My Information Existence

Throughout the day, as I come across interesting links, threads, articles, interviews and other things, I bookmark them, categorize them and into a vast cavern of information they go. All of this information serves as a sort of hyper-personalized search engine, but I’m the only person that has access to it. For over 15 years now, I’ve been collecting links to stuff that interests me. Some of them I read, some of them I skim, but most of them I stash away, only to reference later, if at all. To date I have 47,331 bookmarks, all of which represent me in some way. I feel like if someone or some machine wanted to really understand me, they would look at my bookmarks. 

This kind of all began in 2005 when I started using Delicious to bookmark and tag interesting things I came across on the web. To give you an idea of when that was, the second thing I bookmarked on June 14, 2005, was YouTube. 

My tagging has come a long way since 2005

I haven’t stopped bookmarking since. Yahoo! acquired Delicious and we all know what happened to companies acquired by Yahoo! in that era. Thankfully Pinboard, started by someone who worked on Delicious, came onto the scene in 2009. I exported all of my Delicious bookmarks and imported them into Pinboard, where they remain, but the service hasn’t kept up with my needs. As a result, I started using Raindrop about a year ago and have been really happy with the service. I have an IFTTT applet that pushes bookmarks from Raindrop to Pinboard for redundancy and because I like supporting Maciej.

Information Sources

Almost all of the information I consume comes from three main sources — RSS feeds, Twitter and email. RSS feeds have been, and continue to be, the dominant way I consume information. I use a service called Feedbin to store my RSS subscriptions and serve as a feed reader, for which I pay $50/year. There are “free” services and feed readers out there, but free is never really free and after Google Reader disappeared, it was a valuable lesson to us all that paying for things keeps them around. I use Feedbin in a browser tab when I’m using my laptop and on my iPad and iPhone, I use a $5 app called Reeder, which I like a lot. I currently have about 400 highly-curated sources, including popular websites, personal blogs, link blogs, Google searches and email newsletters. To give you an idea of what that means in terms of the volume of items several hundred feeds generate, I have just over 56,000 waiting to be consumed, tagged and saved. I will never get to most of them and I don’t care. 

Twitter is, perhaps, the most under-appreciated social network ever. I was one of the first few hundred people on Twitter and while my usage has increased over time, how I use it has changed massively. I’m a firm believer that the best way to use Twitter is to not follow anyone and instead use its Lists feature. I have a large-ish number of lists on all sorts of topics like breaking news, security and privacy, music, technology, IRL friends, Los Angeles, and so on. The greatest thing about it is you have access to the world’s experts in pretty much any field of interest you might have. When I come across a tweetstorm worthy of saving, I use a service called Threadreader to gather the tweets, save them to a Threadreader URL and then add a bookmark with tags to Raindrop. I generally bookmark the Threadreader URL as I find it easier to read than reading it natively on Twitter. Every time I heart a tweet, I have an IFTTT applet that saves it to Raindrop in a Twitter collection. 

Favorited for obvious reasons

Email has made a comeback since newsletters really started taking off. I don’t get a lot of newsletters in my email inbox. Most of the newsletters I subscribe to go directly to Feedbin. One of the coolest features is that you have an email address associated with your account, which you can use when you sign up for a newsletter. Hence, every time that newsletter is sent, it stays out of your inbox and can be read alongside everything else I read in Feedbin. Of the new newsletters that actually come to my inbox, I have a couple of link-heavy favorites. Dense Discovery is one of the most exquisitely curated newsletters out there. It definitely has a certain aesthetic and voice. I always look forward to saving it for when I know I can read through it entirely. I probably bookmark at least 60% of the links Kai sends. My other favorite is from Alexey Guzey and it’s called Guzey’s Best of Twitter, which is pretty self-explanatory.

How I Read

The two primary ways I read are on a web page in the Brave browser or in the Instapaper app. Brave is a Chromium browser, which means it’s based on Google Chrome, but you can think of it as a de-Googlefied version of Chrome that runs faster, behaves better and respects your privacy. The great thing is it can run Chrome extensions. One of the extensions I use to highlight quotes and passages on web pages is called Memex. I’m still trying to figure out how to integrate this into everything as there’s definitely some redundancy with Raindrop.io. Until I do, I’m fine doing a little extra copying and pasting. It’s a fairly extensible tool, so I’m guessing there is a simple way to integrate it, but I just haven’t had the time to explore this much.

Memex allows me to highlight things on web pages and save the text

I’ve used Instapaper since it launched in 2008. It really is the best, least distracting reading experience for articles. I’m able to save highlights as I read, similar to what Memex allows for. Articles are passively saved to my Instapaper through an IFTTT applet triggered when I save something to raindrop with the tag ‘toread’. I have nearly 13,000 articles saved to Instapaper and while it is somewhat of a black hole, I keep my subscription going because I really enjoy reading things more in Instapaper than I do on the web. 

