RSS Needs

As most techies I know, I have a set of websites I check up on each morning, and throughout the day. I get to the office in the morning, and first things first, I “make the rounds.” And thanks to my handy dandy RSS reader, I never miss a single thing. I’m hyper-informed about the narrow set of topics that the sites in my usual rotation cover.

One of those sites is The Verge. A splinter group formed from former Engadget editors, it’s quickly becoming one of the best tech and tech culture news sites on the web.

Recently, one of the editors that I follow closely, Paul Miller, came up with an experiment he wanted to run: go internet free for an entire year. And I mean completely internet free. Not just browsing websites, but email, streaming video, music, everything. He even ditched his smart phone and got an old Nokia, and won’t even text on it.

I actually kinda get it at a basic level. The internet is completely integrated into my life, it’s always there. Any lull in a conversation, out comes the smartphone. Any down time at the office, up comes the browser. So limiting one’s interactions with the internet to a more balanced amount sounds perfectly fine to me.

I began following his updates from the disconnected world with some interest. My first reaction was one of: Why so extreme? So many little tasks would become orders of magnitude more difficult for him.

But the more I read of his dispatches, I began identifying with a lot of what he was saying. He talks about the “phantom limb syndrome” of the tech world. Like when you Ctrl+X a piece of text, you almost feel its unpasted ghost in your fingers until you Ctrl+V it back into existence. Or phantom leg vibrations that make you check your phone.

Or worse still for me… the phantom RSS stories left unchecked in my feed. I get a high filtering through my RSS feeds, saving the interesting articles to Pocket (formerly Read-It-Later) for more dedicated consumption later. I’ve got it down to a science, I’m hyper efficient at it. Clearing out my RSS feeds in the morning is a cathartic experience. For a few minutes… and then I start to get the itch… What new stories have been posted… What am I missing. I better check now so they don’t pile up and require even more time to sift through later!

It kinda sucks actually. Something I really enjoyed has become a compulsive need. I tell myself it’s both enjoyment (I do genuinely enjoy tech news) and important to stay up on the industry for professional reasons. But it’s almost a chore now. This must be how OCD people feel about checking the lock on their door twenty times before they leave. They know it’s bad but can’t help themselves.

Now I’m not saying the internet is bad. It’s a piece of technology. And Technology isn’t inherently good or evil, it’s how we as human use it that give it import and meaning. I think in terms of inventions that have most profoundly impacted our species, it goes like this so far: Fire, Wheel, Internet. So don’t misread my next statement.

In his most recent dispatch, he talks about the signal to noise ratio on the internet being askew. And it really struck a chord with me. It’s something that’s been burning in the back of my mind for a long time now, and this put a name to it. I instantly seized on it. This was my problem with my RSS feeds. Out of usually around 200 articles sitting in my feed in the morning, I usually only save out about five to read later. I glean tiny fragments of information from scanning the rest, but it’s mostly worthless.

For the last year or so I’ve been trying to cut down on the worthless noise that I usually click on. I’ve seen enough people walking into signposts and cute kittens to last me a lifetime. It’s absolutely a waste of time. So I’ve been making a conscious effort, before I save something out to read later, to ask myself, is this really worth spending time on? And it’s helped. Some. But I’m still filtering through hundreds of articles a day. The internet has lowered the barriers on content creation so far that the noise is now the pervasive standard. And finding the signal in it requires this OCD level of effort, filtering through it all if you don’t want to miss something.

My RSS addiction is just one of my “phantom limb” problems though, which cumatively add up to a very distracted life style. So I’m back to reading Paul’s dispatches, and being kind of jealous actually.

For my part, I’ve got a backpacking trip coming up to the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, and from the moment my plane lands I intend to turn my phone off, throw it in the trunk of the rental car, and have my own week of extreme disconnectedness.