Restricting the flows of reality

In Trust Me I’m Lying—a handbook that teaches the true mechanics of media—Ryan Holiday describes a five-tier funnel. It looks like this:

All that happens > All that is known by the media > All that is newsworthy > All that is published > All that spreads

This tiered structure succinctly illustrates the opacity of all the media that is produced. Or as Holiday puts it shortly after describing the above funnel: “…the media is a mechanism for systematically limiting the information seen by the public.”

Now, I have as vested an interest as anyone in understanding the function of the media, both on- and offline. But the news funnel Holiday presents is significant to me primarily because it mirrors our own, personal information filtering systems. I’ll give you an example using the process I deploy to deposit tweets into my scrapbook.

At the top of the funnel is still “All that happens”. Below that we have, “All that is known by Twitter users”. Underneath, “All that is tweetworthy”, followed by “All that is tweeted”. Now, here is where it gets personal—the previous stages are followed by “All that makes it into my feed”, “All that I see” and “All that I ‘like’”. I then review my ‘liked’ tweets for worthy scrapbook candidates—”All that I bookmark”—and finally, out of that small selection I get “All that I put in my scrapbook”. That’s nine distinct steps in this particular information filter.

All that happens > All that is known by Twitter users > All that is tweetworthy > All that is tweeted > All that makes it into my feed > All that I see > All that I ‘like’ > All that I bookmark > All that I put in my scrapbook

Other takes on the idea of a “filter”: previously, I realised that possibly the key to macro-productivity is “strong filters”. As a directive to myself, it looks like this: Saying no and setting boundaries allows you to create quiet and stillness which you can use to discover and work on what is essential. Also, consider the idea of “strong filters” identified by Nassim Taleb during his consideration of the success of Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett:

“So I figured out something about the success of Munger-Buffett. It is not in the strategies they run, but in their very, very, very strong filtering.

Simply it is generalized flaneuring. Charlie Munger: “We have no system for estimating the correct value of all businesses. We put almost all in the “too hard” pile and sift through a few easy ones”. “Warren (Buffett) talks about these discounted cash flows. I’ve never seen him do one”. (in Tren Griffin’s book)

The implication is that the nuances of the “genre” as strategy matter less than filtering. Because of such nonlinearity, Buffett’s performance is no longer correlated with that of the strategy.”

So, the idea of a “filter” can be applied to information flows (Holiday’s funnel and my scrapbook process) and as a strategic structure (Buffett/Munger’s sorting process and my macro-productivity ideology). What else? For starters, it is an evolutionary imperative. A single organism must sort and process—filter—inputs from its environments in order to survive and thrive. And collectively, the process of evolution filters species themselves.

Which raises a few simple questions in my mind: What’s better—strong filters or weak filters? And further, how do we evaluate the quality of a filter? Let’s stick with the domain of information management to explore the answers, and take the questions in reverse order.

First, to evaluate the quality of a filter is simple, but not easy. We just have to look for positive and negative effects in the short and long term. For example, if my information sources and filtering processes are poor, I’ll likely make ill-informed decisions, miss opportunities and insight, and ultimately be harmed. If they are great, the reverse should happen. Naturally, the ability to observe this is hampered by the fact that there’s only one me, at any one time in reality. I have no baseline to make a comparison with. Which means that the quality of a filter can only really be deduced by either comparing them to other people’s filters or by considering the impact of the filter’s use over time. Either way, it’s a subjective decision.

Second, strong or weak filters? Or alternatively put, how much gets through? That depends on the receptacle. For example, the Twitter feed of someone who follows one hundred specifically selected accounts has an easier time processing what he sees in his feed than someone who follows five thousand whimsically chosen accounts. Think of it as an allocation of thought. Strong filters do the thinking for you in the future but require more thought in the present to set up, whereas weak filters demand less thought now and more thought later. Again, a judgement call.

I’ve read the words above multiple times, mainly to figure out what I was trying to get at. I think it was this: filters are an unavoidable part of existence so it pays to examine and improve their quality, the type of signal they find amongst the noise, and to consider whether they are restricting the flows of reality too little or too much.