Even during my years blogging in the eyeball mines, I never lost sight of the fact that the Internet is the Great Library of All Humankind. I always strive to take full advantage of that. Web literacy skills used to be essential to my work, but they matter to me in a more well-rounded way. After a day of good Internet, I feel good when I finally unplug to process it all. I’m the good kind of tired, like my mind has been properly exercised.
Once I grew sensitized to this, I realized that I felt like crap after a day of unhealthy info. And most days were like that. So I went on a diet, completely abandoning television, and I started working on an information exercise routine.
Last year, I posted my first über-geek’s guide to reading online on ReadWrite, and people seemed to appreciate it. My routine was rickety, but it was also rigorous. In the ensuing year, I’ve jacked out of the Matrix and become a sane person, but I’ve also refined my online reading process, and I’ve expanded and clarified my thinking about it. Über-geeks have called for an update to the guide. So here, now on my own domain, is my guide to reading online in 2014.
Healthy online reading habits require constant gardening. Every Internet company provides us a little plot to tend for, and that’s how they keep our attention where they want it. But the soil is pretty gross in most of them, and the seeds are tightly regulated. If we want to read healthily, we have to build our own info gardens.
The most important gardening task is deciding what to plant — that is, what sources to read — and that’s a personal choice. The topics, tone, and perspective of your information sources are for you to determine. But the bulk of the work is in building and tending the garden, and this guide will suggest some tools and methods to help. And with the gardening work out of the way, you’ll spend most of your time cooking, eating, and sharing. That’s the delicious part, and this guide will offer my best recipes.
Reading online begins with gathering material. Reading material can be gathered from a bunch of places, and a well-balanced diet should include sources from several of them. Gathering is a two-step process: first you gather sources and choose which tools to use to consume them. Then you regularly check those sources and gather your reading materials from them.
Here are the best tools for the job of gathering things to read online.
For sources you never want to miss, RSS is still essential, damn it. It brings everything from your favorite sites into one place, which is critical for digesting it all. I tend to my RSS feeds pretty carefully, subscribing and unsubscribing judiciously. I often subscribe to a site the first time I read there, because it’s no big deal to unsubscribe if it doesn’t work out. The typical flow is, someone I follow shares something intriguing from a new site, the site seems interesting beyond the one post I read, I click around for a couple minutes to make sure I like the site’s voice, and I subscribe by RSS. I only dig back into old entries when I’m unusually intrigued; otherwise I mark all as read and forget about it until the next new post.
I subscribe to about 100 RSS feeds. I’d say I get 70 RSS items a day, and 20 or 30 of them are interesting. That’s a vastly better ratio than I get on social networks. Checking RSS is the first stop on my instrument panel as I make my periodic sweeps throughout the day. If you’re interested, you can browse through my RSS subscriptions.
Google Reader is dead, but people seem to be happy with Feedly as a free replacement. I’m also intrigued by what the revived Digg will build upon its free RSS reader, since its parent company, Betaworks, also owns Instapaper, Bit.ly, Chartbeat, and other puzzle pieces of the future of reading.
But I don’t trust free RSS services to stick around yet, so I’m using Feedbin, one of the subscription-based upstarts that arrived to fill the Google Reader void. I chose Feedbin because it’s supported by Reeder for iOS, my mobile RSS app of choice. The Feedbin website is excellent, but at my desk I check RSS from the excellent all-in-one reading app, ReadKit. I presume that Reeder for Mac will someday be updated to support it as well. I keep a Feedbin subscribe bookmarklet in my browser favorites bar for one-click subscription to sites I discover.
RSS takes care of the consistent reading sources, and the next thing to plant in the info garden is people. It seems like there are umpty billion “social” places to hang out online, but I think there are really just three: your nerd community, your friend community, and your news community. Depending on your lifestyle, these might overlap in different ways, and that’s great. The more overlap you have, the fewer places you have to hang out. But I think these three categories are important to consider separately at first, before you collapse them as needed.
Your nerd community is the place where people gather around the topics that interest you. Your friend community is where people gather around your relationships to each other. And your news community is where people gather around the events that matter to you, ideally on local, regional, and global scales. Once you’re reliably getting the good info-stuff from each of these places, you know what’s going on in your world.
Just like choosing RSS sources, these things are subjective, but I’ll describe my three places, and you can compare and contrast with your experience.
My nerd community is comprised of voracious generalists. It’s a mix of people from my online and offline communities who care about the same pasts, presents, futures, arts, sciences, and technologies I care about. They expose their reading habits, I breathe their exhaust, and I provide them more fuel by exposing mine, too. Importantly, this is possible because we all use the same reading power tools. There are surely tons of rich veins of info out there that I’m leaving untapped because they have to be mined with tools I don’t use, and that just has to be okay.
