In my first year of law school, there was a massive amount of reading to digest. It was nearly impossible to get through it all. Freshman year in law school is notorious for overloading you with work. It’s some sort of “weeding out of the weak” thing.
The only way I felt better, or had some sense of security, was when I photocopied what I thought to be “relevant research” for my work. I’d spend all this time and money copying everything – as if the act of making photocopies somehow transmitted the information directly into my brain. Alas, I only managed to read a fraction of what I copied. These piles would lay around and I was never able to get to them. It’s the same thing with RSS feeds. My “Tech News” folder in FeedDemon has 2987 unread entries. 2987! And that’s just one folder! Scary.
With the Internet and the proliferation of information on the Internet the bandwidth around the “data channel” that connects the world’s information to us has increased exponentially. Articles. Music. Video. It’s way more than we can handle. This isn’t about whether these feeds matter to me or not. They all do – otherwise I wouldn’t have subscribed to them. I want them all.
There’s just one problem: I have a finite amount of time per day to digest them. While I continue to subscribe to new feeds (as I continued to make photocopies in law school) I refused to come to terms with the fact that I simply can’t digest them all. And so, I consciously (or sub-consciously) impose a filter. I go to certain feeds first. I selectively ignore certain others. I rely on social mechanisms implemented in sites like Digg and Techmeme. Finally, I have friends who point me to links that I may have missed.
The above shouldn’t be construed as deeming RSS or feed reader technology as a failure. It isn’t. Whereas without RSS my ability to digest capped at around 10-20 news sources a day, with a feed reader, it goes up to between 70-100 in my case. 300-400 feeds? Don’t kid yourself. Unless it’s your job to sift through them, things are going to fall through the cracks.
So now people are asking how we can go to the next level. How do we increase our bandwidth so we can take in more stuff? Well, before tackling that question, I’d ask if we we really need to take in more stuff at all. Much of the information out there isn’t all that great. The stuff that is great naturally bubbles up through viral communication. Sites like Digg & Techmeme cover that end of things.
So do we really need to be tapped into that many information sources? I think a dialog around that question is worthwhile. All these channels may well condition us to only tolerate small bits of information and put a small amount of thought behind them. “Narrow and deep” is giving way to “broad and shallow.” Come to think of it – everything is small bites these days. Single paragraph blog entries. Two minute videos. $.99 songs on iTunes. All this extra data doesn’t isn’t really extra. While there’s more out there, our capacities to take it in really haven’t changed. It just feels like more because we keep dicing it all into smaller and smaller pieces.
So to start the new year, I’m going to try to read more entire books. Listen to entire albums. Watch full-length films. While everyone else tries to figure out how to add more lanes to the RSS highway, I’m going to take the city streets and enjoy the drive…for now. ;)