Get smart: 3 different methods for finding good stuff online

I’ve been pondering “intelligence” a bit lately and on Friday decided that I wanted to spend some time this weekend reading about it. I was starting from roughly scratch and looking for good resources to learn how academic researchers define, explain and generally think about intelligence. I ended up finding some good stuff but the whole process got me thinking about how we find stuff online. I found resources via three different methods that I want to briefly discuss: social recommendations, search, and feeds. There’s a lot of overlap between these, but bear with me (or don’t – your call).

Social Recommendations

I tweeted and posted on my gchat status about my desire to read some good stuff on the concept of intelligence and research around it and that got a few bites. Mostly it was just friends asking what I meant by it, or how I defined intelligence, to which I had to reply that I was hoping they could point me to the answer to that question. I did get a couple of links pointed out. Some were only slightly relevant, some were a bit better. But in any case, it turned up some interesting leads but not quite exactly what I wanted. I mentioned that this was the case to a friend (one who had provided one of the more interesting suggestions I received) and added that I was pretty used to lackluster response to my inquiries through social platforms. He remarked that he would have guessed the opposite, given the frequency with which I solicit recommendations.

He has a point. I’m not sure why I keep asking the social sphere for recommendations, despite the fact that the results are pretty weak. Maybe I’m just hopelessly optimistic about social media? In any case, with no disrespect to my friends, (who are smart, interesting, helpful, etc.) for whatever reason (shortage of time, lack of interest in my lame preoccupations) inquiring through social networks is seldom helpful for me. My guess is that this is the case for most people, but that it is neglected because “influencers” at the top of the social media food chain have the exact opposite experience. Clay Shirky can get any question he wants answered quickly with a tweet, and he’s the one writing about how effective this stuff is or isn’t. There may be certain spheres within which social inquiry is effective… maybe if my inquiries were more social, more relevant to my audience, I’d receive better response (I’m imagining things like What fun stuff is going on tonight? / What’s the best ultimate frisbee team in Boston / etc. Things that are highly relevant to a large group of my network.

Search, and not just Google

Obviously I did several Google searches immediately to try and find resources. This was kind of limited. “Intelligence” tends to turn up a lot about military intelligence, which speaks to the lack of intelligence in search, or perhaps just to my lack of it. In any case, I found a few relevant items, but not much.

I cracked through a bit by targeting a few “likely suspects”: The New Yorker, The Atlantic, etc. I hit their Archives to further target my search and that turned up slightly better results. One of the best things I came across was via The Atlantic’s archives (a piece from 1990.)

Feeds totally rock

Far and away the best resource I found – a link to a textbook surveying the literature on intelligence, which I then dug up on Google Books – came serendipitously from one of my favorite blogs: Marginal Revolution. Sure, it was just chance that Tyler Cowen happened to link to that book the same weekend I was looking into the subject, but it wasn’t entirely random either. I subscribe to Marginal Revolution because the content is consistently interesting, and so in a way I have tailored my feeds to maximize the likeliness that the content matches my interest consistently.

Moreover – and here’s a plug for RSS readers over Twitter – my feeds amount to a customized trove of content matched to my interests, and ripe for search. If I want something reliable on a topic, I can search Google Reader and essentially whittle my search down from the whole web to sources I like and trust. And that’s pretty powerful.

The takeaway for me is just that there are real limits to social search, and tremendous potential to carefully curated content feeds, at least relative to the general weights that I think popular commentators tend to assign to each.

If you’re a huge nerd too and want to learn about intelligence, I’ve tagged all my discoveries here on Delicious. And here’s the link to that textbook. Not light reading but I’ve skimmed a couple chapters and it’s just what I was looking for.

How I read

Last year The Atlantic Wire ran a terrific series in which it asked various thinkers and bloggers to write up a description of “What I Read.” From Clay Shirky to David Brooks, every response was interesting in its own way. Go read them all.