My main nerd tool is Reading.am. I love Reading because it’s designed for info gardening. You click the Reading bookmarklet when you start reading something, you can discuss it right on the page with other Reading users, and you can (if you feel like it) click ‘yep’ or ‘nope’ when you’re done. It’s the richest feed for following all the Internet exploration of people whose gardens you admire. It’s also the ultimate logging tool for what you read. More on that in a later section. You can follow me on Reading at reading.am/ablaze.
My secondary nerd tool is Pinboard, an amazingly fast, simple service for collecting and tagging bookmarks. I mainly use Pinboard for personal archival, as I’ll describe later. But I also periodically check the network tab on Pinboard to see if my nerds there have gathered any interesting links. You can follow me on Pinboard at pinboard.in/u:ablaze.
If reading addicts aren’t your nerd community, well, I’m surprised you’re reading this post. But there are lots of other places to find nerd communities online. There’s certainly a place on Reddit for your people, for instance. And people who work or study in specific disciplines all have their own online communities to discuss their trades and crafts.
The friend community is usually the easiest to identify. Whichever social network has the gravity amongst your friends is the place. For me, it’s Facebook, and I’m guessing that’s yours, too. Facebook’s News Feed is an extremely bad info garden because of its black-box attention-mining algorithms and its gigantic pizza advertisements, but having smart friends and aggressively muting bad stuff can counteract it somewhat.
Let’s be real: most people use their profiles to talk about themselves, but they also share links there that they think will support or inform community relationships. When they’re right, I think some of the best online discussion of reading material happens in this forum.
I think there’s a clear answer for most people looking for a news community online. Twitter is the new newspaper. It’s unfiltered headlines from everyone, kept clear and concise by the service’s 140-character limit. I try to keep up with my Twitter timeline most of the day, and I regularly find good links to read there. That’s only possible because I am ruthless about unfollowing people.
The key to good Twitter use, like good RSS use, is to keep the churn high. Follow everyone you think might be interesting, unfollow everyone you think might not be interesting. There is some social pressure around this. Unfollowing someone on Twitter means you don’t think they’re interesting, and people can get offended. I urge you not to worry about it.
First of all, Twitter follows are naturally temporary. There are people I’ve followed, unfollowed, and followed again 10 times, just based on what’s currently going on in my inner and outer worlds, as well as theirs. But more importantly, this is your info diet. Don’t compromise your mental health for political reasons. Don’t eat at McDonald’s just because that’s what your friend wants for lunch.
Relationships do form on Twitter as people admire each other’s tastes, and mutual following enables direct messaging, the best feature of Twitter besides the character limit. This is what allows people who share a news community to meet and get to know each other. But Twitter is not forever. If you make friends there, I suggest you move to email, IM, or Facebook, so you don’t lose that connection if one of you decides to unfollow the other.
For a good Twitter experience, it’s critical that you don’t let the noise get out of control. But even if there’s noise in your main feed, it looks like Twitter’s plan is to build better filtering tools in the app’s other tabs that surface the good stuff for you. That will be fantastic, as long as they don’t mess with the unfiltered timeline.
One great thing about Twitter’s real-time nature is that if many people are talking about a link, it will bubble up a few times throughout the day. You might skip it the first time, but when you see more people talking about it, or you see a particularly trusted person share it, you’ll catch it.
When I was a full-time journalist, I considered Twitter my main source because it mattered so much that I get info in real time. Now that I’m sane, I don’t try to read every tweet anymore, but it’s still the best format for people-based subscription, so that’s where my news community is. You can follow me on Twitter @ablaze.
I also follow many of my Reading.am friends on Twitter, because Reading makes it easy to set up Twitter bots that fire off each time you click the bookmarklet. This way, I don’t have to go to the dedicated Reading feed page as often, because the posts are mixed in with the tweets I’m reading. You can follow my Reading feed on Twitter @AblazeReads, and I use its following list to keep track of all the Reading.am Twitter bots I know of. I mainly follow them from my primary account, though, because reading two Twitter timelines would defeat the purpose.
Maybe Twitter just isn’t your thing. There are certainly other active news community models out there. It seems like that’s why people love Reddit so much. Reddit is a different news model than Twitter in a critical way: it’s a hive mind in which Reddit’s various communities vote on what’s worthy of attention. Consequently, I think you have to get along with a substantial portion of Redditors in order to have a good time there. I don’t, so I don’t use it. But it’s important not to oversimplify Reddit. The front page is a blob, but it’s made up of tons of sub-communities, each with its own culture. There are tons of news and nerd communities for tons of people there.
