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Current Awareness, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the “Mark All As Read” Button

This post is part of 23 Things for Professional Development.

This week’s Thing is actually 3 things, all to do with current awareness – Twitter, RSS feeds and Pushnote. The first two I already use extensively, but the third I’ve never heard of. I’m therefore going to start by talking a bit about how I use Twitter and RSS feeds, and how I could make better use of them. I’ve decided to give Pushnote a miss, as it doesn’t work in Internet Explorer, which is what I’m limited to at work. I could still probably use it at home, but to be honest I don’t find the product itself compelling enough to want to spend my already limited free time on it.

Twitter

Twitter birds via Icon FinderI’ve been on Twitter since early 2009. I joined because I’d been reading Phil Bradley’s blog and he was posting what at the time seemed like endless posts about how great Twitter was and how much he was getting out of it, so I thought I’d give it a try. Like many people, I went through phases of “what is this for again..?”, abandoned it, picked it up again, and through a bit of trial and error found a way to make it work for me. I think it really started being useful when I was following more than 50 people, so if you’ve just joined Twitter, I’d advise poking around to find some good people to follow. Twitter is all about conversations, so you’ll get more out of it by connecting with more people.

That being said, now that I’m following more than 500 people it does get harder to keep up with everything! My main methods for avoiding information overload when it comes to Twitter are really about attitude rather than any specific techniques or tools. First, I’ve had to train myself out of feeling obliged to read every single tweet that pops up in my stream. I see a lot of people who are new to Twitter saying that they couldn’t possibly follow more people because then it takes too long to scroll down and read all their tweets. I get this, and it is how I used to think of Twitter, but I think it’s a mistake. You really need to treat Twitter as what it is: a conversation. If you walk into a crowded party, where everyone’s been there for a few hours already and there are dozens of conversations going on at once, do you go around asking everyone to recap everything they’ve said before you got there? Of course not – you just jump in, or start a new conversation, and trust that if something major happened before you got there someone will catch you up on it at some point. This is much how I think of Twitter – it’s a river of information, that you dip into as and when you can. Trying to read ALL the tweets is to miss the point – Twitter is ephemeral, it’s all about real-time information.

My second attitude shift has been to learn to be selective about who I follow. I try to follow back as many people as I can, as the value in Twitter comes from having a good network, but I don’t want to follow so many people that the ones who tweet loads drown out those who don’t tweet as much. These are, roughly, the criteria I use to decide whether or not to follow someone back:

I follow back if:

  • we’re already following a few of the same people – indicates we probably have interests in common, and we’ll be able to see more of each others’ conversations;
  • they’ve got an informative, witty or entertaining bio. A link in the profile also helps, e.g. to a fuller profile or their blog; or
  • their tweets are about something I’m interested in.

I don’t follow back if:

  • they’ve got nothing in their bio, haven’t tweeted, and/or their face is an egg. Basically, if there’s nothing that would tell me about who they are;
  • they’re profile is set to private (unless it’s very clear from their bio who they are and what they’re likely to tweet about);
  • they’ve tweeted nothing but links – I like to see a little bit of content they’ve written themselves, even if it’s just commenting on the links; or
  • I can’t see anything in their bio or recent tweets that looks like we’ve got interests in common. Not that I want to limit myself to following all the same types of people, but if they’re only tweeting about subjects I have no interest in, then I probably won’t get much out of following them!

Those are really just the snap judgments I make when I get a notification that someone has followed me. Obviously they’re not perfect, and I do sometimes come back and follow people later on – e.g. if I see their name popping up in conversations between people I’m already following, or if they @reply to me. I always try to follow people who are talking to me – I think it’s a bit rude not to! Although, I have only found out recently that if your account is private and you @ someone who isn’t following you, they don’t see it. So if your tweets are protected, and you’ve messaged me and I haven’t replied or followed back, I’m not ignoring you – I just haven’t seen your tweet!

Ned Potter has written some great guidelines about what to do when you first join Twitter that fit with a lot of my own criteria above, so if you’re new to Twitter I’d recommend reading these. Much of it is stuff I got totally wrong when I first joined!

RSS feeds

RSS icon via Icon FinderI am an RSS feed junkie. I started using Google Reader in 2008, shortly after starting library school, and I honestly don’t know what I’d do without it. I currently subscribe to 158 feeds, mostly LIS related. I usually read my feeds on my phone while on the train to and from work, and sometimes during my lunch break too. I use the NewsRob android app on my phone – this lets me read my feeds while offline, and also gives me most of the functionality of Google Reader, e.g. sharing, liking and adding notes.

RSS feeds are an invaluable tool for me, but once again it can get difficult to read everything with the amount of feeds I follow, particularly as some of them are very high volume! I weed my feeds regularly, using the “trends” function in GReader to find any “dead” feeds, and see which ones I’m not reading as often, and remove them. I also add new feeds pretty often – usually after I’ve followed a link in Twitter to a new blog that looks interesting – so the actual number I’m following stays pretty static.

