Skim, Freak, Purge

Reader’s Despair Syndrome spreading; symptoms include self-loathing and sustained panic

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 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.

It was, for 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 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 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, Wolfe finally unsubscribed from the LRB feed. Just like that, no more LRB.

Wolfe is not the only one going through such convulsions. Legions of jittery, media-conscious people 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, 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.

Call it Reader’s Despair Syndrome, a condition that is afflicting 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 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,” a 25-year-old hedge fund analyst wailed. “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.

“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.”

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. As a life choice, starting an account 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.

“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, who 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, Langer said, the unread count “creates this mindset 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.”

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. 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 Curry’s Sony Reader so he can read it over the weekend.

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. 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,” Newsweek blogger Mark Coatney said. “I had that compulsion of looking at everything, to make sure everything was not bold. I’ve kind of given up.”

As for 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,” Wolfe said. “They’re talking about the World Cup, and I have even less interest in that than their usual offerings.”

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