Why Bother?

The big question is why do I spend all of this time and energy collecting and categorizing information. The boring answer is I enjoy learning and the ability to recall information that I don’t need to store in my own brain is magical. It also allows me to build and see relationships between disparate things through tagging. If I want to see all of the medical research on Parkinson’s Disease that I’ve come across, it’s simple. If I want to read over the latest research findings on COVID-19, I don’t have to use DuckDuckGo or Google. I look in Raindrop because I’m tracking it regularly. It really does feel like a superpower. Curators are the new creators, after all.

There is another, more existential reason I do all of this. It represents me in some way. It’s a piece of me. And while I’m currently the only one able to extract any value from the work I put into maintaining all this information, I’d like to figure out a way for it to be accessible to others as sort of a human-curated, micro search engine.

The Next Frontier

The next phase, which I’ve dabbled in a bit, is really turning more of this information into knowledge. The productivity space has become extremely interesting in the last couple of years. There is a new class of leaders building on the incredible foundation laid in the early aughts by David Allen, author of Getting Things Done and a bunch of powerful new apps and tools. People like Conor White Sullivan, co-founder of Roam Research, Tiago Forte, founder of Forte Labs and creator of the Building A Second Brain course and Anne-Laure Le Cunff, founder of Ness Labs are people I learn from every day. I can’t remember a time when a piece of software changed my life the way Roam Research has. Tools like Readwise are changing the way people turn information into knowledge. It’s a great time to be swimming in a lot of information and I’m only just getting started with my ocean.

It’s always a bummer when good people leave a company, especially when you hired them and even saw them doing bigger and better things outside of the role you hired them into.

Suicide is on the rise in America. When I was young a neighborhood boy that we all knew hung himself. My dad sprinted to their house and tried to revive him. Two of my best childhood friends took their own life in their 20s and a close cousin killed himself by setting himself on fire. Depression and mental illness are all around us and many of us have loved ones that are struggling. It’s important we learn how to properly care for them and for ourselves as we do so.

It is so easy to pile on to the news of the day and provide your own knee-jerk response. I do it in my head and that’s where it stays. This shift, especially now that I’m so much more focused on writing and contirbuting positively to the Micro.blog community, has had a positive impact in my life. Feels good.

A More Conscious Approach To Using Technology

There are two topics that have been consuming my thoughts for several months. They were largely separate in my head, but once I started writing about them I realized they were very much related to this idea of consciously using technology vs. technology using you. Something about taking control and being intentional about how you use technology in your life and the benefits that come along with it.

The first topic is one I simply refer to as technology addiction, specifically our mobile devices. Articles have been written in many mainstream publications and many more blogs have been posted about it. Explanations, proposed solutions and think pieces relating it to the destruction of society are easy to find. Simply put, it’s the idea that we’re too addicted to our mobile devices, due in no small part to app makers competing for our attention — all of it. Due to the fact that this is all a very recent phenomenon, the effects on society are largely unknown, but indicators are not painting a pretty picture, especially for teens.

My own interest in it was really born out of curiosity more than anything. I knew I spent a lot of time on my phone, but I wanted to quantify it so I could begin to figure out how to change it. I had a conversation with a well-known person in the world of technology that made me think a lot about the topic. One night at a small, group dinner in Stockholm he went on and on about how addicted we are to our phones and that the major phone manufacturers, namely Apple, needed to get it together and offer some OS-level controls that would allow us to be less distracted. He said something to the effect of ‘think about if HealthKit tracked your usage the way it tracks the rest of your health. Apple is a decision away from including that.’ Google just announced tools built in to the upcoming version of Android and I expect Apple will do something similar.

Several months before that dinner in Stockholm I became acquainted with Tristan Harris and the work of the Center For Humane Technology. Tristan was everywhere — TED, the podcast circuit, many mainstream publications. Then there was the Nellie Bowles article in The NY Times about making your screen greyscale, which I did for quite a while and still do occasionally. A little over a year ago I started using an app called Moment, which quantifies my iPhone usage. There’s nothing better, at least not for iOS. Experience has taught me the best way to change something is to start measuring it. Here’s a recent snapshot of my iPhone usage.

 

It’s worth noting that I exclude some apps I don’t think should be counting toward my screen time — Waze, Google Maps, Mail, Messages and the Home & Lock Screen.

If you’re not curious about your mobile usage, you either don’t use it as much as most people or you’re in complete denial. My guess is your results will shock and shame you into paying much closer attention. You will think to yourself, ‘this just isn’t possible!’

