Strategies for Coping with Content Overload

you should too). The concept is simple: instead of manually navigating to each site you want to monitor for updates (such as news services, blogs, etc.) you add a feed link to a program (or web application) called an aggregator that checks the site for you and lets you know when updates occur. If you're curious enough to follow multiple sites, it can be a huge time saver. However, if you're not careful, it can also waste even more of your precious time by bogging you down with useless content. I wrote this article to outline the scope of the problem and suggest some techniques for making the internet serve your needs on your schedule.

The appeal of syndication is obvious: I can receive updates from lots of sites delivered directly to a single location - almost like checking your email. Indeed, site syndication is quickly eclipsing many uses of email, such as "news alerts" and message board updates. It almost seems like there's a constant back and forth between, on the one hand, coming up with new ways to aggregate content, and on the other hand, new ways to distribute it. First there was email, delivered straight to you. Then came websites which you could visit to get information. Then came RSS, Atom, etc. which brings the site content to you (originally via desktop apps). Lately, there has been a proliferation of online feed aggregator apps (I use FeedLounge), further extending the back and forth once more to centralize the delivery but completely unbound to your one computer. As this back and forth becomes better understood and more dynamic, mashups of several sources of content into single sites are gaining popularity.

This reflects the revolutionary nature of the web to commoditize, distribute, and "remix" information. It also requires developers to continuously monitor and update the way users consume this information, constantly streamlining the typical (or specialized) workflows involved in "browsing". Yet even as application developers become more decentralized, experimental, and responsive in helping the public use the internet, the problem of how to best use the exponentially growing amount of raw information available continues to evade each development. To put it another way: aggregators have the potential to aggregate beyond our ability to efficiently consume the content, defeating their intended purpose.

The ease which RSS and Atom allow sites to be added fuels the explosion of content to be manually filtered, and this can be a time consuming task. Think of it this way: there are very few sites that consist only of articles I want to read no matter what. The more content you queue up for yourself, the more time you need to take to sift through those articles, links, posts, etc. to find the worthy content and make sense of it - let alone make creative use of it. Indeed, one researcher has concluded that too much information can make you dumber, and another has found that intelligence directly corresponds to one's ability to ignore "noisy" information and focus in on "signal" content.

Recently I've reached the trough of feed aggregation hell. With over 4000 unread items waiting for me to review, I had to finally make some executive decisions and clear out entire feeds. I monitor a diverse array of sites - like most people my interests span lots of different areas. Realistically, however, at least 25% of the items in my feeds are of no interest to me. Therefore, we need a strategy to streamline the way we review and consume content. The goals in this strategic review are twofold: to remain up-to-date in my information (I don't want to get behind) and to spend as little time as possible reading unuseful information. So given these goals, how do we go about optimizing our browsing workflow?

I don't know the final answer to this problem. Currently I've spent over three hours checking my feeds - with over 1200 items still left to peruse. Nevertheless, I have stumbled (often through trial and error) upon some techniques that could be mixed and matched to your personal surfing style. Note that a lot of the strategies I'm articulating here could probably be turned into requirements and written up into yet another mashup application (effectively resulting in mashups of mashups). As the internet continues to grow, there will be more and more need to devise techniques to digest the content, and ideally this would result in a variety of tools that could be combined on the fly to best augment a personal browsing workflow.

  1. Use social bookmarking to follow up on interesting articles. Often when we're sifting through a stream of information, we find items that pique our curiosity. Yet, because we're trying to catch up on a backlog of content, we struggle about whether or not to go into "reading" mode, where we can be thoughtful and curious, or stay in "filter" mode, where we're largely sorting through the junk. My personal workflow adheres to this general process: (1) go through as many feeds as possible marking items "read". This renders the aggregator as a simple queue of items "processed". (2) When you stumble upon an item you want to read, bookmark it, indicating that you wish to follow up on it when you have more time to read it thoughtfully. to "tag" items I want to follow up on later. I've installed the FireFox plugin, which allows me to tag a web page with one click. I could dedicate a whole other article to the art of tagging, but for this workflow I tag the item with "toread". The tag is affixed to all pages I want to read later, and I simply remove the tag when I've read it. Additionally, provides me with a feed of my items tagged "toread" which acts as a sort of "queue" of things I need to look at. Now, instead of monitoring this feed in the aggregator, I add the feed as a live bookmark in FireFox - that way, when I want to read articles which I've already designated as worth my time, I simply open up the bookmark and go through the queue, detagging as I finish reading. Locating this feed in the browser rather than the aggregator allows me to make a clear distinction between those items which need to be vetted and those I've already designated as worthwhile. I also feel it's worth a mention to point out that FeedLounge recently implemented "TagThru", which allows me to tag to directly from within the aggregator. Very useful.

