How to Get the News You Want Without Being Overwhelmed

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People often ask me, "Alan, how do you manage to be so well-informed and up-to-date on so many subjects?" Actually they don't, but if they did I'd explain to them how I have achieved optimal internet filtering.

Because that's what it's all about: setting up the right filters. In Clay Shirky's well-known formulation, our problem isn't information overload, it's filter failure. Herewith a tale of filter success. (Well, I think so, anyway.)

(1) Our story begins with RSS feeds (in my case via Google Reader) and Twitter. Lots of reading material turns up every day through these initial filters. Some of it I can tell immediately I don't need to follow up on, but if I see something that's even potentially interesting I send it to ...

(2) Instapaper. What a great gift Instapaper is. The bookmarklet makes it trivially easy to send articles to Instapaper from your browser, and the better Twitter and RSS clients for the iPad and iPhone -- I'm beaming at you, Reeder -- support it as well. So every day I send many articles and posts to Instapaper, and once or twice a day set aside time to go through them, ideally on the iPad, since the reading interface of the Instapaper iPad client is superb. Then ...

(3) What I read in Instapaper I pass along to one of three destinations. If I have no further use for an article or post after reading it, I simply trash it. If I decide I'd like to share something in the article with others, I post it to my tumblelog. (I also have the tumblelog set up so that anything I post there goes also to Twitter.) And if I think the article is something I might want to use later, I select a representative quotation from it and then bookmark it, with an appropriate tag, in Pinboard -- which is just as wonderful as Instapaper. Incidentally, I also pay $25 a year to have Pinboard generate a (searchable!) archive of all the pages I have bookmarked, which insures me against link rot.

So that's the system. It enables me to work through a great deal of information, sort it, and save what needs to be saved to the right place, all with a minimum of effort. Instapaper makes reading the stuff pleasurable, and its iPad client especially makes it simple to pass the relevant ideas on to the tumblelog and to Pinboard. In turn, Pinboard enables me to find everything that I have saved and to use it when I need to, for scholarship or blogging or whatever. If the bad news -- or, as I would argue, "bad news" -- is that we have access to more information, more ideas, more writing than we can conceivably process -- the good news is that smart programmers are creating some amazing instruments for controlling the ever-more-powerful stream.

And one more thing: I think filtering strategies need to be taught -- starting in high school, at the latest, and in a very thorough way in colleges. But this is rarely and haphazardly done. Drinking from the firehose is too hard, too disorienting; and yet that's what we allow young people to do. This is a serious mistake. The filtering tools are out there, and they're either free or ridiculously cheap. Let's use them, and teach others to use them.


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Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the honors program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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