Once we’ve gathered our reading material, we are faced with the most critical decision in all of modern reading: now or later? It’s important that your reading habits help you make this decision quickly and naturally, using exactly the right tools for the job.
Our most important gardening tool is the web browser. Browsers are ubiquitous, powerful, flexible, and they’re made of the technologies for which publishers design. They’re where your links are meant to be read. The browser toolbar, bookmarks, or favorites should be the centralized place to engage all your reading tools. Once your browser is set up to handle all your reading scenarios, there are very few moving parts, and if you need other apps at all, they’ll play simple, clear roles.
The first thing I do when I open any link I want to read is click the Reading.am bookmarklet. That tells other Reading users I’m on the page, and we can discuss it if we’re reading at the same time. It also shows me who else has read this page, if they’ve yepped or noped it, and if they’ve left any comments. It also adds the link to my Reading stream and logs it in my archive, which I’ll get into in the last two sections.
In mobile apps or an RSS reader, the bookmarklet might seem slightly annoying, but Reading.am provides a way to handle it. Reading lets you create a private email address, and sending a URL to it adds the link to your Reading feed.
So if you’re in a Twitter client, say, and you want to quickly grab a link without opening it in the browser, you hold down on the link, then select ‘email link,’ and send it to your Reading address. I have mine saved as ‘Rrrreading’ in my contacts, so I can easily just type R-R-R until the auto-fill pops up. In Reeder for iOS, my RSS reader of choice, it’s even easier, since you can set a default recipient for the ‘email link’ action.
So triggering Reading.am is an extra step beyond just diving in or hitting the read-later button, but for reasons I’ve described and more I’ve yet to reveal, it’s well worth it.
Now it’s time to read.
I always want to see the intended design of a web page first, unless I know it doesn’t matter. Usually the only time I read something inside the RSS reader itself is when I know the design doesn’t matter; otherwise I immediately open it in the browser. When a page is well designed, I read it in place. Article design is often poor, though, especially on big ad-supported sites. It’s important to set up the browser to be a pleasant reading environment in case of website awfulness.
You’ll need a clean-reading button for hiding crapified page elements like poor typography and layout, bad ads, and linkbait. (It also hides the Reading.am interface if you don’t like that floating around while you read). I use Safari, so the built-in Reader button is my friend on all my devices.
For desktop Chrome and Firefox users, especially those who use Evernote, I recommend Evernote Clearly. Its reading view is customizable, and it adds the benefit of clipping and highlighting articles in your Evernote account, if you’re into that. It’s just a great reading mode if you aren’t. I’m sure there are similar integrated features for other mobile browsers, but I live blissfully in Applestan, so I am ignorant of them.
Most of the time, when I find a link I want to read, I don’t want to read it right away. I save the vast majority of my reading for later. Time shifting things to read, watch, and listen to later is probably the best thing about modern media. We don’t have to be constantly distracted and multitasking. If we find a link that interests us, we can save it with a click or two, get on with our business, and get to it when it’s time to curl up and read.
Think of your read-later app as a guilt-free inbox for mind-expanding entertainment. Send your daily pile of links there — even videos, games, or other things you want to check out — and set aside some time to go through it at breakfast, on your lunch break, in the evening, or whenever you feel like it.
For people in the Apple ecosystem, time shifting is a built-in part of the experience. Safari’s Reading List enjoys deep integration with the operating system, syncs your list to all your devices, and saves the pages for reading offline. Paired with the built-in Reader mode, which cleans up crappy page design, you don’t even need to install anything on Apple devices for a great reading experience.
I still use a third-party app for this, though. I care enough about reading to want the best experience, and dedicated reading app developers will always improve things faster than the people overseeing a relatively minor feature at a big company like Apple.
I’ve tried them all, but I’ve settled on Instapaper, which is thriving again after its acquisition by Betaworks. It’s the most aesthetically pleasing to me, with the best typography and background colors. The alternative I’d mention is Pocket, which is colorful and friendly, but I think it has too many non-essential features. I want an app that’s just for peaceful reading, and Instapaper is the one for me.
A bit on books
Not everybody is into e-books. I don’t even know if I’m into e-books. But I do know that the ability to read a few pages of my book on my phone while I’m in line at the DMV has given me that OMG-we-live-in-the-future feeling more reliably than any other gee-whiz smartphone thing.
Unsurprisingly, I’ve got a fairly geeky way of reading e-books. I probably don’t have to care this much. Just being a siloed-in Amazon Kindle or Apple iBooks user would probably suffice. But as a matter of principle, I want to own my books forever, and I want to be able to move to whatever great new reading device comes along. So I manage my library on my Mac in Calibre. This app lets me export my books in whatever format I need.
