On (Un)organized Consumption

I complain about not being able to manage my streams of information. I read how internet curators, like Brainpicker, sift through so much to find interesting things — so we don’t have to. I think of Robert Cottrell’s great piece in the Financial Times, “Net wisdom,” on reading and writing on the web and selecting the very best reads for The Browser each day:

I have 775 unread items from today in my RSS feed, and about six hours of Twitter to spool back through. Somebody has to do it, and I’m glad it’s me.

Last year, I started a job that requires me to be a sifter. After doing this part of the job for eight months, and foraging in this vast forest each day, I realize how challenging this really is, and I admire the people who do it all day, every day.

I’m just a beginner — I wade through content and stories, sending links to Read Later, following blogs, creating different-colored Stickies on my desktop, and making fragments of notes in Evernote. The insides of my Evernote account? Oh my. It’s scary hunting in there: those are the half-thoughts and ideas in my brain — and the bits of data and links I’ve collected to support them — all laid out, in a digital filing system of notebooks.

It’s pretty unorganized, but it works. For now. My husband introduced me to his new process of organizing notes: Notational Velocity, which speaks to the GMail searcher in me, mixed with Simplenote, which I’ve been meaning to try. When he tells me he’s discovered something worth trying, I resist — he was the one who introduced me to Evernote, actually, and it took a while before I warmed up to it.

I don’t simply install apps to make some aspect of my life easier. I don’t think it’s this easy. There’s always a bit of a struggle. A fear and stubbornness. I regularly think: is this new tool going to make me feel bad about myself, about the way I do things, about my level of productivity — just like that other one?

* * *

I stopped using Instapaper. Early on, I relied on it as a space to store ideas and information I could draw from, but it quickly became my intellectual limbo: the unfortunate vault of forgotten stories and Twitter residue. When I had breathing space during the week to dip into something to read, my queue of collected links had gotten so long, and I couldn’t get past the sight of all those text links at once, one atop the other — each a missed opportunity for enlightenment, for participation in a larger intellectual conversation that had happened weeks before.

Instapaper made me feel like I was slow and irrelevant and always missing out. It was ugly, too.

I recently got an iPad mini and started using it to read stuff on the web. I’ve since installed Pocket and dig its visual board-like design with a splash of color, and especially like the appearance of organization.

Pocket Queue

Sending articles to read later into this visual queue somehow makes me feel better; I may not have the time to sit and read these stories, but at least I’ve filed them in an aesthetically pleasing way.

At least, now, limbo looks pretty.

* * *

As soon you wake up on Monday, you should remove all articles from your “Read Later” list. Wipe it clean. Zero. No leftovers.

Rodrigo Franco on the “impending doom engine”

A few weeks ago, I read Rodrigo Franco’s thoughts on battling information overload, and must admit the third rule in his system — to empty your Read Later list at the start of each week and start fresh — made me wince. “It will make sure you read what really matters before time runs out,” he writes.

I get it. I really do. And yet I freak out a bit when I clear my pending reading material like this; it’s the same sensation I feel when I’ve not been on Twitter for a number of days and decide not to scroll through unread tweets. (I live dangerously, you know.)

But I’ve gotten better and pared my go-to list of sources quite a bit, and maintain a manageable number of accounts on Twitter — still under 100 — relying on these to filter in stuff I want to read and feel I must read, with filler and banter and irrelevance and irreverence — all just as necessary.

Because at the end of the day, we’re all going to miss almost everything. I was happy to come upon an older NPR piece by Linda Holmes, in which she writes beautifully about how there’s just too much, how everything is dropped into our laps. And how really the only two responses you have, if you want to feel on top of things and well-read and part of a bigger conversation, are culling and surrender.

“Culling is the choosing you do for yourself,” she writes. “It’s the sorting of what’s worth your time and what’s not worth your time.” On the other hand, surrender is “the realization you don’t have time for everything that would be worth the time you invested in it if you had the time, and that this fact doesn’t have to threaten your sense that you are well-read.” If you have a few minutes, read her musings. Missing out is sad, but beautiful. The piece was published in 2011, but it still resonates.

* * *

I just got a new MacBook Pro and was startled the first time an iMessage popped up on my laptop, several days ago. (I’m late to this game, folks — sorry.) Why am I receiving a text message on my computer? I left my iPhone upstairs on purpose — if I receive a message, it must wait to be opened. So I realize, with this new MacBook, there’s no turning back from the full iOS experience. The cloud now hovers above me, everywhere I go.

