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.
“RSS Support means never having to say ‘unread’…”
I would do well to follow my own advice on this front. Perhaps we should start an RSS support group?
It’s funny you should mention Twitter, because it was at the front of my mind the whole time I was writing this post. From my limited tweeting experience, I think you’re right that it’s conducive to a different pattern of information consumption. Whereas RSS feeds stockpile information for you to read at a later time (or feel guilty about at a later time), Twitter allows you to step in and out of the stream at will. I like the idea of guilt-free online reading. Maybe I should devote myself more seriously to my Twitter account 🙂
“And I know I’m not the only one with a somewhat antagonistic relationship with their RSS reader.”
Sister, you are preaching to the choir. I actually haven’t had the wherewithal to even LOOK at my Reader in some time for that very reason. Too. Overwhelming. I was being crushed under the weight of all my ideas of which feeds an “informed” librarian reads, and that’s on top of my cooking blogs, etc.! (Also, I’m still kind of upset with Google for taking away sharing when they implemented Google+ but that’s a different story.)
Thank you for this encouragement to get out the pruning shears and hack away. If I get into a stand-off with Reader, I’ll send up smoke signals – please send help.
“Subscribing to a feed does not put you under any obligation toward the information presented there. ” I want to inscribe this on a plaque next to my computer!
In all seriousness, one reason I like Twitter is that – by following the “right” people – I get much of the same content that a set of RSS feeds would give me, but if I don’t follow up, the Twitter stream just moves on without me. No information guilt, unless of course I stop to think about what I might have missed in all those tweets that passed me by while I was, for example, in meetings all afternoon. Or asleep (those European tweeters!). FOMO – “Fear Of Missing Out” – is a very real thing, and of course the nice thing about RSS feeds is that they save everything for you until you have time to deal with it, if you ever do.
Maybe I need to go back to my feed reader and prune it down to a very carefully selected set of feeds. Who says you can’t have your Tweets and readers too? 😉