The main technique I’ve learned to keep information overload at bay is similar to my attitude shift with Twitter – I’ve just had to teach myself not to read absolutely everything. It was harder to do this with Google Reader than with Twitter. Twitter is ephemeral by its nature, so it’s easier to learn to ignore when necessary. RSS feeds on the other hand give you big chunks of text (or video, or images, or whatever) that just sit there until you’ve read them, so it does feel like more of an obligation to read them all. I used to be somewhat allergic to the “mark all as read” button – I hated the thought that I might miss something, so my feeds just kept piling up until I’d read them.

I’m not sure exactly when the shift came, but now “mark all as read” is my best friend (and the “unsubscribe” button is a close second!). I used to have hundreds of unread items in my reader, and even more starred items that I’d fully intended to come back to, but never did because I was too busy trying to read all the new stuff. Now, I rarely finish a day with more than a couple of unread items, often there’s none, and I am slowly but surely getting my starred items under control too. I still have a few blogs that I will always read every post from (thewikiman, Bethan’s Information Professional blog and Undaimonia all spring to mind), but generally I scan through the titles of new items, read the ones that look interesting, and mark the rest as read. I trust my network to bring any other interesting or important stuff I’ve missed to my attention – if something is really unmissable, it’ll pop up on Twitter at some point!

I also use Google Reader to share interesting stuff I’ve come across. You can see all my shared items here, and you can choose to follow me if you use Google Reader. If not, all of my shared items get posted automatically to Twitter using the Reader2Twitter application, so if you’re following me then you probably already see most of them. I like being able to share stuff directly to Twitter like that – it reaches a broader audience, and judging by the number of @replies and retweets my shared stuff gets I think people generally find them interesting.

So those are my current awareness techniques! What do you think – am I missing anything? Does the “dip in and out and ignore the rest” technique work for anyone else?

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34 comments on “Current Awareness, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the “Mark All As Read” Button

  1. Great post. The follow/not-follow advice for Twitter is particularly useful.

    I’ve had the same work-related issues with Pushnote so haven’t really got into it. Google Reader seems to do much the same thing in terms of sharing content.

    • Yeah, have seen a lot of people say the same – lots of us stuck on IE! Plus, the feedback I’ve seen from people who have managed to try out Pushnote is uninspiring to say the least, so I don’t think we’re missing out on much really.

      • Totally agree! I’ve played around with it a bit at home but can’t really get into the swing of it. I’m not sure I’m going to miss not using it to be honest.

  2. This is all excellent advice in my opinion. Especially the part about learning to dip in and out of Twitter rather than attempt to keep up with everything.

    I liked your river of info analogy too, it made me think about how it’s much better (for me) to occasionally gently float WITH the Twitter stream current rather than to frantically paddle AGAINST the flow all the time. Much more relaxing that way. That said I’ve been using Twitter for a couple of years now so perhaps it’s like a stage of development that some reach after they’ve initially gorged themselves (like I did).

    I can recommend taking extended breaks away from Twitter too. Especially if they involve long holidays overseas in exotic locations! It really put things in perspective.

    • Haha yes, I agree! Recently spent a week in a tent in Wales, with no mobile signal to be had for miles around. Was actually very liberating. Would’ve been nicer to be in some exotic overseas location of course, rather than freezing in a damp tent, but still… :)

      I think you could be right about the completist approach being a phase people need to pass through as they learn how to use Twitter – librarians are mostly completists by nature, so something like Twitter probably goes contrary to how most of us are used to consuming information.

      [Hit post too soon so edited to add the last part of my comment]

  3. I think that you’re exactly right in your approach here. The only thing that I’d add re. Twitter is that I make a lot of use of different lists, so although I follow lots of people, I break them down into nice lists. Brizzly (my preferred client) also allows me to mute people which can also be useful at times.

    I also have thousands of unread items in my GReader, and it doesn’t bother me at all. If something is really important, lots of people will be talking about it, so the sheer volume of posts alerts me to the fact that something is happening.

    I think what we’re doing is Filtering 2.0 because in ‘the old days’ you would choose a resource and read everything in it. (Think newspaper). Now it’s like having a vast array of all the newspapers available and quickly poking through them all, finding the things that are of interest. So I choose widely and read selectively, rather than choose selectively and read widely.

    • So I choose widely and read selectively, rather than choose selectively and read widely

      Yes, this! Excellently put, I may have to steal that at some point ;)

      I do use a couple of lists on Twitter to separate out the feeds I follow for work purposes, but mostly I just scan through the whole feed. I could probably make better use of lists, but I can’t really be bothered to go through all the people I follow and categorise them now!

  4. Hi Laura,

    Great advice, I’ve been wondering how I was going to keep up with the 53 people I am following. Would you believe I actually re-tweeted Ned Potter’s post and did not follow through. Your post spurred me on to add a picture and put something in my bio.

    • Your Twitter bio looks really good now Erica – and it’s great to be able to put a face to the name! I must admit, yours was one of the profiles that I probably wouldn’t have followed back at first, because of the lack of picture or bio, until you tweeted me the other day. Glad to be following you :)

  5. Thank you. I feel honoured that you are.

  6. [...] getting better at hitting the “mark all as read” button beloved by Woodsie Girl (Current awareness: or, How I learned to stop worrying and love the “Mark all as Read” bu…) and managing feeds by sorting them into folders, culling unfruitful feeds. I still have [...]

