Read-It-Never: Instapaper and therapeutic self-delusion

Apps like Instapaper were supposed to help us read more great online content. Too busy to scroll through that thousand-word thinkpiece? Click a button, and it’s queued up for perusal later on.

But, for me, “later on” never comes. Instapaper is a landfill, where I bury articles—permanently. I currently have 3,366 unread items in my queue. Yes, that’s thirty-three hundred and sixty-six pieces I never came back to read. Some of these date back years and cover topics long since made irrelevant by the passage of time. There’s no chance that I’d ever want to exhume them.

My recent realization? Clicking ‘read later’ isn’t about bookmarking great content. Rather, it’s my way of ignoring how little great content I actually read. It’s a tiny, meaningless gesture, a sort of therapeutic self-delusion. “I’m the sort of person who reads this,” I proclaim with every queued post.

But… I’m not. Not recently, at least.

Maybe that’s okay. After all, no one can read everything they stumble across on the web. If an article really intrigues me, I’m going to read it now. Read-it-later apps help me let go, to sift out the chaff and toss it into the wind. With Instapaper, I can set aside online content without too much debilitating self-judgment.

Still, although I seldom revisit my queue, I can’t quite bring myself to declare Instapaper bankruptcy; I can’t hit that ‘Archive all’ button. There’s some small part of me that still thinks I might eventually get around to reading those 3,366 articles. You won’t always feel so exhausted at day’s end, I tell myself. You won’t always be so busy.

(I’m a good liar.) ■


A long sentence vs. a short paragraph: on Twitter’s character limit change

Last night, Twitter began public testing of a long-rumored, controversial increase to its character limit, doubling the quota from 140 characters to 280. It’s the most significant change to the service since its debut over a decade ago—the difference between a quip and a quote, between a thought and an idea, between an objection and an argument.

To illustrate this, I’ve pasted a few familiar quotations below; each of these fits under the new 280-character limit; the struck-through text would have been cut off under the old 140-character rule.

Winston Churchill, address to the House of Commons, June 1940

“We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg address, November 1863

“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation… can long endure.

Thomas Jefferson, the U.S. Declaration of Independence, 1776

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Steve Jobs, Stanford commencement address, 2005

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death.

It’ll be fascinating to see how user behavior changes once the longer quota goes live. Until yesterday, every tweet was understandable at a glance. Now, browsing your timeline will require require actual reading (heaven forfend). Will Twitter still feel like Twitter? ■

Life technology Uncategorized

Drowning in Twitter debt

I abandoned RSS because I couldn’t keep up.

Feed readers made it easy to read every single post from my favorite websites. But there’s a downside to that thoroughness. Hit ‘subscribe’ too many times, and catching up becomes a chore—one more inbox to empty. My RSS unread count frequently ballooned into the hundreds.

When Google Reader (my preferred RSS client) shut down, I resolved to try something different. I would rely on Twitter for the latest updates instead. I became a “Twitter completionist”. In other words, I always pick up my timeline from where I left off, rather than starting with the most recent tweets. My favorite Twitter client, Tweetbot, makes this automatic; it syncs my timeline progress between the iPhone and iPad.[1]

Tweetbot unread
My out-of-control unread count in Tweetbot.

For years, this Twitter-as-feed-reader approach worked well. But recently, my renewed commitment to daily blogging leaves me with precious little free time for social media. I’m facing the same problem with Twitter that I had with RSS: constantly falling behind. Over the Thanksgiving break, my unread tweet count approached 1,000 for the first time ever. By this morning, I had whittled that number down to 700, but I can feel it climbing as I type.

Here are three potential ways to handle skyrocketing “Twitter debt”:

  • Follow fewer tweeps. Easier said than done; how do you decide who makes the cut? Besides, as of today, I only track 366 people on Twitter. That seems like a reasonable number (right?).
  • Stop reading every tweet. After all, Twitter itself doesn’t expect its users to be completionists. But I rely on Twitter to generate ideas for this blog. Skipping ahead often could mean missing out on potential post topics.
  • Declare Twitter bankruptcy (when necessary). I have to accept the fact that I’m going to occasionally fall behind—especially on vacations. That’s a good thing; the holidays are meant for lazy TV watching with family, not for checking Twitter obsessively. I plan to adopt this approach during the upcoming Christmas break.

Till then, I’ll keep that scrolling thumb loose. Tweetbot Zero, here I come.

  1. Syncing also works on the Tweetbot Mac client. That doesn’t help me; I’m a Windows users on the desktop. Lately, I’ve been avoiding Tweetdeck on Windows, just to preserve my mobile progress. That’s good for productivity, but somewhat irritating. If only Twitter had integrated (or replicated) Tweetmarker in its official clients—then I’d always be in sync, no matter what app or platform I used. But Twitter refuses to acknowledge the possibility that some users prefer a third-party client experience.  ↩
books TV Uncategorized

When you play the Game of Thrones, you win(ce) or you die (inside)

When I was thirteen, my high school English teacher assigned Lord of the Flies to our class. At first, I enjoyed the book. After all, Flies begins innocently enough: grade school boys shipwrecked on a mysterious island. It almost felt like an outdoor survival adventure—still a favorite genre of mine.