Moment and reading a lot about technology addiction has lead me down a path of experimenting with a bunch of ways to cut down on the amount of time I spend on my iPhone. I had long since turned almost all notifications off on all devices. I highly recommend this as a first step to anyone interested in reducing distractions. Decide who or what should be able to interrupt you and turn everything else off. Changing my screen to greyscale had a small effect, but not much. Moving apps off my home screen and into a folder helped a little. Unsurprisingly, what helped the most was simply deleting apps from my phone. Short of that, reflecting on how happy an app makes me when I use it was also quite helpful. If an app made me unhappy or otherwise feel negative, I deleted it. Here’s what my current home screen looks like.

 

When I initially started assessing apps that made me feel negative and unhappy, Twitter was at the top of the list. It was also the app I used the most. I started using Twitter in 2006. I was among the first thousand people on the network. For the following decade I really loved it, but something started to happen a couple years ago, probably more. There was an explosion of harassment, hate, abuse, bigotry and, of course, there was the 2016 election. The election was the tipping point for me. To make matters worse, Twitter was unwilling to deal with the negativity effectively, though they took a nice step this week to hide disruptive tweets from conversations and search. I’m not going to hold my breath.

Instead of deleting my Twitter account, which I don’t imagine I will do, I made a bunch of lists and unfollowed nearly everyone. Twitter had so clearly become a hazard to my mental well-being, I just needed to stop using it the way I was using before I unfollowed everyone. I was retweeting, issuing my own hot takes on the same things everyone else was outraged about and I started hating myself for it. I put a few rules on my Twitter usage — I was mostly going to use it to share links, I would steer clear of most political discussions and I would try my best to keep my tweets positive or at least neutral. It didn’t take long before I was using Twitter much less than I once did. Then I started thinking, why should I keep publishing what I do only on Twitter? All signs point to Twitter becoming much more of a walled garden and while I plan to use Twitter again, it’s going to be different.

This brings me to the second topic — the return to the open web, or as some refer to it, the re-decentralization of the web. This isn’t a new idea, but a continuation of an effort that really got underway some years ago. The promise of the open web didn’t last long and many are waking up to the fact that we need to do something to save it.

Not long after I got serious about reducing the time I was spending on my iPhone and how I was using Twitter, I started noticing articles bubbling to the surface. Tom Critchlow’s “Small b blogging” and Dan Cohen’s “Back to the Blog” come to mind and are great reads on a renewed interest in, and support of, blogging on the open web. Wired even called for an RSS revival (I continue to use RSS as I have since the early aughts), the antithesis of the algorithmic bubbles of Facebook, Twitter and others. And then there was microblogging.

At the beginning of 2017, a guy called Manton Reece launched a very successful Kickstarter campaign called Indie Microblogging: Owning your shortform writing, which resulted in a platform called Micro.blog that really does feel like the beginning of something special.

Over a month ago I tweeted…

 

That day I dusted off whatevernevermind.com, updated a few things on my WordPress admin console and started writing, mostly microblogs (formerly known as tweets) and syndicated them to my Micro.blog account. It was like starting over with a bunch of nice people talking about interesting things that, for the most part, didn’t include politics. They were also posting amazing photography and microcasts. The most recent version of the macOS Micro.blog app even has a great Instagram import tool, which has allowed me to import every photo I’ve ever posted on Instagram to my blog.

The idea of publishing on my own corner of the internet and syndicating out microblogs and selectively cross-posting to Twitter (if I even do that) is new for me. It feels right. If there’s engagement, great. If not, at least I’m writing and it has a home that isn’t dependent on anyone except me. That feels like the internet I’ve always loved.

Instead of getting sucked into my phone and filling every idle moment with my eyes on a screen, I’m making a serious effort to enjoy more idle moments. I’m being more intentional in how and when I use my phone. I’m far from perfect, but I’m enjoying being in my head more often and being more present in conversations, especially with my kids. Letting my mind wander has been a catalyst for reading and writing more, leaving less time for infinitely scrolling, though I still do more of that than I would like. My intention is to do it less and I’m measuring my progress every week.

I’m taking a break from dealing with my browser tabs. It’s completely out-of-control insane. I’m making progress, but I have a lot more ot go through. Almost every time I close a tab without doing something, I command-shift-t to open the tab back up and bookmark it in Pinboard. I have over 30,000 bookmarks in Pinboard, dating back to the early aughts thanks to del.icio.us. I’m a digital packrat hoarder, but it really does come in handy for recalling information. My rule is simple – if I think there’s a chance I might want to refer back to it later, I bookmark and tag it. Tagging is essential. It’s not something one goes back to do. If you don’t tag things going in, well, good luck to you.