Since iBooks is integrated with my devices, its reading view is beautiful, and it’s hooked up to a bookstore, I use that for reading. But when I get a new book from iBooks, I add it to Calibre on my Mac as soon as I get a chance. Whether you use Google Play Books, Amazon Kindle, or some new upstart e-book app like Readmill, you can convert your books to the right format from Calibre. That means it’s pretty easy to switch platforms whenever you want.
If you can use iBooks for reading, though, I recommend it. It syncs non-iBooks .epubs and PDFs just fine. The one annoying thing is that you have to add them to your devices manually through iTunes or an “open in iBooks” button, since only iTunes Store books show up automatically. But once you’ve added the book to your device, it will sync with your copies on other devices.
If you love reading, you probably also love talking about what you’re reading. The Internet is a godsend for both. Good sharing practices are basically the same as good gathering practices but in reverse. Most of my suggestions involve tools we’ve already discussed in other sections.
It begins with Reading.am, of course. Reading is intended for use when you start reading something, so it should be the firehose. Every time you start reading something, even if you’re just saving it for later, click the Reading bookmarklet. If someone follows you on Reading, it’s safe to assume that they want to see everything that interests you. For discussion within the Reading.am community, it has the “yep” and “nope” buttons, as well as threaded comments.
But your friend and news communities are probably only interested in links you finished reading and found particularly interesting. That requires deliberate, intentional sharing, ideally with a comment or money quote that explains why you think the link is relevant. I post interesting links to Facebook and/or Twitter depending on whether I want to discuss it with my friend community or news community respectively.
Here I would like to interject a prayer: Please don’t use email for sharing links anymore unless you know that’s the recipient’s preference. Email is designed for communication. We usually deal with it using specialized communication tools. It’s not a good place to read articles, and it’s an especially bad place to discuss things, because conversations there can’t be left or muted.
If you’re sharing privately, use Facebook messages instead of email. My recommendation for publicly sharing articles on Facebook is to post the link with a comment to get the conversation started. If you need to draw particular people’s attention to the link, tag them in a comment after you post. Then they’ll get a notification, but the link won’t be posted to their Timeline. Posting a link directly to someone’s Timeline is a conspicuous action; it means you want to make this link a part of their life story in front of the community. That’s a fine thing to do carefully, but it’s usually not the best way to ask for someone’s attention.
That’s about it for sharing for most people. If you’re a serious curator, and you want a place to post interesting links with your own comments or reflections on them, that’s a great reason to start a blog. But otherwise, it’s best to have the conversation where the people are, on your social network of choice.
After all the reading and sharing is done, my last step is to archive the links. I never want to have to say “Arrrrgh! What was that cool thing I read last week!?” … or even “last year!?” Thanks to my archival system, whenever something I once read online is relevant to a conversation, it only takes me a few seconds to pull it up on any device.
Pinboard is where I want everything to end up. Reading.am has a Pinboard hook built in, so every link I send there gets automatically bookmarked on Pinboard and tagged ‘Reading.am.’ I pay a small annual fee to Pinboard for an archival account, so Pinboard caches all my saved links forever, even if they disappear from the web. This satisfies my inner librarian.
As I wrote in the first Reading Guide, I used to use Evernote for this, keeping copies of my clipped articles locally on all my devices. But the Evernote clipper wasn’t very good. It was bad at surfacing the URLs of the pages, it didn’t handle author and date metadata well, and those were just the beginnings of my woes with Evernote. I eventually cancelled my subscription and moved out of Evernote entirely, which could be the subject of another long, nerdy blog post.
So now Pinboard is where my links live. Since most of what I bookmark is reading material, most of my Pinboard bookmarking is automated from Reading.am, and I occasionally use the Pinboard bookmarklet to save links that aren’t reading. I have a small number of topical tags in Pinboard for when links are relevant to some interest of mine, like ‘tech,’ ‘music,’ ‘recipes,’ and so on. If I want to save something I read into one of those categories, I find the bookmark that was automatically generated by Reading.am, and I just add the tag, so it’s grouped properly.
If I want to delve back into my reading history, I go straight to the ‘Reading.am’ tag in Pinboard. It’s faster and easier to get to than the history on Reading.am itself. But I also have a great shortcut, especially while I’m using Twitter. Since I pump out all my Reading links to @AblazeReads, I can scroll back in that timeline from within my Twitter app to find recent links, too.
So that’s how and why I read online. I know it made for a lot of reading in and of itself. Hey, the Internet is the greatest resource in the history of human knowledge. Might as well get good at it, right?