The fundamental flaw in aggregators

I should begin this post by acknowledging openly that I have been an advocate of information aggregation for a very long time, and have frequently extolled the virtues of applications like tweetdeck and friendfeed for drawing together information from a range of sources.  I’ve also been a bit of a fan of information aggregation tools that use a range of sources to provide answers to simple questions; structured data tools like Wolfram Alpha, or recommendation engines and mashed up mapping utlities.  And when it comes down to it, I’m still a fan of data aggregation and filtering.

But there is a crucial flaw in aggregators, and any data researcher worth his salt should be wary of it: aggregators are very likely to miss new sources of knowledge.  Relying on subscribed feeds and standardised information sources is inevitably a self-limiting exercise. It is still valuable to do basic ground research to find out what is being written/researched and to consider new thinking/innovation/opportunities in a manner which is not facilitated by feed aggregators, even where feed subscriptions are tagged by subject area.  Unless connections are being continuously created and updated between existing interests and new ideas, then the information stream can become stagnant.

This is the basic theory of information economics: the data feed has to be fresh and relevant to retain value.  But aggregators, while incredibly useful in documenting the range of content being created in the infosphere, are limited by the sheer quantity of information being produced and collected, thus quality information from trusted sources is often missed, and untrusted (new; unknown) sources are often ignored.

Google Wave is about to come out.  It promises to be a rather flash piece of social media aggregation and desktop-style instant messaging and file sharing.  It’s premised on messaging and doesn’t try to be a structured data facility or content discovery mechanism.  (It’s essentially gmail on heat.)  But I guess what concerns me about Google Wave and other aggregation utilities emerging is that we’re being encouraged less and less to seek elsewhere for new information.  Barraged by reports of malware from untrusted sites, users are becoming more and more narrow in their information consumption habits online and are defining themselves by their friends and trusted sources networks rather than their interests, knowledge and understanding. My fear is that curious, or discovery-oriented web surfing will decline, and the skills associated with knowledge mining (as opposed to information mining) will decline with it.

I hope my fears are unfounded.  But I guess if they’re not, then I have a backup plan for my retirement, teaching kids how to source ideas.

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