But soon the tone—and my outlook—shifted drastically. By the time the eponymous “Lord” made his putrified appearance, my mood had darkened. When the island’s suddenly-savage boys started slaughtering each other, I felt downright depressed. Flies pulled me into a listless, discouraged funk that didn’t lift till I finished the book. After turning the last page, I threw open every window in my bedroom, hoping to let some light stream into my psyche.

Media affects mood; it’s an amazing—and sometimes awful—phenomenon. I love the hopeful, broadened perspective I’m left with after an epic film. On the other hand, darker content fouls my disposition and leaves me feeling depressed.

Case in point? Game of Thrones, HBO’s hit medieval fantasy series. Thones is notorious for its raunch and gore. In Westeros, everyone is cruel, rape is common, and main characters get offed in gratuitous showers of blood. Unlike Lord of the Flies, which used violence to comment on society’s hidden darkness, Game of Thrones revels in nastiness, seemingly without purpose.

That’s a major turn-off. I can’t bring myself to wade into the Thrones bloodbath. I did try reading the Ice and Fire series, upon which the HBO show is based. But once the only admirable character met his bitter end in the first book’s finale, I gave up. George R.R. Martin (Thones’ author and mastermind) seems to relish dousing hope wherever it arises. Why volunteer for that sorry slog, when it makes me so unhappy?

Plenty of others do sign up. Each spring, Thones dominates my social media feeds. Both geeks and non-geeks obsess over the show. Otherwise mild-mannered friends cheer on the throat-slitting and village-pillaging every Sunday night.

I can’t join them, for some reason. Maybe I’m squeamish. Maybe I hold my media to absurdly high standards. Maybe I can’t properly separate my internal life from my imagination. Whatever it is, I don’t plan to play the Game of Thrones any time soon.

culture Uncategorized

The library of the future

The next library is a place, still. A place where people come together to do co-working and coordinate and invent projects worth working on together. Aided by a librarian who understands the Mesh, a librarian who can bring domain knowledge and people knowledge and access to information to bear.

Seth Godin, “The future of the library”.

Technological veneer won’t save the library. Half-hearted attempts to integrate social networking, or ebooks, or digital media will fail. The Internet offers better and broader selections of all those things.

Fortunately, the library’s best resource was never its catalog, but its people. The visionary librarian must reclaim her historic role as the community’s information curator and collaboration coordinator.

Imagine an open environment boasting the resources of today’s “coworkplaces:” whiteboard walls, blazing broadband speeds, standing desks engineered for collaboration, and widescreen monitors everywhere. Now add the coup de grace: a professional information sleuth, ready to help your team sift through the Internet’s vast piles of information—eager to help you find inroads into the problem at hand.

Now that’s a library worth visiting.

books technology Uncategorized

How ebooks mute texts.

Texts used to speak for themselves.

Once upon a time, the scribe hunkered over his parchment, squinting through the candlelight, ignoring his aching back and cramped wrist. Yet no matter how hard he concentrated, he made mistakes. Inevitably, words were duplicated, key letters left out, entire lines forgotten. In other words, the text asserted itself—it spoke up.

Via the author’s lazy penmanship, the copier’s fatigue, or the typesetter’s clumsiness, new words and worlds emerged. The literati’s unconscious oversights became the text’s improvisations. Dirty little ‘mistakes’ piled up in the corners, and wicked, wonderful things grew in that fertile soil. Freudian slips, unruly bugaboos, and half-hidden assumptions congealed and sprung to life. Later readers noticed such oddities; they highlighted, celebrated, and codified them. The text, over time, was adding riffs and harmony to the author’s original tune.

But now we have digital text, perfectly preserved, pristinely programmed, faithful to a fault. The author dictates, the computer records, but the text can’t get a word in edgewise. Clinical, binary precision has banished those fruitful ‘errors.’

Efficiency and accuracy are all well and good, but at what cost? Do we really want a muted text? What would happen if we relearned the value of imprecision? Could we reprogram our texts to have minds of their own? Could we reintroduce entropy to digital copies? Could we—willingly—allow our ebooks and blog posts to ‘corrupt’ themselves—just so that our texts could sing again?

books culture sports Uncategorized

Kindles at camp?

Camps have traditionally banned gadgets. In the woods, iPods and cell phones are illegal contraband, banished along with fireworks and drugs. Life at camp, many argue, should hearken back to a simpler time: when a game of “Angry Birds” involved dodging bird poop and “conversation” meant a fireside face-to-face rather than thumbed pseudowords at 140 characters or less.

Camps therefore confiscate kids’ electronics. But books have always been welcome. Counselors praise the kid who spends his rest hour nose-deep in a novel. Camp brochures highlight the iconic image of a teenager flopped beneath a tree, flipping through a book. Sure, Harry Potter can distract from camp life just as surely as a Gameboy, but only the gizmo gets the boot.

But the line between books and gadgets continues to blur as digital reading goes mainstream. Last summer, Amazon sold more eBooks than hardcovers for the very first time. Low prices have contributed to this growth; eBooks cost less than their print counterparts, and the Kindle’s price may hit $0 by year’s end.

Within a decade or two, devices like the Kindle and the iPad seem destined to dethrone the printed book for good. If eReaders become ubiquitous, can camp directors realistically demand that kids leave them at home? How can camps encourage literacy while still offering a sanctuary from digital distraction?