I complain about not being able to manage my streams of information. I read how internet curators, like Brainpicker, sift through so much to find interesting things — so we don’t have to. I think of Robert Cottrell’s great piece in the Financial Times, “Net wisdom,” on reading and writing on the web and selecting the very best reads for The Browser each day:
I have 775 unread items from today in my RSS feed, and about six hours of Twitter to spool back through. Somebody has to do it, and I’m glad it’s me.
Last year, I started a job that requires me to be a sifter. After doing this part of the job for eight months, and foraging in this vast forest each day, I realize how challenging this really is, and I admire the people who do it all day, every day.
I’m just a beginner — I wade through content and stories, sending links to Read Later, following blogs, creating different-colored Stickies on my desktop, and making fragments of notes in Evernote. The insides of my Evernote account? Oh my. It’s scary hunting in there: those are the half-thoughts and ideas in my brain — and the bits of data and links I’ve collected to support them — all laid out, in a digital filing system of notebooks.
It’s pretty unorganized, but it works. For now. My husband introduced me to his new process of organizing notes: Notational Velocity, which speaks to the GMail searcher in me, mixed with Simplenote, which I’ve been meaning to try. When he tells me he’s discovered something worth trying, I resist — he was the one who introduced me to Evernote, actually, and it took a while before I warmed up to it.
I don’t simply install apps to make some aspect of my life easier. I don’t think it’s this easy. There’s always a bit of a struggle. A fear and stubbornness. I regularly think: is this new tool going to make me feel bad about myself, about the way I do things, about my level of productivity — just like that other one?
* * *
I stopped using Instapaper. Early on, I relied on it as a space to store ideas and information I could draw from, but it quickly became my intellectual limbo: the unfortunate vault of forgotten stories and Twitter residue. When I had breathing space during the week to dip into something to read, my queue of collected links had gotten so long, and I couldn’t get past the sight of all those text links at once, one atop the other — each a missed opportunity for enlightenment, for participation in a larger intellectual conversation that had happened weeks before.
Instapaper made me feel like I was slow and irrelevant and always missing out. It was ugly, too.
I recently got an iPad mini and started using it to read stuff on the web. I’ve since installed Pocket and dig its visual board-like design with a splash of color, and especially like the appearance of organization.
Sending articles to read later into this visual queue somehow makes me feel better; I may not have the time to sit and read these stories, but at least I’ve filed them in an aesthetically pleasing way.
At least, now, limbo looks pretty.
* * *
As soon you wake up on Monday, you should remove all articles from your “Read Later” list. Wipe it clean. Zero. No leftovers.
A few weeks ago, I read Rodrigo Franco’s thoughts on battling information overload, and must admit the third rule in his system — to empty your Read Later list at the start of each week and start fresh — made me wince. “It will make sure you read what really matters before time runs out,” he writes.
I get it. I really do. And yet I freak out a bit when I clear my pending reading material like this; it’s the same sensation I feel when I’ve not been on Twitter for a number of days and decide not to scroll through unread tweets. (I live dangerously, you know.)
But I’ve gotten better and pared my go-to list of sources quite a bit, and maintain a manageable number of accounts on Twitter — still under 100 — relying on these to filter in stuff I want to read and feel I must read, with filler and banter and irrelevance and irreverence — all just as necessary.
Because at the end of the day, we’re all going to miss almost everything. I was happy to come upon an older NPR piece by Linda Holmes, in which she writes beautifully about how there’s just too much, how everything is dropped into our laps. And how really the only two responses you have, if you want to feel on top of things and well-read and part of a bigger conversation, are culling and surrender.
“Culling is the choosing you do for yourself,” she writes. “It’s the sorting of what’s worth your time and what’s not worth your time.” On the other hand, surrender is “the realization you don’t have time for everything that would be worth the time you invested in it if you had the time, and that this fact doesn’t have to threaten your sense that you are well-read.” If you have a few minutes, read her musings. Missing out is sad, but beautiful. The piece was published in 2011, but it still resonates.
* * *
I just got a new MacBook Pro and was startled the first time an iMessage popped up on my laptop, several days ago. (I’m late to this game, folks — sorry.) Why am I receiving a text message on my computer? I left my iPhone upstairs on purpose — if I receive a message, it must wait to be opened. So I realize, with this new MacBook, there’s no turning back from the full iOS experience. The cloud now hovers above me, everywhere I go.
Again, I get it. Yet even with these tools designed to make my life easier — iCloud to access all my stuff from any of my Apple toys, internet curation websites and weekly roundups telling me this and that are “must-reads,” or Facebook’s new stream that wants to be my ultimate feed of “can’t miss” things — I sit here, shaking my head.
Yes, I sift through numerous Stickies on my desktop in an archaic note-taking process. No, I don’t use a password manager and really do memorize all of my different passwords, special characters and all. Yes, we have an iMac, two MacBook Pros, two iPhones, one iPad mini, and one Apple TV in this household — but no, I’m not sure how to connect them all. And yes, I know there’s Flipboard. Or Prismatic. Or all these Chrome extensions to help me.
I guess, deep down, I do enjoy the labyrinthine-ness of the web. I complain about feeling left behind. About not knowing the best ways to do something. But I’ve never really been someone who expects — or wants — to conquer each minute of the day, to be some kind of marvel of productivity. That’s not me at all. Yet the ever-present buzz in the air — of technologies, of chatter — makes me think otherwise.
It is the recognition that well-read is not a destination; there is nowhere to get to, and if you assume there is somewhere to get to, you’d have to live a thousand years to even think about getting there, and by the time you got there, there would be a thousand years to catch up on.
I do love this bit above from Linda Holmes, as it encapsulates what I’m trying to get at, and reminds me of my favorite quote from Gertrude Stein: when you get there, there isn’t any there there. Each day, I do what I can. And the next day, I do a bit more. In both my work and personal projects, and my day-to-day reading and learning, I’m cognizant that finished is a word I can never say. I suppose a state in which I’ve conquered these streams of information — these to-do lists and piles of work — really doesn’t exist, nor do I want it to.
Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Blogger at Writing Through the Fog. Story Wrangler at Automattic.