Democratization of communication: In filter we trust

KaleidoscopeTime was, we would get recommendations from “trusted” institutions. You know the names: Consumer Reports for products, Lonely Planet for travel, KCRW for music, the New York Times for all the news that’s fit to print, the list goes on. Their word was sacred, and we the masses were grateful for their filtering, their curation. If your track wasn’t on heavy rotation on their playlist, so to speak, you weren’t going to sell. But as we all know, the Internet changed things. And how.

I thought about this recently as I was planning a trip to Paris and sought recommendations on things to do, places to eat from a variety of sources. Between friends, colleagues, peer reviews on TripAdvisor, New York Times lists, the hotel concierge and travel sites, I was getting bombarded with tips on how to spend 36 hours in the City of Light. It was confusing, time-consuming and, ultimately, overwhelming to parse the recommendations, cross-check those that seemed promising and book.

It’s no blinding insight to say that, with the “democratization” of communication that the Internet enabled — and the resultant onslaught of data and artifacts created — there is a greater need for filters than ever before. We are sipping from the proverbial firehose and drowning in the ensuing deluge. Or, as Clay Shirky put it (by way of JP Rangaswami, who writes eloquently about the subject), we don’t live in an age of information overload, but of “filter failure.” Quite so.

The notion of authority and credibility is changing.  Previously credibility inured to institutions and brands.  We still revere traditional arbiters of taste – the Michelin guide still makes or breaks many restaurants.  But this is changing.  The filters of old are decreasing in reach, power and authority.  Instead, authority is atomizing to the individual level. Examples abound of individuals using social platforms such as Twitter and YouTube to broadcast to a much wider audience.  The Amazon star rating is becoming as important as the NYT Book review.

Social recommendations have always played a big part in our decisions, and this also is changing with the advent of the social graph. The concept of trusted peers or filters is expanding to those once or twice removed from our friends. The prospect of using this social graph to inform our searches, to be the new PageRank is what underpins the huge potential of Facebook.

At the same time, we as consumers have become more proactive in seeking filters, in “following.” Besides email, Twitter and YouTube, the concept of the “follow” is central to a new breed of vertically-oriented sites and feeds: Svpply for products, 8tracks for music (see disclosure), Lyst for fashion, I-Escape for boutique hotels, Covestor for stocks, food blogs like An American In London for local restaurants, Jason Hirschorn’s Media Redefined feed for my daily run-down of industry news, and so on.

But this also means a splintering of tastes. As we roll our own filters based on new authorities and new friends and Circles, so there becomes less overlap in our general tastes.  What does this all mean? It’s too early to tell. But, as always, the new filters will look to institutionalize themselves to cement and project their authority (Jason Hirschorn will turn his feed into a business, natch). At the same time, our splintered filters will result in a self-selecting bias.  We naturally gravitate towards filters that echo our point of view and taste. In public affairs, this leads to a polarization of the polity.  More darkly, as JP writes, “There is a growing risk that you will only be presented with information that someone else thinks is what you want to see, read or hear. Accentuating your biases and prejudices. Increasing groupthink. Narrowing your frame of reference.”  Whatever the case, there is enormous value to be created in being the new filter and the prospect of ‘owning’ this promises great wealth and power to those that can do it at scale.

Back to my weekend in Paris. After consulting so many sources, we ultimately just went with the recommendations of our concierge. He didn’t disappoint, but it got me thinking: it would have been great to have a Quora for Paris — a Q&A site where I could ask where the best Sunday brunch near the 1st is, with socially filtered answers or, better yet, a “Summify” to smartly condense recommendations from “institutions” and friends into an easily digested form. That I would pay for.

Rags Gupta is currently VP at Brightcove, based out of London. He can be found on Twitter at @ragsgupta and Disclosure: He is an adviser and investor in 8tracks. All of the opinions expressed are his own and not that of any companies he is affiliated with.

Image courtesy of Flickr user lakewentworth