Reading, input & filtering

May 15, 2012

Last week, I read a very interesting article about “The dangerous effects of reading”. Among other things, it stated:

In our personal lives we tend to optimize for one of two things: input or output. Reading or writing. Consuming or creating. The environment we live in – the prevailing culture – by default is optimized for consumption. [..] Consuming this much makes you get really good at filtering crap from gold. Everything you pick up to read or watch you are constantly thinking “Does this suck? Is this cool enough to continue doing? Is it cool enough to tell others people about?” I think we should all agree that getting faster at judging things is bad, but I think the real danger in having a super-efficient-filter is that your default mode is exclusion – you reject long enough and you lose the ability to create things that pass your own filter.

That made me think about my own behaviour concerning these things; I am filtering a lot. After sleeping on it, I decided to sort out the ways I get my share of interesting articles and other stuff. I’d like to share my conclusions with you:

Twitter

Twitter is very temporal; What someone says now isn’t usually relevant tomorrow; It’s like checking the pulse of your network by seeing what people are saying and what is happening in the world. This means there is also a lot of not-so-interesting stuff. I usually read tweets in burst and then decide if (and when) I want to read any articles that pop up. A couple of times a week I start up Instapaper and read through articles that I wanted to read with more attention.

RSS Feeds

5 years ago I used to read my RSS subscriptions with the same frequency as Twitter (I was subscribed to up to 120 feeds at one point). That’s very different nowadays; I have less time, have a different outlook on things and of course Twitter is around. I’m still checking some categories every day (usually because of feed volume), while I let others pile up for weeks. Some feeds have such a volume of articles that they completely overwhelm other feeds with quality content, and that’s the problem; there’s no balance. It’s another bucket of content I have to filter.

Treating input

Reading the above article made me think a lot about how I treat this input. I still like collecting interesting things, but I don’t want to constantly filter stuff on all places where I subscribe to content (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Google Reader, etc…), and because I check Twitter more often than others, I’m not only filtering noise, but also articles that I have already read. It’s like a chore, and - as the article states - it changes your ‘default filter’ for new content.

I asked people on Twitter how they used RSS and I got some pretty nice replies. Not everyone agreed about the use of RSS, but I came to a conclusion that worked for me: RSS is for quality content with low/no noise that is not necessarily related to time1 , and doesn’t have a high volume.

Clean up

Following this realisation, it was time to clean up my Google Reader 2; I took the time to reevaluate my subscriptions, removing novelty feeds, linkdumps, niche-news feeds that I don’t read because of ‘present bias’ and feeds that I probably won’t miss. My most important change was that I moved a lot of high-volume feeds out of Google Reader and into Twitter (mostly tech reporting3). The goal was to have a list of nice articles waiting for me when I would have the time, not feeling pressured to read through them because they stack up or I might miss something.

Now what?

Now of course I’ve only really thought about the role of Twitter and RSS subscriptions, so what about Tumblr and Facebook? Although I also filter on those places, I don’t really see content on both as stuff I have to read and I don’t catch up when I’ve missed something 4.

At the moment I’m pretty content about the result so far, but it’s still going to require the occasional tweaking. Although I thought a lot about this stuff, in the end a lot of decisions regarding “what belongs where”, will still be made irrationally, not that there’s a problem with that. It’s just good to sometimes reevaluate how you receive and act upon information in this information age.

  1. Less urgent stuff, no daily reports, but stuff which you aren’t expected to have “watercooler conversations” about the next day.
  2. I use Google Reader as a platform, but I never use the web application. I use the amazing Reeder apps for iOS and Mac.
  3. Tech writing, like essays and research have higher chance of staying in my RSS Reader.
  4. You will find Tumblr blogs that produce quality articles in my RSS reader, not on my dashboard.