A recent post from Prof Hacker – the Chronicle of Higher Education’s teaching and technology blog – discusses the challenges of intentional reading online. The author suggests that RSS feeds, in addition to being a stellar way of keeping up-to-date on your favorite Digital User Experience blog, might have the unfortunate side-effect of contributing to information overload.
This got me thinking about the ways in which we use RSS feeds and similar information aggregators. In theory, these tools are intended to help us filter out extraneous content and focus in on the good stuff. Although they might not be able to prevent the online avalanche of information, at least they tailor the avalanche to our interests. In practice, however, RSS feeds may actually amplify our anxiety over all the stuff we can’t devote our attention to. I have more than a few feeds in my Google Reader with 1000+ unread items that niggle at the edges of my conscience. They serve only to remind me of all the articles I’m not reading; of all the potentially brain-expanding tidbits that I’m passing up in favor of checking Facebook just one more time. I’m getting anxious just thinking about it! And I know I’m not the only one with a somewhat antagonistic relationship with their RSS reader.
So how do we put ourselves back in the RSS driver’s seat? Prof Hacker suggests some rigorous pruning. I would like to second that sentiment. Subscribing to a feed does not put you under any obligation toward the information presented there. And if you chose to subscribe, you can also choose to unsubscribe. RSS feeds are wonderful tools that should help us streamline the flow of information, not intensify the data deluge. As seasoned internet users we are accomplished scanners, but every once in a while taking the time to read selectively and deliberately might be just the ticket to a more meaningful online experience.
Despite the potential drawbacks, I can’t emphasize enough how valuable RSS feeds are for managing online reading. I subscribe to all manner of feeds that support both my personal and professional interests, making it easier to access information that’s important to me. If you’re not familiar with RSS technology and are looking for a good place to start, check out this easy to understand video.