11 Apr 2009 2:01 pm   //   Filed under: Technology

Digital spring cleaning

I’m taking a four-day weekend for Easter. Last night I helped out with mics and sound at my church’s annual Good Friday Passion Play, which is one of our congregation’s favorite annual traditions.

Now it’s Saturday afternoon, and it’s dark out and rain is pelting my windows. I’m doing some work at my desk while I listen to the Fugees channel on Pandora. I just made some upgrades to my daryllang.com home page. This is a dynamically generated site, and it demands constant refinement. Coding reminds me of doing the crossword puzzle. I am concerned about my site’s reliance on Twitter, because it tends to fail more than it used to, but I’m not that concerned.

When I left the office Thursday for a long weekend, I promised myself I wouldn’t check my work e-mail during my days off. I lasted a day and a half. What if I were missing something interesting? My curiosity was just too powerful.

I’ve been thinking about my mission as a journalist, which is to learn important information and expediently transmit it to an audience. For the most part, that means talking to people who know more than I do. But I also have to monitor all sorts of data streams. In no particular order: Other publications, e-mail, SEC filings, communications from trade groups, court documents, incoming phone calls, message boards, Twitter, blogs and (yuck) blog comments. There are too many data streams and too much noise to keep track of it all. Society deals with this is by having mavens who are skilled at finding and communicating the important stuff. As an editor, I am one of those people.

The good news is we have more mavens monitoring these information streams than ever, and cooperating with one another. The more significant the information, the faster it travels and the wider its reach. Considering a classic example: If the president were shot, how long would it take for the news to reach 80 percent of Americans? Half an hour? Ten minutes? In my case (as an online editor for a niche business publication) very important news comes to me fast, from multiple sources, wherever I am. Boring news—Acme Widgets names a new CFO—comes in via e-mail and sits there.

I read a great quote in a recent New York Times story about the “social filter.” Increasingly, people rely on their friends to spot interesting news and pass it along, a process made much easier by the Internet. The quote is a second-hand observation from a researcher named Jane Buckingham, who heard a college student say it in a focus group:

“If the news is that important, it will find me.”

There’s something comforting about that statement. I can take a day off to help rig mics for church people singing songs in a play, and not worry that I’m going to be the last to know something.

There are problems with this method as well. Editing-by-democracy means simple, fun stories get more attention than important but complicated ones. Sometimes false information spreads fast, particularly in vague stories when there’s no correct information to knock it down. But through all history, humans have had an urge communicate with one another, and to get better at it. It’s a fascinating time to do what I do.