Feed Me, I’m Hungry! New Yorkers Skim, Freak, Purge as RSS Reading Mounts

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.

Feed Me, I’m Hungry! New Yorkers Skim, Freak, Purge as RSS Reading Mounts