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Why Are You Reading All That News?

When I wrote about my method for controlling RSS overload a couple weeks ago, 43 Folders user terceiro left a comment that put me in my place:

You’re feeling stress about your RSS feeds? Talk about self-created problems. The real solution to managing RSS feeds is to stop reading RSS feeds. It’s simple ... when a purely optional “convenience” technology is causing stress, it’s time to re-evaluate at a pretty fundamental level.

I read this and thrashed and spluttered like Yosemite Sam for a while before I admitted it: he's right. It is a self-created problem, and I need to understand what makes me feel the need to consume the equivalent of a Carnegie library every day, instead of just finding a more efficient way to choke it down.

When I read discussions about managing RSS and information overload, I tend to see three justifications for why people "need" to subscribe to 842 news feeds:

  1. I want to stay informed about the world - Meaning, I never want to be one of those idiots on Jay Leno who can't name the Vice President. I identify with this impulse the most strongly.
  2. I need to for my job - Particularly for IT folk, usually along the lines of, "I need to stay on top of developments in programming/web design/cat herding so I can advance my career."
  3. I need to for my blog - As in, "I need to follow all these different feeds to find interesting stuff to pass along to my readers." Everybody wants to be Jason Kottke or John Gruber.

After thinking about my own motivations and admitting that I've uttered all three of those at some point as well, my answer to every one would be, "Really?" Are you really going to miss that promotion if you didn't hear about the JDK update the second it was released? Are you really going to lose readers if you don't link to that third Boing Boing post? And are you really going to turn into a sheltered, mouth-breathing Epsilon if you happen to skip the news cycle one day?

For me, it's always been a matter of identity. I like to view myself as an informed, plugged in, man of the digital world, and to be this person, I think I need to see all the latest news, comment on the hot blogs, post things on del.icio.us. That's all fine and dandy if that's the person I want to be, but within reason. I should know by now from experiences with other jobs, other vocations, and other vices, that if they start to cause me this kind of concern, something needs to change.

"The world won't end without you knowing it. Trust me, your mom will call."

This isn't to say that we should all chuck our newsreaders and smash our TVs, but that we should, like terceiro said in that comment, keep a little perspective. In terms of those first two reasons above, we don't give ourselves enough credit for being the smart, inquisitive people that we are. Even if you shut down the RSS reader for a few days, you'll still know everything you need to know to do your job right. The fact that you possess such a powerful thirst for knowledge will cause you to absorb it passively wherever you go, from snatches of overheard conversations, TV, and radio. It will be enough until you have more time and energy to read it yourself. And the world won't end without you knowing it. Trust me, your mom will call.

In regards to #3, we can also get a little full of ourselves at times. Despite wishful thinking, there aren't many bloggers who would be missed if they took a day off here and there. Take this site for instance; I bet you didn't even notice Merlin was gone. Unless it really is your job, you should probably pull up short when it starts to feel like one.

Here's a suggestion: over the holidays when you're traveling, or when things are slow because everyone else is traveling, remove yourself from the news cycle for a few days and see if you don't shrivel up and die. Take long walks. Cancel something. And when you come back and open your newsreader again, hit that "Mark All as Read" button and start from scratch. I've started doing that 2-3 times a week now, and it feels glorious.

sasilk's picture

For whatever it's worth...

I found a fairly unique way to cope with the flood of RSS information. I use a Firefox add-in called InfoRSS, which puts my RSS feeds in a ticker style scrollbar. That way, if something catches my eye I click on the headline in the scrollbar and read the full story. Otherwise it just passes by and I never notice. No pressure from unread numbers and as each story comes around a fair number of times there's a good chance that if it's important enough I'll see it.




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