How Many Feeds is Not Enough?

by Nav

Because for a couple of years the question was always “how many feeds is too much?”. But now it seems like the wrong thing to ask.

Yesterday, buried in my post (and then splayed on Twitter) was the tidbit that Joanne Mcneil of Tomorrow Museum fame has 749 RSS feeds in Google Reader. For those of you less familiar with RSS, that means that Joanne keeps track of the happenings on 749 different websites and blogs. That’s, like, a lot. And it’s got me thinking.

Earlier this year, the trends feature in Google Reader indicated I was reading about 9000-10,000 items a month. As it began to dawn on me just how much time I was wasting – and how it was affecting my so-called academic career – I cut down, to the extent that I’m now at the stats you see above.

To be suddenly faced with this collected information – this aggregated report of both my habits and my time – was a strange thing. It put into stark relief just how central this unending flow of data and text has become to my existence, and just how much of that existence it is consuming. But far more unsettling is the following question: is this a good thing? Am I improving myself by reading this much online? Or am I wasting my (already limited) intellect away?

It’s a tough question. Robin’s comment over at Snarkmarket suggests that the glut of information represented by RSS readers is akin to a giant stream of zeitgeist or human thought. One dips one finger in it somewhat at random, picking out thing that interest one while, at other times, finding things entirely by chance. The key to all this is to frequently allow oneself to hi “Mark all as Read” – i.e. acknowledge that there is too much and continue to let it flow over you in a rush, discarding the ephemera with the new hope “if it’s important, it will find me”.

Yet at the same time, there is a practical concern of both time and attention. If, even with this ease of abandoning all the things one is missing, I’m spending around 3 hours a day reading everything from Buzzfeed to Torontoist to Hilobrow to the London Review of Books, am I robbing myself? After all, I’ve frequently argued that my reading – and maybe reading in general – differs from screen to page in that the screen works for short, intense bursts and the page for longer, more introspective reading. What would my life be like if I were to spend those 3 hours slowly poring over Kant’s second critique,  Harraway’s Manifesto or Derrida’s thoughts on writing and the book? (Or is that a false choice?)

I ask this – and also invoke it mainly so that I can lament the loss – because I was once a ‘promising academic’: you know, publishable papers in my MA, professors who said they had nothing more to teach me, people convinced that my ideas were actually quotes from Spivak, that kinda’ thing. I am no longer ‘promising’ – and am in fact struggling with the most basic of ideas – and I am genuinely concerned if the type of non-linear, networked thinking that ‘RSS approach’ promotes – and that I have so vociferously argued in favour of – is incompatible with my choice of profession. Put somewhat differently, has my wholehearted embrace of the screen come at the expense of my facility with the kind of thinking I have at least historically associated with the page, with precisely the opposite of the random associations provoked by having one’s Tumblr feeds next to the the folder marked ‘Smart Stuff’? I’m not asking here whether the web is ruining our capacity to think in general (ugh)? I’m wondering if, in particular contexts that demand intense, specialised forms of thinking, when the pendulum swings too far in one direction, does it irrevocably alter ‘the other side’? Has blogger me killed academic me? And, to deliberately be a little over the top, has Google Reader changed the way my brain is wired?

It’s very possible that such practical problem has a very practical answer: that one deliberately set aside time for ‘quiet reading and writing’ rather than submitting one’s own attention economy to a kind of ‘free market dogma’ in which you simply do what you feel like doing. I honestly don’t know.

How many feeds is not enough? This still feels like the right question. Because zero – or even fifty – is far too little. To be removed from that current would feel like death. But my problem is that my capacity to deal with that much potential information, always hovering just out of reach, has changed my ability to focus on one thing for an extended period of time. It’s a real change. It has already happened. And I’m now wondering whether it’s too late to go back.

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