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We need tools for the times we're just plain stupid

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Social media has many great communication tools and is an excellent way to increase expertise, but what if you want to learn something new? It’s hard to get started on a new topic when the good stuff is hidden in huge feeds.

I’ve really only regretted the death of two online services. Furl, which got swallowed up into Diigo‘s relatively ugly interface, and Social|Median, which turned into an underwhelming XING application. In the second case, it was a real shame because Social|Median was one of the better learning tools I’ve ever found online.

When I briefly met Robert Scoble, he was on his way to speak about the internet as a learning tool at a conference at George Mason University. He asked a group of us, social media folk, about the tools we used to learn:

  • Google Reader was of course the big mention, in part because it’s ability to follow people, which makes it immensely useful at helping you read what the experts are reading.
  • Feedly also came up, because it takes huge Reader feed lists like mine and makes them manageable and better readable.
  • Of course Twitter was on the list, along with various methods to interact with it and monitor hashtags.

But I had to mention Social|Median.

Here’s why, Social|Median allowed you to take people and RSS feeds, big or small, put in keywords, and get a list (and useful RSS feed) of articles from all of the feeds that related to your key words or phrases. You could then invite or leave an open invitation for content experts who could recommend links into the newsfeed as well.  It let you control the level of loose relation and really dig into the mega feeds for the articles relevant to you.

This whole process was immensely useful when trying to learn something new.

Around the time I first became a user of Social|Median, I was asked to write for a youth blog on UPI. When asked to pick from three topics, I chose the Obama and the economy. The problem was that I knew absolutely nothing about economics. It was an opinion blog and I felt that to have a real opinion, I needed to know what I was talking about.  I talked to some friends who knew more than I did and they recommended some feeds, but the highly topical blogs weren’t always the right choice, they aimed at expert readers.

By mixing the highly focused feeds with mega-feeds from the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Huffington Post and other general news outlets, as well as conservative and liberal political blogs, I was able to get a stream of content that provided the broadly general information, context, and gave me the ability to delve into the specifics.

When it comes to social media, excepting programming, web development and social media itself, there are really only two types of content promoted: the stupid and the expert. If you wanted to sit down and, over the course of a few months, learn something about a specific topic, it’s pretty difficult to pull off.

The problem is mostly the social media echo chamber. There are topic experts and what they say is frequently reposted and linked to. Breaking into that cycle with your own content is difficult, especially if that content is below the level of the experts and the people who want to become experts. While tools like Quora may offer you the ability to ask specific questions, there’s no way social media now could… say… take the place of a class textbook.

This is a shame because, as I discovered, the information is out there. It is floating in various RSS feeds and online in the heads of some other middle-of-expertise folks. At this point, Social|Median is really the only tool I’ve encountered that made accessing it easy. I’ve yet to see anything like it again.

All the existing tools build on content shared by your network, increasing the echo chamber effect. It does little to help you really learn something new. It doesn’t pick out the signal from the noise because so much is lost when everyone is retweeting modifications on the same theme. The only thing that has come close is LazyFeed, and it is more dumb search then learning tool. While I like the site, LazyFeed isn’t really useful unless you monitor it all the time.

We badly need a learning tool like  Social|Median. Where is the site that intelligently sorts through the mass and hunts down the content I need to educate myself? Once we get outside of general news and web-related content, can social media really do it? Am I just following the wrong people? What’s been your experience?

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