Monthly Archives: July 2010

What I Learned by Reading Everything

Last week, Ian M. Rountree and I started Read It All Week, a challenge to read everything we were subscribed to — especially all the blogs we so easily subscribe to, but never actually absorb.  We did this for two reasons:

  • To reconsider why we subscribe to certain kinds of media, and
  • To learn how long it would take to actually read everything we’re committed to.

What I Started With

My goal was to read every post published to the 63 blogs I subscribe to in Google Reader.

I wasn’t sure how long it would take, but my guess was around 15 hours.

So, What Happened… and How Long DID It Take?

Here’s how it worked out for me:

  • Total # of items read (or, when uninteresting, skimmed) in Google Reader: 560
  • Total # of those 560 items that had been shared by others: 235
  • Total # of those 560 items I then felt compelled to share: 32
  • Total time invested reading items in Google Reader: 496 minutes (or 8+ hours)

In other words, I spent more than one entire workday reading.

About 2/5 of that reading load were items suggested to me by others.

And yet, in that time, I only felt compelled to share 1/18th of what I found.

Sounds like my incoming signal-to-noise ratio is a bit excessive…

What Else Did I Learn?

Well, in no particular order, I came to the following conclusions:

1. I read more deeply when I break my reading time up into smaller sessions.

On days when I made time to check Reader two or three times, I felt more able to really read each post.

On days when I only checked Reader once, I felt more compelled to just get through it.  This led to much more skimming and much less sharing, since I’d invested less time emotionally in what I was reading.

On the days when I felt pressed for time, I also found myself resenting longer posts and highly prolific publishers, which seemed like obstacles between me and “done,” rather than the valuable sources of information I recognized them as during my more leisurely reads.

2.  Most of the information people share is useless to me.

But it’s not the information you (or I) might suspect.

Initially, I presumed that the social media-specific posts shared by the people I follow on Reader would be enriching.  Since I was subscribed to only a dozen social media blogs, I knew I had to be missing something interesting.

Not really.

It turns out most people in the social media field read the same major news sources and share the same information, or variations thereof.  Plus, anything relevant or popular from these channels is usually retweeted endlessly throughout the week.  (For example, I learned about Flipboard from a shared item in Reader, but I would have also learned about it from any of the 2 dozen tweets I noticed about that same article.)

The other thing I realized?  Most social media-related articles are crap.  Some are rehashes of things I already know (which, obviously, is not what you already know, and I get that).  Others are so niche-specific that I’d never make use of the information.  And still others are such common sense sub-101 blather that reading them wastes my time.

So… what information did matter to me?

3.  I need to subscribe to more interesting blogs.

Again, “interesting” in this sense means “interesting to me.”

In my case, I’m drawn to posts about art, literature, culture, science and history.  These are the areas I want to learn more about, as opposed to social media, a field in which I regularly feel overwhelmed by sameness.

Which means I need to adjust my subscriptions.

4.  Consistency is key.

Writing one good blog post is easy; writing good blog posts regularly is rare.

Often, I’ll read one or two good posts by an author and then subscribe to his / her blog.  And then, over the ensuing weeks, I’ll realize one or two good posts may be all they have to offer.

If so, I can’t wait around forever for their next great idea.  My time is precious, and I’d rather not step through a minefield of oysters in order to find your few buried pearls.

(This also explains why some of the blogs I consider most indispensable — like The Rumpus — are group blogs curated magazine-style from the contributions of many.)

Although writing good blog posts is hard, finding good blog posts to share shouldn’t be.

And yet…

5.  I’m confused by people’s motivations when sharing items.

I follow some potentially interesting people on Reader, because I presume they’ll find (and share) articles I won’t.  But again, the social media field is crushed by redundancy.  For example, I follow Chris Brogan, Chris Penn, C.C. Chapman and Steve Garfield (among others) which means I often see the same information shared several times.

In addition, some people seem to share everything they read, which makes me wonder if they’re confusing the act of sharing with the act of glorifying.  It’s as though they can’t separate what they personally consider “useful” or “interesting” from what they feel obliged to help promote because of their relatively impressive reach and influence.

However…

6.  You can learn a lot about people from what they share.

Chris Brogan is a social media maven, but what he shares in Google Reader reminds me he’s also deeply interested in theology and spirituality.  Mike Sorg is a veteran podcaster, but his shared items are a snapshot of comic books & general geekery.  And Mary Hartney is a journalist by trade, but her shared items lean heavily toward art, culture and food.

