Signal vs noise

A topic that came out of the recent Gurteen Knowledge Cafe was the value of noise.  A lot of time we look to increase the signal to noise ratio with the understanding that noise is bad and distracting.  Luis made the point in his talk, last week that noise is good.  The more you think about the random coincidences that happen on Twitter or on other social software tools, the more you realise that a lot of ideas and moments of serendipity actually come from noise.

So it’s not that noise is unwelcome, just that there is ‘good’ noise and ‘bad’ noise (spam).  This relates to the idea that has been floating around the web recently that information overload is actually a filtering problem.

The tools we use have a significant impact on the value of noise.  Email suffers from the problem of noise because:

  • Email is often used to ask people to do things so I tend to associate it with action (or avoiding action) rather than ambient noise
  • Email is concrete and disruptive, I have to open my email, it’s very difficult to glance at it
  • Anyone who has my email address can email me


Twitter, on the other hand, is a great source of interesting noise because:

  • It enforces brevity (140 characters)
  • The short messages and the UI of applications like Twhirl make it more ambient than concrete, it’s very easy to glance at
  • You can’t spam me on Twitter, I only receive updates from people I choose


I’ve met up (in the real world) with interesting people by happening to see their status amongst the noise on Twitter, in a way that email could never do.  So now instead of simply rejecting noise as ‘bad’, perhaps we just need to think a bit more about the tools we use to subscribe to and consume it.

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6 Responses to Signal vs noise

  1. 100% agree, Jon. Was thinking of blogging on the same topic after the KC. There are so many items (posts, news stories, tips, announcements) or people that I’ve only found because of the ambient noise of twitter, or to a lesser extent, RSS feeds.

    Could not live without it now.

  2. Jon Mell says:

    Thanks Stuart – gotta admit that event was much better than I was expecting!

  3. Pingback: Library clips :: The emergence of Serendipity 2.0 and Innovation 2.0 :: October :: 2008

  4. Aden Davies says:

    I would love to get some noise going in our organisation…friendfeed behind the firewall would be great but trying to explain this is not that easy.

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  6. marc dauncey says:

    Noise is highly important – and I keep banging on about this on Facebook, but remember the godfather of the web, Ted Nelson came up with hypertext to manage the sprawling network of ideas, half-finished projects, movie scripts and random thoughts that occur to him every day.

    Highly creative people embrace noise IMO.

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