Charlie Don’t Surf…….

…..or, so we were told anyway. Considering what was going on, on the beach at Mekong at the time, it might seem as though Charlie was quite sensible with regards to his surfing habits.

I’ve been pondering a very different type of surfing lately, digital surfing. And although it might seem somewhat frivolous to try and build a point from such a seminal movie snapshot as the one I have referenced here, there is actually something to be said for it.

apocalypse mug

OK, so Colonel Kilgore is commenting on the generic surfing habits of the indigenous population of the Mekong delta, rather than their innate desire to surf or not, today. But if we depart from the fictional imagery just a little we can ask 2 questions that are actually relevant.

Considering how much is going on, on the internet in general, at any one point in time. And considering that the average number of friends someone has on facebook is 234. And considering that the average twitter feed follows between 30 and 50 people. And considering that many now have a presence on Facebook, Twitter, G+, Instagram, Quora, Pinterest etc. And considering that most of these people will also have a personal email and a work email and a smartphone with several content apps (even if they are only news apps) and some form of SMS or messaging tool. And considering that some people actually still visit the open web itself, even if that’s via a reader or heaven forbid just nakedly on a website itself.

Right, so considering all that…

How? How do you do it? How in the world can anyone keep up with all that content?

Getting back to my, somewhat criminal, bastardisation of Apocalypse Now.

Charlie Don’t Surf. Not at all. The best we can say, maybe, is that he’s flapping about in the broken waves on the beach, What he certainly isn’t doing is majestically carving across the surf for his and others pleasure.

Answers that include any automation along the lines of Tweetdeck or the algorithms that charge Google reader for example, are not adequate mitigations I’m afraid.

The one (Tweetdeck) does nothing much to help you read more great content, it just helps you to filter out the dreck according to filters you choose, to which I respond, why are you following the dreck in the first place?

And the same goes for the Google readers of this world. There are a variety of schemes that people set up to prioritise their content feeds, but essentially what we are faced with is some form of automation telling you what you might like to read.

And, whereas that might be mighty useful (and at least one person I know who I hold in high regard, swears by this approach to using Google reader), it’s not really surfing, it’s more like sitting in a dinghy (apologies but temptations to stretch the analogy are too much sometimes).

Charlie don’t surf. He just doesn’t.

That was the simple question of the 2. The harder and more valuable question is this.

If we accept, and I think we should, that someone out there is surfing then how are they doing it?

Why should we accept that premise? Well, because for the web to act as a filtration mechanic, utilising all the data that feeds the various search algorithms and all the data generated by social interactions and the data generated by whatever sharing mechanic you care to mention. For the various mavens and respected bloggers whose advice and admonitions to read this or read that are eagerly followed by the rest of us mere mortals.

For all that, someone, somewhere is reading enough stuff to understand and say, read this, don’t read that.

And I want to know how they do it.

One of my favourite blogs is Confused of Calcutta, written by JP Rangaswami of

JP writes deeply researched, heavily cross linked posts that can take a week to consume (sharing time with my other life obligations) in full, notwithstanding that the comments section will be valuable also and often generates new thoughts via the discourse there.

Now, somewhere on his site I once read that he keeps up with the writing of 300 people. Subsequently that number has become a glittering beacon for me, a target, an aspiration. Definitely an aspiration, because not only do I not keep up with the writings of 300 people, I haven’t yet even identified the 300 people whose writing I want to keep up with, but whose best intentions to inform me I shall surely fail.

And JP also has a job too! A big job.

Another blog that features highly on my list is Ribbonfarm, where you will find Venkat Rao (amongst other places, as far as I can tell he blogs in at least 3 locations). Venkat also writes deep dense and long posts that are full of ideas and often warrant multiple readings which yield subsequent values.

I’m not able to keep up with all the output of either of these guys, so I come back to them on a stop start basis, consuming their content in binges. (A sign of age, I no longer binge drink, I binge read blogs. Doh).

Venkat was the one to start me thinking on this whole topic actually.

Something that he does very well, and that I find particularly useful, is that he reads the huge fat books, often histories, which fill me with dread and fear. The books, in short, that I feel I probably should read, but I don’t. And then he writes blog posts about them. Not trivially either, or as a review. He might typically write up an 8,000 / 10,000 word essay, inspired by a book he’s reading which is also informed and made more valuable by his wider thinking and / or reading of other relevant texts. And, those? Those posts I gobble up greedily.

