to cut down on hours of wasting your time searching on the internet to find the exact information you're looking for.

CHIDEYA: Let me ask you one last thing. You go online. You search in good faith, and sometimes there's red herrings, people have urban myths up, or they have websites where they're not that informed. Do you have any words to the wise on how people should assess if a site is credible?

ARMSTRONG: Yeah, that's tough, especially now that we're in the blog sphere now, and you have blogs that are set up to support companies, as well as blogs that are out there bashing companies. And you don't know who is credible or what information is credible anymore. So it's become much more challenging. And there's not technology that can answer that question. It comes back to you and whether or not your knowledge of a particular site. So it's becoming tougher. And that's why these filtering programs, these things like newsgator, onfolio.com, these RSS programs that have become very popular are because it does allow you to navigate through those sources of material that you do trust.

So it may be at the expense of filtering out some new things, but at the end of the day, hopefully, you're getting what you're looking for from the sources you're looking for that are credible.

CHIDEYA: Mario Armstrong is NEWS AND NOTES tech expert, and he also covers technology for Baltimore member stations WYPR and WEAA. Thanks, Mario.

ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Farai.

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya.

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