How Many Feeds is Not Enough?

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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9 thoughts on “How Many Feeds is Not Enough?

  1. This is what I think.

    You’re done with coursework and exams, right?

    If that’s the case, then the incentive and discipline structure you’ve responded to your entire life is gone. You’re looking for something to replace it. The ethos of the web has replaced it.

    You need to find a way to reconcile the two. Download some theory PDFs from AAAARG and (gasp!) read one or two of them, right on your computer. Blog about them. Tweet quotes from what you’re reading! Blog your half-formed ideas.

    Look at what Ta-Nehisi Coates has been able to do with his history reading, whether of the Civil War or the Labor movement. Those are some of his best posts — way better than his thoughts on the Cowboys.

    Trust me. Once I started doing this, I became 1) a better, more popular blogger — because I was offering something nobody else was, instead of just responding to the hot link of the moment — and 2) a better researcher, because I was finding more material, as people brought it to my attention.

    You can do it, Nav. It’s not exactly threading the needle. It’s better than that.

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  3. As always, a delayed response.

    But thanks for the comment, Tim. Sometimes it’s the encouragement more than anything else that helps. So, yeah, thank you.

    I used to be more ‘unabashed’ about academics on this blog, and I wrote posts about what I was thinking and didn’t really hold back on the theory-speak. But as I started to become frustrated with how small the readership was – a situation that hasn’t changed, mind you – I started to dial it back, trying to phrase things in more straightforward language without dumbing it down. Eventually, I just started to blog about things that were separate from my academic life in an effort to ‘appeal to a broader audience’. That, it seems, has been a mistake.

    Part of this had to do with the fact that my web life and my school life actually did used to be quite separate – I would write about the web and tech here, and poco at school. Now that my diss is about tech/subjectivity/representation – i.e. the things I used to be most excited to blog about – it’s become harder to just spit ideas out, as I felt suddenly under a lot more self-scrutiny – and I’ve instead taken to posting music I really like. That may not make sense, but it’s what was going on in my head.

    But I think you’re right – it’s time to get back to it and find a way to merge these two now not-at-all-disparate areas of my life. I mean, most of my ‘readership’ are academics anyway, not to mention that being able to write about complex ideas in clear, straightforward language is often a sign that one has a good grasp on them. So yes, that seems like an excellent suggestion. I think I’m gonna pick up a Sony Reader soon, so I think that will help with the AAAARG pdfs too.

  4. I completely agree with the other Tim, and it’s something that I have to relearn every now and then. I am at my best and I write my best posts when I am bringing things from OUTSIDE the Internet, into the Internet.

    Pulling ideas from books, pulling in longer print articles from less known publications, talking about real events, extensive synthesis, finding old articles/posts that are still relevant, interviews with people, etc.

    I’m never going to be a Kottke or a Doctorow or a Sterling so I’m going for being a primary source that the aggregators link to.

    Mind you, I regularly fall from this lofty goal.

  5. I have a theory, tied to a metaphor, which I guess is better known as an analogy, about the Internet, especially Web 2.0 and blogs and wikis, etc.:

    The Internet is like an all-in-one machine. It can copy, fax, print, and scan.

    Mostly, we copy and fax, I.e., link and publish, reproduce and broadcast, stuff that’s native to the web. We can also print — take information on the net and make it operable in the physical world.

    But SCANNING! Whether you’re bringing something offline online, or porting something from one sphere into another, that act of translation turns out to be genuinely synthetic. It’s the surest way, short of actually being traditionally creative, to add value.

    This is why I love Wikipedians, ultra-fans, crowdsourcing translators, Google Books AND AAAARG.org, and folks who read and translate from one intellectual/cultural sphere to another. These are the h2g digital humanists, the 21st century equivalent of my man Aldus Manutius, who translated critical editions of once-lost Greek texts and put them into cheap print editions.

    Information might want to be free, but that’s only true so long as scanners are willing to do the work.

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