Again, I get it. Yet even with these tools designed to make my life easier — iCloud to access all my stuff from any of my Apple toys, internet curation websites and weekly roundups telling me this and that are “must-reads,” or Facebook’s new stream that wants to be my ultimate feed of “can’t miss” things — I sit here, shaking my head.

Yes, I sift through numerous Stickies on my desktop in an archaic note-taking process. No, I don’t use a password manager and really do memorize all of my different passwords, special characters and all. Yes, we have an iMac, two MacBook Pros, two iPhones, one iPad mini, and one Apple TV in this household — but no, I’m not sure how to connect them all. And yes, I know there’s Flipboard. Or Prismatic. Or all these Chrome extensions to help me.

I guess, deep down, I do enjoy the labyrinthine-ness of the web. I complain about feeling left behind. About not knowing the best ways to do something. But I’ve never really been someone who expects — or wants — to conquer each minute of the day, to be some kind of marvel of productivity. That’s not me at all. Yet the ever-present buzz in the air — of technologies, of chatter — makes me think otherwise.

It is the recognition that well-read is not a destination; there is nowhere to get to, and if you assume there is somewhere to get to, you’d have to live a thousand years to even think about getting there, and by the time you got there, there would be a thousand years to catch up on.

I do love this bit above from Linda Holmes, as it encapsulates what I’m trying to get at, and reminds me of my favorite quote from Gertrude Stein: when you get there, there isn’t any there there. Each day, I do what I can. And the next day, I do a bit more. In both my work and personal projects, and my day-to-day reading and learning, I’m cognizant that finished is a word I can never say. I suppose a state in which I’ve conquered these streams of information — these to-do lists and piles of work — really doesn’t exist, nor do I want it to.

Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

I am an editor at Longreads. For over a decade, I've worked on curation, editing, and storytelling projects across Automattic, including WordPress.com.

43 thoughts on “On (Un)organized Consumption

  1. It’s a wonder that the earth has maintained its gravitational existence and we have not all fallen through the black whole of information overload. So much, but never is it too much :).

  2. What to do with all the stuff we follow and track and save every day? This hounds me in the morning when I wake up super-charged about discovery, and at day’s end when it’s time to rev down but I’m still hoarding info bits. If you love design, writing, photography, art and all things Mac, you are hopelessly trapped by everything you see online (even offline! I love print, too!). Lately I’m liking Pocket. But it’s just lately. Before that I liked Flipboard. Before that, something else. I am resigned to just LIKING all of it.

    1. Hard to know if you’re complaining or bragging. I know a lot of “overwhelmed” people who love to let everybody know how “overwhelmed” they are. In fact, they’re showing off about how plugged in they are – or think they are. It’s up to each individual to cut the cord. Time to sit under a tree with a good book or without the book.

  3. Wow, almost everything that you mentioned here I’ve never even heard of! I moved to India about 5 years ago and to think of everything that came out since I left makes me feel like when my father took 10 years learning how to make the VCR work. When I’m busy I don’t even think of what all I’m missing out on but there is just so much out there anyways that what can you do but pick and choose what you want to be a part of. So much going on in the world!

  4. What to do with all the stuff we follow and track and save every day? This hounds me in the morning when I wake up super-charged about discovery, and at day’s end when it’s time to rev down but I’m still hoarding info bits. If you love design, writing, photography, art and all things Mac, you are hopelessly trapped by everything you see online (even offline! I love print, too!). Lately I’m liking Pocket. But it’s just lately. Before that I liked Flipboard. Before that, something else. I am resigned to just LIKING all of it.

  5. “At the edge of every living instant, the world shears away like a cliff of ice into the sea of what is forgotten.”—Ivan Vladislavic

    Wonderful post that speaks for so many people. It made me think of this quote that @tejucole posted a few days ago.

  6. This is a brilliant post and your blog is heavenly. I had this crazy idea that you could plan your sessions on the web – and create a ‘curation map’ that organizes you and keeps you focused – but it is seriously difficult to be a disciplined reader online. Instead of keeping things to read later – I try to read them NOW and make some quick notes. It’s even more brutal than a Monday morning cull – but I hardly ever go back and read things that I’ve clipped. You write so well, please continue 🙂

  7. I honestly feel as though information overflow is contributing not only to my wonderful procrastination methods, but to a loss of my drive and focus. We’re in an age where this excess information has become no longer useful and is more like distracting and unavoidable chatter in our brains. I really think this is affecting the kids in particular, I mean, it seems like the majority of kids of ADHD now…

  8. Its a fine line isn’t it……….technology does add convenience but it also intrudes upon ur privacy ………….congrats on a great blog …………………I am a new blogger lookin for pointers……..