As such…

7.  I learned to share information more consciously.

On one hand, I want to share information I’m personally interested in.  And because my aforementioned interests exceed the limits of *just* social media, that means people who follow me on Reader are likely to see a lot of shared information about books, racism, economics and underwater sculpture.

On the other hand, Read It All Week made me highly conscious of the way each shared item encroaches on a reader’s available time.  It made me more reluctant to share items, because I didn’t want to sabotage the time & attention of the people who follow me.

Ultimately, I still did share items (because I would have whether it was Read It All Week or not), but fewer than I would have if I hadn’t been thinking about my time and yours.

8.  Believe it or not, I actually learned things.

My Reader, like yours, is full of information both great and pointless.  The trick, I learned, is to skim past the duds and invest in the quality — and, very often, that quality tends to bottleneck in a few sources.

For example, Atlantic Monthly columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates was on vacation during Read It All Week, so he asked three of his most trusted commenters (Brendan I. Koerner, Hua Hsu and Cynic) to fill in for him.  The result was the most compulsively readable blog of the week, covering ground from Shirley Sherrod to LeBron James, what happens when “fringe” cultures are assimilated into America’s mainstream and whether Jack London’s racism should mar his literary genius.

Had I ignored Reader (as I so often do), I would have missed these and dozens of other enlightening and captivating essays (like Kathleen Alcott’s masterpiece from The Rumpus), all because I was “too busy” doing… whatever it is I usually do.

Speaking of which…

9.  I did not go broke while reading.

On the contrary, last week was quite fruitful, business-wise.  I pitched a potential client, spoke at a live event and conducted a social media workshop, knocked out a guest post for Jim Kukral (peppered with knowledge I gleaned from blogs I rediscovered in Reader), and locked down two more business meetings for next week, all while executing the tasks I’m already contracted to do for my existing clients (and having a real life).

So if I can do all that while spending 8 hours reading blogs — which is only half the time I’d originally expected to invest — what am I usually doing that prevents me from staying up to date on the media I’ve subscribed to?

Probably tweeting.  In fact…

10.  What did I miss on Twitter?

During those 8 hours I was reading blogs, I kept a Twitter window open so I could chart how many tweets whizzed past me.  Turns out I missed over 2200 tweets.

That’s more than 2200 conversations I could have weighed in on, but didn’t.

Would engaging in some of those conversations have left me any better informed, connected or enriched than my time spent reading?  Possibly.  But I’ll never know.

And I’m okay with that.

What Happens Now?

Now I clean up my feeds.  (As opposed to Amber Naslund, who prefers to blow hers apart.)

I’ve already dropped from 63 blog subscriptions to 44 — that’s a 30% reduction.  However, most of those were blogs that hadn’t been recently updated.  (Imagine if they had…)

I’ll also reconsider how I follow people on Reader.  Since 2/5 of my time was expended on their recommendations, I need to ensure that their expertise is worth my time and attention.  But the quality and relevance of the items people choose to share is wildly unpredictable, so I can’t judge too quickly.

And, like Bryan Person, I may ultimately subdivide my subscriptions into two camps: what I should read, and what I could read (time permitting).

Because not everything I subscribe to is worth reading, but there are always pearls among the oysters.

The trick is to find them without losing my time… or my mind.

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3 Myths About Social Media Debunked

On Sunday nights, Mack Collier runs a Twitter-based group chat called #blogchat, which I highly recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about blogging while hobnobbing with their peers.

But, based on the defensive reaction to some of my comments from several of the #blogchat participants, I’ve realized that #blogchat is strictly a place for sunshine and puppies, and I rarely come armed with either.  So I thought I’d take the time to do some much-needed bubble-bursting here, rather than continuing to ruin the #blogchat vibe.

NOTE: If you cry at the sight of anything other than unicorns, hugs and kittens, please close this window now.  You’ll only depress yourself, and you’ll spend the next hour telling me why I’m wrong, when I don’t really care.

Still here?  Great.  Because…

1. There’s no rule that says you have to be nice in social media.

I know, all the important people are.  But I’m not important, so I don’t have to be.  And even if I was important, I’d probably still be an asshole.

(In fact, most people become assholes after they’re important, so the fact that I’m an asshole before becoming important means my assholishness is actually authentic.  And isn’t authenticity one of the social media cornerstones?)

2. All social media is not created equal.

Yes, the tools are “democratic,” inasmuch as anyone with an Internet connection can use Twitter.  But you are not Chris Brogan, nor are you Sara Schaefer.  You are you.  And you matter exactly as much as you matter, to whomever is counting.

