Why the Kids Are So Nervous When They’re Reading the Internet

One of the points I couldn’t fit into my piece on Reader’s Despair Syndrome from this week’s paper came to me via Justin Wolfe, who blogs as Firmuhment on Tumblr. I asked Mr. Wolfe, who is 24 and about to go get an MFA degree in fiction, why reading things online is so stressful for a lot of young people who try to do as much of it as possible. He said something very smart, which is that a lot of the reading people do online involves a social aspect: every bit of “content” you read could be turned into a post on your own blog post or tweet. The result is that aspects of social anxiety have started to creep into the experience of reading, which used to be a thing people did by themselves.

Here’s Mr. Wolfe, in an email:

With “like” and “unlike” buttons and reblogging features baked into RSS readers, the act of reading has become directly social and creative in a way that it hasn’t ever been before. People rightly champion that development as something that empowers readers and makes the process more interactive, but, at the same time, it also freights reading with a lot of baggage that it didn’t have when it was a passive closed system. When you’re running through the feeds in your RSS reader, it’s not like leisurely leafing through a magazine on the couch because on some level, consciously or subconsciously, you’re thinking about how you can interact with the things that you’re reading and what people you can share your interactions with and this is not all some abstract thought process about possible action in the potential future because the tools that give you the ability to actually do all that are resting on links and buttons that are adjacent to or even inside the articles and posts you’re reading as you read them.

His point was underscored by something I heard in a separate interview with Matt Langer, who is currently at work on a new RSS reader called Immerss that he hopes will ease people’s reading-related anxieties. For Mr. Langer, those anxieties tend to come from a fear that you won’t know what your friends are talking about. “That’s the worst thing ever. ‘Wait, you’ve never seen that movie? You’ve never read that book?’ The ‘wait-you’ve-never’ phenomenon is the social pressure that keeps us going back for more.”