  9. sent that to read later right now 😉 just kidding. very well written, and I can totally relate to feeling overwhelmed by the information we get everyday. Well, it was worth spending the time to read your article right away.

  10. Thanks for posting this. I can completely relate- my boyfriend thinks I’m a luddite because I am slow to embrace new technology and I’m still a little wary of the internet. I love the apps I have and I’m perfectly fine with the way I gather information, follow blogs, and learn about new trends. There is WAY too much out there. It’s a bit overwhelming. I use what works for me!

    1. It’s discouraging when tech junkies label the rest of the world as Luddites simply because we’re not willing to buy into it all or drink the tech kool-aid. Anybody who uses it the way you do can hardly be called a Luddite. I’d say you’re just a reasonable and mature user. Good for you!

  11. thank you 🙂
    also super cute fotos, I recognize a few corners +that made me smile

    I’d like to say I check my personal FB on the weekends and when I get together with friends I often hear “oh, well the picture/link/etc is on FB, did you see it?” they know more than likely the answer is no, but I am much peaceful not knowing everyone’s every minute experience and what they wore. I am a great listener and feel like actually they are more excited to re-tell me about their dinner, work etc b/c they know I am a bit away from it.
    Not sure if that makes much sense, but to me it does. I do what I can at slower pace w/social media +started to read a lot. Books from the SFPL. The staff there knows me and I think that’s cool 🙂

    Anyways, just found your blog. Love it.
    best -meli

  12. Consuming too much information without making real use of it is like acting as headless chicken. There are so many interesting, intelligent people who are doing loads of stuff and so many diverse fields and countries that we can NOT consume all of it. Always focus on creation (not consumption) and whatever you will consume in that journey will be worth it.
    Consumption for the sake of some distant usage is waste and too much of a baggage to carry.

    1. I like what you’re saying here. There’s been – and continues to be – too much emphasis on generating and documenting and storing information and not nearly enough on creating new things.
      Information is not knowledge, despite what some ads try to tell us. It’s just information. An act of creation is required to turn information into knowledge, beauty, usefulness. Thank you, Saurabh, for drawing attention to this.

  13. I feel exactly as you described. I feel like I never have enough time to sift through all those snippets of information and thoughts that I have saved from here and there on the internet. I use Evernote myself but it’s just not enough. Seems there is always just so much out there. I definitely feel like I miss just about everything! Great post!

    1. Thanks, and interesting to hear that you, too, use Evernote but it’s “just not enough.” I get what you mean. I think these kinds of things are created to help us, but I don’t think they’d ever solve our problems completely.

  14. Digitally, I am too much. And I’m dieting. Sometimes I get the munchies and install something in an intellectual fit of gluttony – an app, an Amazing New Tool That Will Change My Life, a videogame, etc. – but I almost always end up deleting it. I try to be a little less every day, and the best way I’ve found to do that is to play a game called Die World Die. I pull out my phone, switch on Pomodroido and for 25 / 35 / 45 minutes, I pretend the Internet doesn’t exist. When I finish, I need the Internet a little less and I need actual contact with people a little more.

    When I fail to do this with the important things, I end up feeling weary and jaded. But when I do this with the important things, I love the Internet again and I’m filled with optimism.

    I love the Web. But I aspire to needing it much less, and thereby making better use of it.

    You sift well, Cheri.

  15. Hi Cheri,
    Nice blog. I love your art. So colorful like your writing! I used to live in Walnut Creek but have moved. I really miss the Bay Area!

  16. Hi Cheri, I’m just a very small player in a very large pond, and I’m only talking about blogging, not even other apps. I just wrote a small piece called “Why I Can’t Write” about the hindrance of information. This got a comment (I only get about 4 to 10 likes or reads per piece as of yet) that I checked out, who had a comment that I checked out, which led me to you.

    I’m still at that stage where I follow comments hoping I’ll meet other writers I”m interested in reading. I’m glad I landed on your shore, in this sort of incidental coincidence. It feels great to find a person who I can really enjoy reading. I hope one day to be as enjoyable (which feels farrrr away). In any case, cheers! -bllu

  17. Beautifully expressed, as always.

    I find myself more and more overwhelmed these days, and I think that sometimes the tools which are meant to help us are more of a hindrance. Case in point: I just deleted Evernote because as well as being clunky, bloated, and a pain to navigate, it was encouraging me to save all sorts of crap that I don’t need. Sure, that’s a problem with me, not with Evernote (or any other tool), but I think that’s beside the point.

