I don’t know that anything has changed the way I consume information more than the discovery of online feed readers about four years ago. I went from skipping through a handful of sites or relying on someone else’s ability to aggregate information to my own personalized and furiously flowing river of news. For an information glutton like myself, it is a feast that never ends (and that at times threatens to become overwhelming).
There’s plenty to be said about the ways in which the internet, and feed readers in particular, continue to change the way we select and consume information, but a recent shift in my habits had me thinking about a particular element of this.
Until very recently, I was a user of Bloglines, which could be considered the grand-daddy of web-based feed readers. I started using it because it was more or less the only game in town when I was first looking for a feed reader. But now, as of a few days ago, I have switched to Google Reader. Basically, because of navigational peculiarities between the two tools, after the switch I am now consuming news, blogs, and other information in a subtly different way.
With Bloglines, I would go feed by feed. So I might read all the new posts up at Conversational Reading, move on to the new articles in the New York Times book section, and then catch up on the new posts at my favorite Baltimore Orioles blog. With Google Reader, on the other hand, the articles and posts are all thrown together. So, upon firing it up, I might see 30 new items waiting for me, all stacked up one after another, a blog post about the Orioles, a restaurant review in the Philly Inquirer, a post at Comics Curmudgeon, and then another blog post about the Orioles.
Something about this change struck me. It’s like kicking the information overload that already threatens to overwhelm me up a notch. I’m wondering if I’ll be able to take it. It’s one thing to zip through 500 new items when they are organized by feed, quite another to have them all thrown in together. It’s like reading a seemingly endless stream of non sequiturs.
In acclimating myself to the new format, I couldn’t help but think that this is a trend that is only intensifying. The free-for-all, free-associative nature of the internet has been with us from its inception, but this way of consuming has spread to other forms of media as well. I don’t know if I coined this term or not, but I look at us as the “iPod Shuffle generation,” a group that values juxtapositions, randomness, and subjective experience more than paying any heed to externally defined genres. The New Yorker’s Alex Ross says it better in an essay from 2004, “It seems to me that a lot of younger listeners think the way the iPod thinks. They are no longer so invested in a single genre, one that promises to mold their being or save the world.” The radio industry has even formalized this idea with the “Jack FM” format, which Wikipedia says “promote themselves as having a larger and more varied playlist than other commercial radio stations,” and tends to offer up an array of genres back to back in a way that goes against the straitjacketed philosophy of commercial radio.
The trend extends to TV as well, in the form of channels like current which plays short “pods,” often viewer-created, about different topics that have little but the channel’s overarching aesthetic to tie them together. With Tivos and DVRs, meanwhile, we create our own mish-moshed television playlists of shows that together, no television exec would dare propose as a primetime lineup. As bandwidth increases, so will the capabilities of our cable boxes, and TV will become ever more personalized and untethered from the channels and networks.
This, of course, sounds a lot like a feed reader, a totally user-controlled experience. It feels like the future, but nonetheless it is jarring, and every step in this direction takes some getting used to – or maybe I’m just getting older. Books, meanwhile – the tricks up the Kindle’s sleeve and Kevin Kelly’s controversial “futurism” of a couple years ago aside – seem immune from this mashing up. As such, they will continue to be marginalized as they have been for some time now by the onslaught of TV and the internet, but they will also provide a respite and a more peaceful experience that contrasts the madness of the hyper-aggregated world of information.