Justin Wolfe gave up on the London Review of Books this weekend. The experimental blogger, known to his New York fans as Firmuhment, had been subscribed to the feed for about six months, starting when he saw one of their articles linked to on The Awl. By subscribing to the feed, using a piece of free software called an RSS reader, the 24-year-old Mr. Wolfe was making sure that articles from the LRB would appear before him on a regular basis while a little counter kept track how many new bits of content had been delivered to him.
‘Why am I so pathetic that I can’t even read, like, 100 words a day?’ wailed a 25-year-old hedge fund analyst. ‘And then I have to hit the “pretend everything is read” button, which is basically like hitting the “lie to yourself” button.’
It was, for Mr. Wolfe, an aspirational subscription: He wanted to be reading the LRB, and he was going to try to make it a habit. It didn’t work. Before long, the “unread count” next to the LRB feed started climbing—first, five new items to read. Then seven, then 13, 29, 37 …
Every once in a while Mr. Wolfe would notice it and wince. “It would just kind of creep up on me at intervals, usually when I had cleared other things out, and so the fact that I hadn’t cleared it was more apparent,” he said. “Maybe I did read it a handful of times, but then as it piled up, it became more and more of a chore.”
Sometimes the unread count would overwhelm Mr. Wolfe, moving him to hit the “mark all as read” button that disappears all the new content one has missed and restores the feed to a pristine state.
On Sunday morning, Mr. Wolfe finally unsubscribed from the LRB feed. Just like that, no more LRB.
Mr. Wolfe is not the only one going through such convulsions. Legions of jittery, media-conscious New Yorkers are eating themselves alive signing up for feeds they never end up reading in hopes of becoming better people—more knowledgeable, more fun to talk to, more in control of their Internet consumption. They subscribe to dozens, sometimes hundreds of news sources, each of them added to the list with the best of intentions, motivated by the knowledge that, if they really wanted to—that is, if they had it in them to be disciplined and vigilantly curious—they could know everything there is to know. And so these poor balls of anxiety walk around with a constant awareness of all the hundreds of unread news stories, essays, reviews, and blog posts waiting for them on computers—all the marvels they’re missing on Boing Boing and Kottke, all the Marginal Revolution posts, all the oil spill updates from The New York Times’ U.S. news feed.
Call it Reader’s Despair Syndrome, a condition that is afflicting New York’s young and old with equal viciousness, but which tends to produce the most dramatic symptoms in people in their 20s and 30s, who retain hope that they will one day become more productive and virtuous in their Internet reading habits.
“It makes me very sad, obviously, when I face the fact that there are like 115 items and I know that I’ll never read them,” wailed a 25-year-old hedge fund analyst at a rooftop party over the weekend. “And it’s like, why can’t I be a good enough person to know things about anything? Why am I so pathetic that I can’t even read, like, 100 words a day? And then I have to hit the ‘pretend everything is read’ button, which is basically like hitting the ‘lie to yourself’ button. It’s embarrassing. I hate myself when I do it. It’s like the biggest possible failure you could have in your entire life, basically.”
While “information overload” is nothing new, actively trying to take control of one’s online reading habits and being able to sustain a consistently rewarding pattern of media consumption has come to be seen as an essential aspect of functional, healthy adulthood. It is simply part of growing up: a hard-won achievement in the same category as cooking for yourself, paying your bills on time, brewing your own coffee instead of buying it every morning, not smoking, going to the gym and waking up early on weekends.
“A sign of maturity is knowing what you don’t know,” said Maura Johnston, a 35-year-old professional blogger. “Wanting to know more all the time is a sign that you’re still intellectually curious.”
Ms. Johnston has been living with Reader’s Despair Syndrome since she became the founding editor of Gawker’s music blog, Idolator, in 2006.
“I feel like I’m living in a what-am-I-doing-wrong agitation,” said Ms. Johnston, who in a fit of emotion deleted all the hundreds of subscriptions in her RSS reader after she left Idolator last fall and has lately been building it back up. “I’m always thinking that—what am I missing? It’s a big Internet out there.”
Getting to a place where you feel content with the amount and quality of online reading you’re doing—shaking that agitation but not becoming complacent—is the true meaning of growing up in New York now.
Twenty-four-year-old filmmaker Lena Dunham knows a thing or two about growing up. Over the weekend, the recent Oberlin grad premiered her debut feature film, Tiny Furniture, about coming of age in recession-era New York. At a drizzly outdoor screening of the movie at BAM on Sunday night, Ms. Dunham said she has come a long way since college, when she managed her online reading haphazardly, using nothing but bookmarks.
“I was feeling literally overwhelmed every day by the number of Web sites I felt compelled to go to,” she told The Observer. “You know how when you go to a library and you’re like, there are so many books I will never read, and the world just feels like too much? I felt like that every time I opened my computer.” Getting an RSS account with Google—thereby resolving to learn to be economical with her “brainspace”—was a rite of passage for Ms. Dunham, an avid Internet user who first got noticed for her Web videos.
“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.