  7. I, too, am an GReader junkie and when I spend time away from my computer and or phone for awhile, I can amass well over 1000+ things to read.

    The best thing I’ve EVER learned to do is just “mark as read” and move on.

    I’ve learned to organize my feeds in to folders so I know which ones are more critical to read than others.

    • Lol, glad to know I’m not the only one! I should really make better use of folders in Google Reader – I made a half-arsed attempt at organising my feeds into folders a while back, but mostly I just see them in a big long list. Doesn’t really bother me – the app I use only shows me feeds with new items in, so it’s easy enough to scan down the titles and decide which to read first, but using folders might make that process a bit quicker.

  8. Great post. I am also now starting to understand the need for a mark all as read – just having difficulty in actually doing it – my own fault – too scared of missing out on anything :) After reading you post I think I may just need to bite the bullet give it a go.

  9. [...] other people’s thoughts on Twitter, do go have a look Woodsie Girl’s post. She has some excellent advice for coping with Twitter overload, and I especially like her [...]

  10. Great post. The part on RSS feeds was particularly useful for me at the moment – I am trying to make the Mark all as read button my best friend too!
    Jess

  11. [...] all as read.   I was inspired by a great post on Organising Chaos where WoodsieGirl describes the “mark all as read” button as her best friend.  So this [...]

  12. The free service JournalTOCs http://www.journaltocs.ac.uk/ can help you with journal current awareness. JournalTOCs aggregates RSS and makes the process of keeping up-to-date with the contents of scholarly journals simple. If you want, you can use JournalTOCs without knowing anything about RSS, but also if you want, you can use it to find RSS TOC feeds.

    • Good tip, thanks. Must admit I barely read the professional journals, apart from the ones I get in hard copy to my door, so this could be quite a good way of broadening my professional reading.

  13. This is great – I remember when I first joined Twitter you and Bethan and Jo telling me that I didn’t have to read every tweet, just dip in and out, but I just *could not* get my head round it. I think I needed the party anaolgy! That really hits the nail on the head, everyone should be told this at an early age…

    I also needed to be told Phil’s point, when I first got into reading blogs, that if something is really important lots of people will be tweeting it anyway. I hated the idea of missing something great (I still do), but other people will draw your attention to significant stuff, it’s true.

    I actually read more blog posts following links in twitter than I do in Google Reader, mostly of people whose blogs I already subscribe to in Reader… Then I end up just going through Reader marking as read because I’ve seen it online. Probably quite an inefficient system. :)

    (Incredibly flattered to be on your list of blogs you always check, thank you! You are on mine, too – I have an Asbolute Essentials folder with your feed in it..)

    • Aw, thanks dude! Also very flattered :)

      I tend to do that in Google Reader too – often I’ll click on a post, read the first sentence and then realise that I read it earlier by following a link from Twitter!

  14. [...] follow that many people on Twitter – because my stream would overwhelm me.  I know others have come to the conclusion that this is a natural reaction to Twitter at first, especially for a librarian – however, I [...]

  15. [...] randomly through following a link on a Twitter post. I empathised with her post entitled: ‘Current Awareness, Or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the “Mark all as Read” bu…‘. It took me a while to feel it was ok not to read everything in my blog feeds. I still feel [...]

  16. I think yours is one of the sanest approaches to current awareness I’ve read. Although I stopped trying to read my entire Twitter stream some time ago, the party analogy is a useful one. However, it can be a little awkward for an introvert like me to figure out how to jump into the conversation. I am doing much better at this now, but I still find Twitter overwhelming more often than not. “Mark all as read” is becoming my best friend as well, and cpd23 has helped me decide to pull the plug on some of the more prolific blogs I could never keep up with. I’m working on getting my feeds to a point at which I actually use my time to read the interesting posts instead of wasting it on bringing the unread count down.

    • As a fellow introvert, I understand exactly what you mean! However, I actually think Twitter is a real gift for introverts. It’s so much easier to type a message and send it out into the ether than it is to approach someone in person – and it’s much easier to deal with a tweet being ignored/forgotten that it would be if a person you’d just approached turned round and blanked you!

      The only real advice I can give for how to get involved in the conversation is just to jump in and go for it. I’ve never known anyone on Twitter get upset at someone jumping in on another conversation, that’s just how it happens, so don’t worry about interrupting uninvited!

  17. [...] much use of the ‘like’ or ‘share’ features though, like Laura, I have also learned to love the ‘mark all as read’ button.  I’m hoping that through this programme I’ll pick up a few more blogs to [...]

  18. I feel the weight of obligation-to-read-all lift off my shoulders :) This really is THE post I needed to read today, (so thanks to Cat Taylor’s blog for sending me to you)
    I protect my tweets, and hadn’t realised my @replies to people I follow (but who don’t follow me) wouldn’t be seen…duh! Makes sense now though.

  19. thanks for the tip about “trends function in GReader “.
    Have you ever not been able to “unsubscribe” from a feed? I have a couple that just keep coming back- weird!

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