The Curse of Information Addiction

RSS is Rotting My Brain

I’ve been thinking lately about the detrimental effects that I’m
suffering as a result of information overload. Over the last few months, the
number of blog feeds I follow in Google Reader has been steadily
creeping up, not to mention people I follow on Twitter and FriendFeed.
Most notable has been the effect on my concentration span – I now seem
completely incapable of focussing on anything for more than a few
minutes before I suddenly find myself back on the Google Reader tab
looking at what’s new. It’s an obsession – constantly craving that new
titbit of information to feed my addiction. As Seth Godin
recently said, “The internet is almost full”: not physically, but the
demands on our attention and our ability to take it all in are
dangerously overstretched.

The symptoms are very similar to
those suffered by TV addicts. A whole generation of couch potatoes is
widely criticised for having the attention span of goldfish, constantly
hopping from one sound bite to another as they surf the channels in
search of the next fix. I enjoy the fact that where I live in London we
don’t own a television – instead I watch DVD boxsets of specific shows
like “The West Wing” and “House“.
It’s proven itself to be a much healthier model than just plonking
myself down in front of whatever happens to be on the telly at that
moment: I can proactively choose what to follow, and the fact that
there’s a finite amount of material available allows me to make
informed decisions about how I’m going to pace myself.

A Better Way?

Some blogs really lend themselves to being read in a “DVD Boxset” manner. A favourite of mine is “Joel on Software“.
I arrived quite late in the day when Joel had already been writing for
several years, but because he tends to post a smaller number of higher
quality articles rather than blogging daily, it was still quite
practical to read through his entire back catalogue from start to
finish. Just like with my DVD boxsets, I’ve now done the same for a
number of bloggers of similar style, such as Rands In Repose and Paul Graham. The other thing that these three all have in common – another by-product of their writing style – is that they’ve all produced books
by collecting together the best of their blog posts on certain themes,
making them even more analogous to the television show’s DVD boxset.
Now that I’ve begun to notice the mind-rotting effects of constanty
flitting between different RSS feeds, I’m beginning to wish that I’d
simply bought these books rather than reading online.

The reason
that I find the appeal of Google Reader experience so enduring is that
at heart I’m a busybody. I like to know what’s going on in the world –
what’s new and exciting, what people are thinking and saying. New
version of WordPress just released – great! Google Chrome out of beta –
fantastic! Crummy Wifi at  the LeWeb conference – too bad! It feels
like too great a cost to stop following these news sources – to be like
everybody else and find out three months later when an article finally
makes it to BBC news. But I’m convinced that something has to change:
as Paul commands in 2 Thessalonians 3:11-12, busybodies who are idle when they should be working need to sort themselves out and get on with it!

Drastic Measures

The result of all this thinking is that I’ve decided to change my blog reading habbits for good.

  • I’m
    going to narrow down the list of blogs I read regularly to the ones
    that are of a consistenly high standard and which I really benefit from
  • I’m going to favour a weekly or biweekly session of
    sustained reading of those blogs, rather than feeling the need to read
    posts the minute they’re published.
  • I’m going to put a premium
    on bloggers who collate the best of what they read online for you so
    that you don’t have to – feeds like Robert Scoble’s Shared Items or Justin Taylor’s Christian blog “Between Two Worlds“.
  • Related to that, I’m going to carry on my habbit of reading high quality aggregation sites like Hacker News once daily and let other people do the obsessive RSS reading on my behalf.

hope and prayer is that however painful it might feel in the short
term, over the long term I’ll really benefit from this change of
attitude and begin to see an improvement in my ability to focus on the
job at hand.

Things to ponder:
  • what habbits of yours are adversely affecting your concentration?
  • are there other ways to get some of the same benefits with less of a detrimental effect upon your work?
  • do you think the blogs you read genuinely offer value that makes them worth following daily?
  • do
    you find the blog posts you really enjoy reading often end up appearing
    on another site that you visit anyway, making it less important to read
    the blog directly?