“I feel like we’re the first generation of people who spent all of our high-school time on the Internet,” she said. “Back then, it didn’t seem like there should be any boundaries to it, and now it does.”
Registering for an RSS reader is perhaps the most common coping strategy employed by those suffering from Reader’s Despair. Though Google Reader is the most popular one, there are lots of competing tools for RSS, such as Netvibes, Bloglines and NetNewsWire. Do a good job with one of those services, and you’re living in the black, keeping up with everything you want to be keeping up with and not missing a thing. Starting an account is usually accompanied with a feeling of euphoric optimism, as the long-suffering RDSer anticipates the onset of order and control—peace at last from the constant hurt of failing to take full advantage of the Internet. As a life choice, it represents an aggressive step toward organizing one’s online reading—a wisely built and properly maintained set of RSS feeds epitomizes discipline and rigor—but often it just ends in more misery.
The adjustment to an RSS lifestyle rarely goes smoothly.
“Some people don’t have the self-awareness or self-control to use RSS responsibly,” said Marco Arment, the lead developer of Tumblr. “I think it’s important that people recognize that this is a form of addiction.”
A lot can go wrong, mostly due to the soul-crushing, nagging aspects of feed overload, which are aggravated by RSS readers that prominently display unread counts. Brian Shih, the product manager for Google Reader, suggested that the company knows all about the malaise its reader can cause, and the side effects of RDS that it can provoke.
“People don’t like seeing the unread counts go up,” Mr. Shih said. “We realized this a while ago, and we actually do offer the option to turn them off.” The option is much appreciated, certainly, but the fact is that people suffering from RDS are constitutionally incapable of turning it off.
One common crisis moment comes when a user at wit’s end does on a grand scale what Mr. Wolfe did to the London Review of Books, and marks as read every single item he or she has been neglecting in every single feed.
“It’s almost like your house gets so dirty that you just set it on fire, and go buy a new house or something,” said 26-year-old Edith Zimmerman, who skims thousands of items daily in her Google Reader as part of her job as a New York culture blogger. “It’s sort of like, ‘I can’t deal with this, but I also can’t have it be at 400 and something.’”
“It makes me feel pretty awful—there’s a whole mess of emotions behind it, and they’re all caused by this concept of read versus unread,” said Matt Langer, the 30-year-old has been building an RSS reader he hopes will spare users the private anguish he thinks other software, Google’s especially, inadvertently encourage. “It gets this Protestant work ethic thing attached to it—you have to complete these 578 unread items in order to be done.”
Along with other features, Mr. Langer said, the unread count “creates this mind-set that you’re not done doing something until every single thing has been consumed.” The system he is building, he said, which has been in development for two years, “has no concept of it at all.”
Think of Mr. Langer as a doctor developing a new drug to combat Reader’s Despair Syndrome—an RSS tool that won’t make its users feel bad all the time, and will facilitate reading vast amounts instead of suffocating their ambitions.
Other doctors are at work building tools to help RDSers suppress their worst natural inclinations, and prevail over their busy schedules, laziness and tendency to never read anything longer than a 200-word blog post.
Mr. Arment, the Tumblr developer, created the popular iPhone app Instapaper to help fellow RDSers read long pieces that they never have time for when they’re using the Web at work. Instapaper lets them send any article they come across—whether it’s from The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books or even the LRB!—to their phone, and to retrieve it later while they’re on the subway or in line at the store. “It’s a tool for people who have this kind of information addiction and unread count compulsion,” Mr. Arment said. “It’s made for us, basically.”
Using Instapaper is understood to be a virtue by those suffering from Reader’s Despair Syndrome—an indication of seriousness and a high standard of living. Some see it as an antidote to the serial skimming that inevitably occurs when one grows accustomed to an RSS reader. It is seen as a cure, an aid designed to protect its users from themselves.
The founders of Longform.org, an aggregator of long-form journalism that works in conjunction with Instapaper, compare the RSS experience with walking into a supermarket and having food thrown at you. “You’re getting cinnamon buns thrown at you all day, and you go, ‘Yeah, I’ll keep eating these, whatever,’” said Max Linsky, sitting in the Fort Greene café Smooch on a recent Friday afternoon.
Newsweek blogger and Instapaper devotee Mark Coatney took the food analogy one step further, underscoring that using Instapaper is seen as a reflection of a healthy lifestyle.
“It feels like you’re eating organic,” he said. “You’re having a nice substantial meal as opposed to the fast-food RSS thing.”
Some young New Yorkers have succeeded at mastering both domains. They are the envy of all their friends, and often find themselves being asked for reading strategy advice.
Brendan Curry, an editor at W.W. Norton, has a baroque system in place that has taken him some years to achieve. He goes through the feeds in his reader every morning, skimming blogs and tabbing open links that appeal to him as he goes one-by-one through high-minded aggregators like Longform and Bookforum’s Omnivore. Once he’s done opening everything, he goes through and tags the stuff he’s really interested in using a service called Delicious; at the end of the week, an intern from Norton compiles everything tagged “to+read” in one file and sends it to Mr. Curry’s Sony Reader so he can read it over the weekend.
People like Mr. Curry are living the good life. They are thriving online. They don’t just stay on top of current events and pop culture ephemera, they read scholarly blogs and—weird but true—actual books, too. They’ve read Thomas Ricks’s Fiasco, Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side and even that long book about Sonic Youth. Last week, Mr. Curry was reading a 42,000-word article from Wired published in 1996, about the laying of an underwater fiber-optic cable.
Mr. Curry, who used to suffer from RDS, is proof that change is possible. But be warned: Most people should not dream of achieving his high level—statistically, it just does not happen that often. Most recovered RDSers finally cope by merely unclenching, and by giving up their completist inclinations along with their impulses toward rigor and cultivation. So what if there are 14 New Yorker articles you haven’t read? Who can keep up, really? Many people who have arrived at that stance justify the adjustments they have made to their standards by portraying it to themselves as the pragmatic option—the only thing that will keep them sane.
“For a long time, I would acknowledge, you know, ‘I didn’t do well this week,’ and say, “I’m gonna do better next time.’ Now I don’t even bother,” said Mr. Coatney. “I had that compulsion of looking at everything, to make sure everything was not bold. I’ve kind of given up.”
As for Mr. Wolfe, he recently re-subscribed to the London Review of Books feed—the proximate cause was a desire to check how many others were signed up—and then found that he couldn’t make himself get rid of it again.
“I still haven’t read any posts,” Mr. Wolfe said. “They’re talking about the World Cup, and I have even less interest in that than their usual offerings.”
With additional reporting credit to Amanda Cormier.
Follow Leon Neyfakh via RSS.