As I realised that this was an effective proxy, for me, to gain some of the insights and learning from those big scholarly tomes, I also realised that the same might also hold true at different levels.

And so I came up with this, a consumption cascade, each level potentially informing the next, sometimes in one direction, sometimes in the other.

1. The damn big intellectual book (DBIB)

2. The damn big intellectual blog post/essay (DBIBP)

3. The damn big blog post (x8) (DBBP) – other people’s opinions

4. The aggregated big blog post (ABBP) – assimilating other people’s opinions

5. The blog post as perspective (BPAP) – commenting on a part of the DBIBP

6. The blog post as reportage 1st party (BPAR 1) – this happened to me

7. The blog post as reportage 3rd party (BPAR 3) – this happened to her

Some fuzzy observations:

1. Posts at all levels could have been influenced by the damn big book at the top, even if the author has never even heard of it

2. As you go from 1 to 7 it takes less time to write a post, and less time to read it

3. As you go from 1 to 7 the size of the audience increases

4. Sometimes content from the top and content from the bottom comes together to make really valuable content in the middle

And now you are thinking, so what?

Which is a fair question. When I had finished putting it together I realised it was much more useful if you were writing content rather than simply reading it. I enjoyed that realisation as it fits with the observation that today’s reading involves a lot of writing (and vice versa).

From that perspective it has, essentially, sharpened my research habits.

However, because my writing is organic (in as much as I write about what comes at me from my reading) it seems a little OTT to call it research, as it’s mostly reactive not active. Usually when a number of pieces of content (that I am reading) start to converge in an area, that’s when I start to plan a post.

And that struck me. It struck me that that was a little like a filter, a content algorithm, but an organic one that only existed in my head and probably under any deeper examination defies the definition of an algorithm.

So I looked at how I consume content, and what I do with it. Neither of which I had ever deliberately structured.

The single most important tool in my content sorting behaviour is Pocket (formerly Read It later) because it’s the interface most available to me during reading opportunities (my commute for example).

Content goes in, usually from my laptop browser, and some gets read really quickly. The length of the piece is a factor, without a doubt, but so is how interested I am in it. How busy I am is another factor that massively influences how much I get to read, as is whether or not I am currently bitten by a traditional book (less and less these days) and for a small number of writers, who has written it is also important.

But then, over time there are bits of content that have been in the app for a while, and they fall into 2 categories. Stuff that I just don’t want to read, adjudged by it simply getting looked over so often (that eventually gets binned), and stuff that I really really want to read, but are substantial commitments because they are big pieces of writing. Nathan Myhrvold’s 20,000 word memo was one of those. I think it sat in pocket for 3 months before I eventually made an active decision to put aside 2/3 hours one weekend to read it properly.

There is one other behaviour with regards to pocket. As I get to a point where a certain blog post is forming, brewing, I find I might prioritise pieces that are relevant. I use the favourite feature in 2 ways. To remind me what I need to read, and also to mark out certain articles that are to be referenced in a post, or that are to be formative thinking for a post.

But here’s the thing, I’m telling about you these behaviours as observations not as a functional thought out scheme for consumption. I never decided to consume like this, it was an emergent behaviour that fell automatically out of installing the Pocket widget in my browser and on my phone.

It works, for me.

Now, if someone can tell me how JP keeps up with 300 writers I’d be very grateful because, whereas I suspect a big part of it is simply that he’s stunningly clever and reads very fast, and has considerably more efficient cognition, I also suspect that there must be something in his consumption scheme, even if that scheme is as organically derived as mine. And, If I can copy even a small advantage that really would be nice.

3 Comments on “Charlie Don’t Surf…….”

  1. […] stuff I’d have liked to read that has been displaced by newer stuff that seems more important. I have written previously about my consumption process and my sense of awe (envy) for those that lead us intellectually in […]

  2. […] clever to be made stupid by the internet, even if he can’t read those long dense books anymore. As long as someone can still read them, and it is rather instructive that someone is still writing them of course, then the knowledge will […]

  3. […] only because I strongly believe that the effective searchability of content, via search engines or via a surfing schema, and the portability of that content via hyperlinks is the heart of what the web does so well and […]

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