    A side point: if you are, as I am, borderline (?!) digitally obsessive-compulsive, having all these tools is just another reason/excuse to organize, categorize, and tidy up. Sort of similar rationale, I guess, as why I’d like to live in a one-room apartment with only one bag’s worth of possessions.

    Culling or surrender? Either way, it’s acceptance.

  18. “Because at the end of the day, we’re all going to miss almost everything.”

    Absolutely love this line. Such a good reminder that we can’t keep track of everything and everyone on the “interwebs”.

  19. This is true for me as well. I have a love/hate relationship with getting so consumed on the stream of information everywhere (Google Reader, Flipboard, Pinterest, Twitter & Tumblr) that sometimes, I get into a strange state of panic from accumulating so much and not having to read them all.

    And the link that you gave on the article about erasing everything after the weekend. Wow, it’s scary, and I must say, I think would be quite liberating. I think I’ll give it a go.

    Thank you, and lovely thoughts as usual.

  20. This is why I don’t allow myself to get tangled into too many social networks. Keeping up with it all can make your head spin.
    My best advice is to cut out the places and things you don’t need. It’ll lighten the load and make things feel less overwhelming.
    Happy organizing!

  21. In 1984 or ’85 I got my first computer. I think it was the size of a medium suticase and had no hard drive. A green & black screen that could, if you knew the right code, Perl, you could do an sort of search. I did, but it was arduous. It wasn’t until 1990 or 1991 that search engines somewhat came on line. Archie, then Veronica. Jughead. Really. (Any joke that they are comic character names? I think not)

    I cannot remember the first thing I searched for using a search engine, but I do remember where it took me: The library at the University of Florence. There were no notes, no Instapaper, no Evernote.

    There was only the ever deeper spiral of getting lost in the net. It reminds me now of walking in Venice without a map…you jumped from one site to another with only your scribbled notes to track your trail…OH! it was so much fun!

    I love all the new toys, and try out many of them. My phone has more memory and is faster than that of my last travel netbook. But still…

    I am not a fan of aggregators in travel or curators in the web. Except for you, of course 🙂 I still prefer to see where the click takes me. The art of discovery is in the journey.

  22. I read about your job in the second paragraph and felt a twinge of jealousy; then I read the rest and was completely lost. You’re talking to a person who doesn’t even own a cell phone. (*GASP* I know, I know.) (And I’m really not that old, either.) There is no there there, but there is a whole lotta there in Oakland these days.

  23. Overwhelming. This is the kind of story that’s prompted my project to investigate the roots of computer technology and the real value of what it has brought us. I spent a few years researching human factors in technology back in the 1980s, so it’s interesting to see what has – or has not – improved since then. I can’t believe that overwhelming humans with information is a good thing to the point of anxiety is a good thing. I have a lot of questions. Thanks for a fine post.

  24. I like this: “Because at the end of the day, we’re all going to miss almost everything.”

    I’m very suspicious of every new tech invention that’s marketed as making my life easier or saving me time. A walk outside seems to be a much surefire way for me to feel relaxed and like I’m taking full advantage of the short time I have on this planet. There’s a great post that goes deeper into the idea of time as our most precious resource: http://www.cruxcatalyst.com/2013/02/27/time-for-sustainability/

    That said, we’re all hooked in to the endless stream of information of the internet to some degree these days, and being able to find the true treasures in the sea of chatter is an important art form if you don’t want to live in your computer or drown in meaningless pixels. One of my methods is that I’m very selective as to what streams and blogs and sites I sign up for in the first place, because I know it’s going to overwhelm me later on. I look for the diamonds in the rough, the stuff that’s not viral and super popular but full of character and mental nutrients. Another quasi rule I have is to only engage with writers and people that I could see myself having a conversation with in real life.

    Thanks Cheri, I think this is a really important topic we’d all be well advised to meditate on more frequently, as all of our lives seem to be threatened by permanent mind clutter from the floodgates of technology.

    1. That post you linked to has lots of interesting stuff — thanks. I love the idea of a Long Now. The discussion in general reminds me of one of my favorite pieces out there, by Paul Ford, called 10 Timeframes. Just an interesting, beautiful approach to time and productivity and humans.

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Sven!

      1. Thanks for the link to “10 Timeframes.” Paul Ford has the kind of mind that could save us…Anyone who can connect Raymond Carver and our human heartbeats to technology and the design thereof can make a welcome difference in our complex world. Beautifully done.

  25. Thanks for the info on information overflow.

    I wish I could offer some sound advice, but unfortunately when it comes to technology about all I can say is watch out for worms in your apple, and make sure it’s well grounded . . . or is that just for blackberries in a state of Y”ohming”? 🙂

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