October 30, 2009

Signal to noise

When I was a kid, I was into electronics and shortwave radio in a big way, and one of the technical terms I heard about then was ‘signal to noise ratio.’ In the radio listening context, I took this to mean how much of the radio station you could hear versus the all the noise in the background (and there is no shortage of  ‘static’ on shortwave, as a dwindling band of fellow die-hard enthusiasts would know).

Bob's 1937 Troy 100 radio

These days, I notice that the signal to noise expression is being used all the time by people into social networks. In most cases, it seems to mean getting the content online that you want that adds value, as opposed to extraneous clutter information that wastes your time. It strikes me as an apt expression, party because there’s so little quality content these days and way too much junk out there.

I have certainly noticed that people really do appreciate quality content when they see it. On Facebook from 2007, and then Twitter from 2008, I’ve been trying to share what I think is ‘signal’ from the media that I consume every day. Usually I’ll post what I regard as interesting articles in areas of personal interest (PR, psychology, media, propaganda, renewable energy, radio, maps and the environment), accompanied by a brief commentary reflecting my own opinion. So, I’ve basically been selecting stories for the ‘front page’ of my ‘lifestream’ and drafting comments and questions, leaving the heavy writing to the authors whose articles I forward.

A few folks have proactively let me know that they appreciate this approach; here’s one example:

“Hey Bob!  Thanks for bringing the collective IQ of my FB page up.  As I scroll down the updates and see lines of ‘How well do you know so and so’ and ‘My kids just spilled the Q-tips’ I see your notes on the demise of the Aral Sea…like accidentally stumbling across NPR during a Jerry Springer episode.”

Lately, though, several people have been encouraging me to articulate my own long-form opinions, so this new blog is my way of transmitting some signal of my own rather than just relaying that of others.

I’m looking forward to sharing ideas and insights with you.


  1. Thanks for that point on signal/noise ratios. Even before the advent of social networking, I’d used this term on some technical website that I hang out in, ones that have threaded discussions, both discussions started from articles or blog posts, or user initiated discussions.

    The definition in that kind of context is around the qualitative nature of the debates that rage, whether its Mac versus PC or watercooler debates around politics.

    Those whose debating style includes personal insult and hyperbole fall into the “noise” side, while those who chose to use logic and facts create signal.

    Sadly none of us are perfect and we each generate both signal and noise in our internet postings. That should not stop us from attempting to raise our own signal to noise ratios and encouraging others to do the same.


  2. hi Bob, and thanks for doing this – you’re exactly right about your stream being signal, not noise.