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.