To say that there’s “no social media hierarchy” or “no social media pecking order” is ludicrous.  Just because there isn’t an officially accredited list of A, B, C and Z-list bloggers doesn’t mean we don’t all know who they are, give or take a rung.

(And yes, you can be a Z-list blogger and still produce A-list work, and vice versa.  Quality and reach are two separate factors.  In the end, we’re judged according to other people’s criteria, not our own.)

3. I am not required to help you for free.

Granted, some people do it really badly, but yes, social media is a business.  Not for everyone, but for some people.  And no, they don’t have to help you, or give you free advice, or even be nice to you (see above).  Some of the nicest ones do; others don’t.  (Hell, I charge $200 for a lunch.)

Being nice is wonderful, but to anyone for whom social media is a business, what matters to them is paying the bills.  If they have time to be nice, or if being nice is part of their brand — and, therefore, their business — they’ll do it.  And, in general, social media people tend to be overly nice, almost to a fault (usually because they want you to talk about them).

But if you’re waiting for Seth Godin to write a guest post on your Blogger blog that has 2 subscribers because “helping people is the right thing to do,” don’t hold your breath.

Your two readers will be heartbroken if you asphyxiate.

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The “Read It All” Week Challenge

A few weeks ago, Ian M. Rountree and I had a Twitter conversation about blogs.  Or, more specifically, about how many blogs we subscribe to but how few we actually bother to read.

Somehow, the guilt surrounding our tower of “unread items” in Google Reader seemed both asinine and counter-productive.

Why do we keep subscribing to blogs (and magazines) that we don’t read?

And, if we aren’t reading what we’ve subscribed to, what are we doing with our time?

So we’ve decided to investigate our own habits, and you’re invited to join us.

The “Read It All” Week Challenge

The premise of the challenge is simple: from Monday, July 19th through Sunday, July 25th, you have to read everything you subscribe to.

That’s every blog post, every magazine article, every newspaper column, etc.

The obvious goal is to end the week with no items left unread.  (Think of it like achieving “inbox zero” for Google Reader.)

The underlying goal is to reconsider what you’re subscribing to, and why.  How much value do you actually derive from what you choose to read?  What would you rather be reading (or doing)?  And are you giving yourself enough time to read everything you actually care about?

Here are the “Read It All” Challenge guidelines:

Preparation:

  • To start, “Mark All As Read” the night before the challenge begins. This isn’t a week for catching up.  It’s a week for staying on task, or for getting ahead.  Ignore the 1000+ items you haven’t read yet, and focus only on what comes your way during challenge week.
  • Set aside some time every day to read. Maybe it’s an hour before work; maybe during lunch; maybe just before bed. Maybe all of these.  Part of the process is figuring out how much time you’d actually need to spend in order to read everything you’ve so blindly and effortlessly subscribed to.
  • Assess which physical media you’ll be including in this experiment. Magazines, newspapers, news television – whatever you include normally, be sure to add that to your planned list.
  • Catalogue your current content commitments. Even if its just a number, write out the amount of media you’re planning to attempt to keep up with. For example, “my week will consist of [x] blogs in Google Reader, [x] hours of news television/radio, [x] podcasts and [x] print media.”
  • Mark the time, if you like, by reposting these guidelines to your blog if you have one. Letting people in on the process is a big part of any experiment, because it’s your way of holding yourself publicly accountable to an otherwise private goal.

During The Week:

  • Actually read everything. Getting to “Reader Zero” is a noble task, but it requires that you actually read everything to assess its value.
  • Just for this week, resist the urge to subscribe to new blogs. Feel free to bookmark new finds for later review, but adding 10 new blogs to your list mid-week is going to create even more posts to read than you initially planned for.
  • If it helps, take notes. Which blogs hold up under week-long scrutiny?  Which magazines aren’t actually worth renewing your subscription to?  If you’d like, keep a running log of the experiment.  Ian and I will be using the hashtag #ReadItAll on Twitter to add our own observations.

Wrap-Up (Post-Experiment):

Once you’re done, analyze your findings.

Which sources turned out to be most useful or enjoyable? Consider sharing their content.

Which ones offer mixed or uneven results? Unsubscribe to them, but bookmark them for later review.  Then, in a week or a month, peek in and see if they’ve gotten better.  If so, feel free to resubscribe.

Which ones turned out to be generally useless?  Unsubscribe immediately.  You have better things to spend your time on.

Also, summarize the numbers from your experiment.  How many blogs did you start with, and how many have you kept?  How many bookmarks did you make for newfound streams that require further review?  And what has this experiment revealed about your reading – and sharing – habits?

Mark your experiences with a follow-up post during the week of July 26th.

