Reading Intentionally Online

Rainy SaturdayProfHacker writers consistently recommend RSS (Really Simple Syndication) as a tool for managing the flow of digital information. RSS is so useful that Mark describes it as “the draft horse of social media.”

I’ve explained how RSS helps with “Keeping Up Online,” George showed how to use it for “Keeping Up With Favorite Web Services”, and Heather reminded us to “Check Out Those Journal Article RSS Feeds.” In slightly more advanced uses, Mark demonstrated “Hacking an RSS Feed for Twitter Hashtags,” and I showed CommonCraft explanation illustrates. It’s so convenient that it’s not uncommon to subscribe to hundreds of sites. You think, “Oh, this site looks interesting–I’ll just subscribe to its RSS feed.”

And that can be a problem! The accumulation of feeds becomes one more thing to check, one more inbox to process. Nobody likes seeing their unread items count spiral out of control, and quickly skimming headlines to catch up doesn’t feel like engaged reading.

Brett Kelly has recently described why he quit RSS in an effort to read more intentionally:

I realized that, for some reason I couldn’t quite recall, I felt obligated to stay abreast of new developments in technology and such.
That fabricated obligation led me to routinely scan big lists of headlines and, more often than not, mark the whole mess as “read” and go on to something else. Imagine this happening 2–4 times per day and I was spending between 10–30 minutes per day skimming or ignoring stuff that, for the most part, wasn’t what I wanted to read.

Instead of obsessively checking his RSS feeds, Brett has committed to reading longer material (in his Kindle) and to using Instapaper for managing blog and news posts that he’d like to read. How does he discover those posts, if he’s not subscribed to hundreds of feeds every day? Twitter:

If something really “important” (because, really, most of it isn’t) happens, I usually find out via Twitter. I still follow a whole pantload of tech enthusiasts and they’re the perfect delivery mechanism for what’s new and exciting in the world. Except now, instead of feverishly clicking through to see what all the hubbub is about, I just add it to Instapaper. Then, I give myself permission to not read it if, when I do come to it in my list of unread articles, it doesn’t interest me anymore.

Many Twitter clients have in-app support for Instapaper, which is now available on Android devices as well. (Heck, Instapaper’s so indispensable it’s the Starbucks app of the week! And the newest version uses a form of geofencing to automatically grab content when you arrive at particular locations.)

A chemistry graduate student has noted that Brett’s advice is even more useful if you ruthlessly prune your Twitter feeds, focusing on those people who frequently link to interesting material. (Relatedly, see Natalie on “Using Twitter Lists”.)

I will admit that I’m not fully ready to take this step–heck, while pulling this post together, I added five more feeds to my RSS reader! But it’s always useful to remember that it’s usually ok too “give [your]self permission to not read” something, and it’s *always* ok to commit to reading with more purpose and direction.

How do you manage online reading? Feeds? Twitter? Chain e-mails forwarded by distant relatives? Let us know in comments!

Photo “Rainy Saturday” by me / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0

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