  2. Prioritize your feeds. There will always be some feeds that are more interesting to you than others. Your aggregator should reflect your reading priorities - somehow. A growing number of aggregators, such as Rojo and Attensa, are developing algorithms for automatically monitoring where your attention is spent and customizing the stream of information to conform. That's great, and I'm keenly interested in attention management, but for now I'm concentrating on manual techniques to organize feeds by priority. One way to do this is to use folders to organize all the feeds you don't want to miss. By locating them all in one place, you can work through that folder first, and then focus on other feeds when you have more time to kill.

    FeedLounge allows tagging, so I can stick priority feeds in several different categories - for instance, my favorite blog by Kevin Carson is tagged with 1st_priority, blog, politics, mutualism, anarchism, etc. If I need to quickly check priority feeds, I'll click on the 1st_priority tag, where I can read Kevin's latest posts. If I feel like reading only about anarchism, he's in there too, along with other anarchist blogs and sites. If I want to read about politics in general, he's there too, along with other generally political content. Tagging allows me the flexibility to prioritize or deprioritize my reading as I see fit. I highly recommend FeedLounge, not simply for it's lightning speed and ease of use, but for it's feed tagging capability.

  3. Pay attention to feeds that continually go unchecked. Sure, we want to monitor as much info as possible. But there's only twenty four hours in a day, people. The number of unread items in each feed is important information that your aggregator provides - if you see feeds with perpetually high numbers, you either don't have the time to effectively monitor it, or you aren't interested in monitoring it. Either cause is sufficient to remove the feed from being checked by your aggregator. For some anal retentive types like me, this is hard, but it's all about strictly defining what the aggregator is for. Remember: I'm arguing against using the aggregator as storage for articles we might follow up on.

    For example, I get a lot of good, random leads on interesting stuff from's popular feed, which lists items that have been bookmarked by lots of people (indeed, is great for sharing bookmarks with others, but that's outside the scope of this article). It's a lot of fun, but since it generates something on the order of several hundred items per day, it's difficult to keep up with. A feed which costs me more in time than it does in enjoyment is not worth the filtering effort. Resist the urge to try and monitor everything and nix it, or find a way to better hone in on what you want (see the next tips for details). The key here, remember, is to balance the time it takes to find things you like with the variety of information available. The better you adhere to that credo, the more efficient your browsing will be.

  4. Customize feeds to zero in on interesting topics. Many sites provide features which allow you to easily find subsets of information within a more general subject area. Some sites use tags or categories, and some sites have subsites devoted to specific interests within the site's overall mission. More and more syndication is subsuming this structure, providing feeds for these subsets. For instance, provides feeds for popular items, but you can also subscribe only to popular items tagged with "mutualism". Similarly, news sites like Yahoo!News allow feeds for specific topics such as politics, business, science, etc. Even blogs are now placing articles in categories: if I'm only interested in computer topics on this blog, I can subscribe to the specific feed and ignore articles about the other crazy stuff Jeremy writes. Part of the task of managing browsing workflow and attention is continually refactoring. Until an application comes along that gives you exactly what you want, you have to engineer your own process on the fly.

  5. Recognize your human limits to consume information. The internet is vast. You will miss some trends, stories, links, developments, etc. Accept it. Don't spend all your time in significating content on the web - concentrate instead on finding rich sources of content that satisfy more often than they dissapoint. Also, try using the social web applications to use the network of readers out there to help you filter. Monitoring tags in is one way, but digg also has a great repository of news stories and uses viewer votes to rank and categorize articles. Other social services can be leveraged to fill in the gaps when we can't keep our finger on the internet's pulse 24/7. But also, release yourself from the responsibility to have your finger on the pulse in the first place, and cut yourself some slack. Go outside and enjoy the sunshine, or do something without the internet that you enjoy. Don't become a slave to the stream of information.

These are just general thoughts I've compiled; and some may apply to you, while others may not. My aim was to give the reader some practical things to think about and techniques to try out. One thing to keep in mind was that I myself was very slow to adopt these tools. I'm completely aware that the time needed to learn to use these services may overshadow their usefulness, depending upon your workflow and needs. However, even if all this article does is encourage you to review your own surfing style, it will have accomplished its goal. The less time you spend finding what you need or like on the internet translates to more time spent with your family, friends, or simply creating your own original content. The participatory nature of the 'net beckons us to contribute as well as consume, and the less time you spend consuming wastefully, the more you'll get out of the time you spend being irradiated by your computer screen.

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Written on Monday, April 10, 2006