The real goal of “Read It All” Week is twofold:

  • To understand how much information you can (reasonably) consume in a week, and
  • To ensure that you’re consuming media that you want and need, rather than what you feel you ought to be reading.

Are you in?  If so, let me and Ian know, and then join us for #ReadItAll Week.

(And if you should decide during the course of your analysis that mine is one blog you can live without, then allow me to wish you well on your quest for more relevant ways to spend your time.  Life is short, so there’s no hard feelings.)

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(Some Of) The Best of 2010 – January through March

In January, I started bookmarking articles and videos I thought were exceptionally insightful, entertaining or relevant.  Reviewing them all at the end of the year would be too daunting, so here are some of the highlights I stumbled across in the first 3 months of 2010.*

(NOTE: I expected to summarize January through June here, but even that’s too much to plow through all at once.  Thus, I’ll be doing this in 3-month chunks.)

The Articles

Kurt Warner, The Great Unknowable Freak of the NFL

Will Leitch’s pitch-perfect assessment of Kurt Warner, the NFL quarterback who never should have existed:

I’ve seen Kurt Warner get angry on the field, I’ve seen him frustrated, I’ve seen him in pain … but I’ve never seen him nervous.  Warner plays like he knows how this story ends. Kurt Warner makes me want to be a better person. He makes me want to try to figure it all out. And he makes me want him to win, win, win, before it’s over, before the mystery vanishes, in a wisp, gone.

Ira Glass on the Creative Gap

Pete Michaud interviews This American Life host Ira Glass, who shares a great anecdote about how long it takes any creative person to stop being “good” and start being interesting.

A Short Collection of Unconventional Ideas

At The Art of Nonconformity, Chris Guillebeau posts a stark, inspirational, (admittedly pro-capitalist) real-world rundown of common sense observations designed to help you rethink who you are, what you’re doing and where you’re going.

A year after you leave college, no one will care what your GPA was.

Once you fully understand what you want, it’s not usually that difficult to get it.

Potential is good when you’re 15 years old. After that, you need to start doing something.

Less Talk, More Rock

Boing Boing urges a return to action instead of text.  And while they’re talking about video games, they could just as easily be talking about your life.

Go right from the inspiration — the vision — to actually making it. Don’t think it through. Don’t talk about it. Don’t plan it. Dive in and start making it happen. If you do that — if you can start rocking — you’ll get some momentum, and when you have some momentum then the project has a chance, because now you’re into it. It’s going somewhere, it’s tangible. Sure, you’ll still run up against problems to solve and decisions to make, but you’ll approach these in the moment and solve them in the moment. You’ll solve them so you can keep moving.

The Collapse of Complex Business Models

Clay Shirky on why the simplest solution to overcomplication isn’t “fixing it” but “blowing it up and starting over” — and what that means for businesses, governments and lives.

When ecosystems change and inflexible institutions collapse, their members disperse, abandoning old beliefs, trying new things, making their living in different ways than they used to. It’s easy to see the ways in which collapse to simplicity wrecks the glories of old. But there is one compensating advantage for the people who escape the old system: when the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity, it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future.

Vintage Posters for Modern Movies

Brain Pickings highlights some modernist-retro movie posters that don’t actually exist… but should.

Olly Moss Films

Everywhere You Look, There You Are

One guy, a cigarette, and a story he just had to tell.

Last night Tyler and I met this odd guy at the eastbound MAX stop outside my apartment who I find strangely lingering in my mind today. Or maybe it’s not so strange…

Hard-Wiring Happiness

Brain Pickings features a video and quotes from Srikumar Rao’s talk about happiness at Columbia University.

You have spent your entire life learning to be unhappy. And the way we learn to be unhappy is by buying into a particular mental models. [...] The problem isn’t that we have mental models, the problem is that we don’t know we have mental models, we think that’s the way the world works.

Drive-By Culture and the Endless Search for New

Seth Godin makes a case for “deep experiences,” and explains why they’re so hard to find.

Mass marketing used to be able to have it both ways. Money bought you audience. Now, all that buys you a mass market is wow and speed. Wow keeps getting harder and dives for the lowest common denominator at the same time.

How I Retired at Age 25

Pete Michaud explains how a leap of faith and a surprise realization helped him quit his day job and never look back.

If I could offer only one piece of advice, this would be it: it doesn’t need to be perfect. Save perfection for your aimless hobbies. What you need to succeed is “barely passable“.

At First, I Was Like…

At First, I Was Like...

*NOTE: Not all of this media was created in 2010, but I first encountered it in 2010, so it was “current” to me in that moment.

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