The Brook vs. the Tsunami

If you’ve ever stopped and considered how you consume media, either on the Internet or in print, you’ll enjoy Episode 8 of The Periodicalist, a podcast hosted by Glenn Fleishman all about the future of publishing.

Glenn’s guest on this episode is Tom Standage of The Economist, a magazine which has carefully crafted itself as a finishable news source.

It’s a fascinating conversation about sources of media that are like a flowing brook of news and information (The Economist) versus those that are a never-ending tsunami (Twitter, and to some extent Flipboard). Tom reveals that one thing he’s found from his readers is that they do not like it when they have a continuous flow of information piling on top of what they started off with in the morning, such that they can never catch up or finish what they think they have still to read. It’s a very interesting look at the battle between completism and the raging torrent of words that is the internet.

I’ve never been a Twitter completist, but I used to be more of one in the old days. I have long since quit caring. I follow a variety of people from all walks of life, with widely varying interests and expertise, and I don’t even try to absorb it all. I’ve gone even further with this approach in the past couple weeks or so, unfollowing a lot of people who are in a pretty self-referential tech bubble. I have no issue with any of them, many of them are fantastic people, but it’s given my Twitter experience less of a recursive or meta feel, and I now worry even less about trying to be in the know about the topics the techosphere is currently obsessed with. It’s a much more relaxing experience, frankly.

I treat Flipboard in largely the same way, dipping in and skimming some articles, reading others carefully and in-depth. What I love about the Flipboard experience is the magazine curation. It’s both a “read it later” and “share with my friends” experience all in one. And it’s easier to put away when I need to than more conversational media is at times. It’s a great way to feel informed without the slightest feeling of compulsion.

Podcasts are another area in which I’ve wielded a heavy axe as I’ve chopped most of the tech podcasts out of my playlist and routinely skip episodes of podcasts that I just don’t have time to listen to. I feel no anxiousness about missing them; I truly enjoy the ones I do hear, and take the time to hear what they’re saying in an unhurried manner. It does mean fewer of them for me, but I’ve also cut out a lot of stress I didn’t previously recognize by reducing an unnecessary obligation in my life.

This whole topic of how to handle information overload is compelling because we all face it; some of us eventually opt to let most of it flow by without worrying about it, because life’s too short and any attempt at completism is a sure path to unhappiness and loss of meaningful quiet time in our lives. For others, careful curation combined with completism gives them the best of both worlds, and yet other people just succumb to trying to ingest it all, filling Pocket and Instapaper with hundreds of articles and listening to many podcasts at 2 or 3X to get it all in. I don’t mean that disparagingly at all, but I did purposely characterize it as an impossible task, because it is. None of these approaches will ever come close to allowing consumption of everything vying for our attention. The latter may come closer than the first two, but we’re talking a few more drops of water from an earth-covering ocean.

Which approach is the best? Who’s right and who’s wrong? I don’t know. I know for me, but you’ll have to decide for yourself how you want to live.

I am utterly convinced that personal growth and/or creativity requires reflection and and time to think and imagine without a constant influx of communication from other humans. Losing that entirely to media is, I believe, a mistake. Being along with your thoughts is not a horrible ordeal to be avoided at all costs by ensuring the entertainment never ceases. It can be some of the most beneficial time you’ll have. Beyond that, it’s a personal choice about how to spend your time.

Regardless of where you lie on the dipping vs. drowning continuum, it seems obvious that some amount of concious thought and effort are required if you’re going to manage your intake of information instead of it managing you. What that looks like is something everyone has to wrestle with for themselves.