I’ve been meaning for a while to write my own answer, and my media diet has shifted a bit lately, so now is as good a time as any. You’ll notice I titled this post “How” rather than “What”. My aim is to focus more on the technologies and strategies than on the content (though there will be plenty of that baked in). That way, you can take any suggestions you like and plug in your own content based on your own interests.

So here’s how my information diet works…

NPR Hourly News Summary

As I leave my house on the way to work every morning I plug headphones into my Android phone and open up the (free) NPR app and click “Hourly News Summary”. This gives me a 5 minute rundown of all the biggest news items and corresponds absolutely perfectly with my walk to the subway (up here in Boston, we call it the T).

Morning Email Newsletters

I have about a 20-25 minute subway trip to work, and here’s why that’s tricky: I’m underground almost the whole way, without 3G. So I need ways to read that don’t require my mobile browser.

For that reason, I subscribe to a couple of daily newsletters. Normally, I HATE mixing my info diet with my inbox, but I make a couple of exceptions for the sake of my commute.

I start by reading Ezra Klein’s Wonkbook, a morning roundup of public policy-related news and analysis. I just added The Boston Globe’s top headlines email, since everyone I work with will have seen the Globe’s front page by the time I get to the office. I’m considering adding Politico’s Morning Energy to my inbox, since I work in clean energy; right now it’s in my RSS reader.

Once I get through the newsletters, I usually go to Everpaper on my phone. More on that later.


As soon as I get to work, I fire up both Twitter and Google Reader. For a lot of people, Twitter is their primary news source. I’m not there yet. I follow maybe 150 people through two different accounts, and have them broken into lists like “Friends”, “Professional Contacts”, and “Influencers.” I follow these lists with Tweetdeck.

I use Twitter to share lots of what I read, to comment on stories, and inevitably to find links. Who I follow on Twitter is biased towards who I actually interact and converse with, like David Roberts at Grist or Nick Jackson at The Atlantic Tech.

I also occasionally use Twitter to try out new bloggers or news sources, to see if I want to make them a staple of my reading. Which gets me to a major point: I try not to ever rely on Twitter for my reading. I’ll explain what I mean in the next section.

Google Reader

I’m a big RSS-addict and Google Reader is still far-and-away the backbone of my reading. But even I spend less time in it than I used to, due to Twitter. So while I don’t necessarily read every item in my Reader every day, I think of it as my backstop at this point. If I’m busy at work, I may miss most of what’s being shared on Twitter; my RSS reader is the place I go to catch up on whatever I may have missed.

At this point I’m picky about the feeds I subscribe to for that reason. My RSS Reader is my “bare minimum” reading, the stuff I’ll make sure to get to at least once a week, whether or not I have time to take in all the stuff that passes through my Twitter feed.

If you do care about the “What” in addition to the “How”, here are my feeds by topic area: General, Politics/Policy, Internet/Media/Tech, New York Times, Climate/Energy (that last one is way more than bare minimum since I rely on it for work) plus I subscribe to some Boston-specific news.


With no 3G on the subway, Instapaper is a lifesaver. (Actually, since I have an Android not an iPhone, I use Instapaper+Everpaper, which works well.) I come across a lot of articles throughout the day via Twitter, RSS or email that are too long to read on the spot, so I add them to Instapaper, using a plugin for my browser. Instapaper saves all the text from the article and then Everpaper downloads the articles directly to my phone. So on the way home from work, I usually dig into a magazine-length piece I found earlier in the week.


I’d be remiss if I declined to mention that I find a lot of great stuff via friends on email and Facebook. Though, truth be told, that’s secondary to my evolving diet of RSS and Twitter feeds. Also, I swear I do read books, although almost exclusively nonfiction. If I’m in a good book, I usually read that on my way home from work, instead of a magazine article on my phone.

How do you read?

I really do recommend reading The Atlantic Wire series. But I also recommend sharing your own methods. How do you manage your intake of information? I’m always adjusting my process (podcasts and email newsletters are both relatively new for me) and I’d love to hear how others read. Feel free to share tips in the comments, or if you write your own post, leave me a link to it. Or let me know on Twitter (@wfrick).