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.
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.
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.
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.
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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