I’ve reached the terrible moment. Google Reader has long since stopped telling me how many unread items I have, opting instead for the euphemistic “1000+”. I’ve dumped all the folders I’m willing to dump. I am unwilling to declare bankruptcy, but I don’t know how long I can stave off my attention creditors.
Here’s what I’ve come to realize about myself: I fully accept that there’s not a particular link in that ridiculous heap that will change my life. It’s been a while since I worried about missing a single killer post or app or XKCD or whatever; if it’s valuable enough, it’ll find me, I got it.
What I most value, and what’s most difficult to recreate outside of my RSS reader, is the exchange of perspective that erupts around a particular moment. Tim Geithner outlines a massive bailout plan, and my economists folder becomes an accessible but rigorous debate about scenarios and probabilities and consequences, light years more interesting and enlightening than a cluster of news stories. I found Jake DeSantis’ resignation letter and the attendant comments instantly fascinating as a drama about class that doesn’t quite resemble any story I remember. But the claims and counter-claims thrown about in the letter and its responses would have been impossible to untangle without the referees in my reader, who shed light even in their disagreement with each other. Atul Gawande’s broadside against solitary confinement sparked a characteristically luminous exchange between Ross and Ta-Nehisi. It’s not the Gawande piece or the DeSantis letter or the bailout story that I worry about missing, but what insights those writings touch off.
Babies won’t die if I don’t read these things. I am fully aware of all the precious, precious insight I’m forgoing to blog at this very minute. My aversion to the “Mark all as read” button is irrational; I recognize this.
But I have a proposal that could make this all a lot less difficult.
Google, I want you to give me a button labeled “Compress into diamonds.” When I click that button, spin your little algorithmic wheels and turn my reader into a personalized Memeorandum. Show me the most linked-to items in the bunch, and show me which of my feeds are linking to them. And take it a step further. You’ve got all that trends data that reflects the items I’m reading. Underneath the hood might very well be data about the links I click on in those posts. Use that information about me to compress my unread items into diamonds I will find uniquely wonderful.
The dirty little secret, Google, is that you barely even have to make this good. Even if the diamond-making algorithm is super-basic, all it needs to do is neutralize the psychological hurdle of the bankruptcy button. I just hate the very idea of clicking “Mark all as read.” Make me a cheap promise, and I will bite.