Finite steps in infinite feeds: my story with information overload

Hi, I’m Jasdev, and I’m a recovering Twitter ‘completionist.’ I have an unusual relationship with the service. Aside from a handful of mute filters1, I read every single tweet in my timeline. By following ~400 accounts and assuming two tweets a day per account, I read about 800 tweets each day. As a result, I tended to fill emptier moments, like waiting for the subway or passing time when arriving early, with a clockwork routine. Sense boredom, pull out my phone, open Tweetbot, pull to refresh, rinse and repeat. While Twitter excels at real-time content, I realized that my consumption of its feed shouldn’t be. At times, I would feel like a hamster running on a wheel and this struggle of “keeping up” forced me to reevaluate the role various feeds play in my life. I was trying to reach the ‘end’ of an infinite feed with finite steps.

Now, I just check Twitter a few times a day. I still read every tweet, but it feels healthier not to continuously be paying partial attention to everything. I sparked this shift in a few ways: labeling feeds as inboxes or streams, determining the importance of creating and consuming content in each one, reducing inbound sources, saving items to read later (at specific times), and mental noting.

Streams and Inboxes

It’s funny how the subtle labels we use for services affect our relationship with them2. E-mail is typically treated as an inbox, which induces the urge3 to reach “Inbox 0,” or rather, ‘complete it.’ On the other hand, Twitter is generally viewed as a ’stream’ that you dip into from time to time, which makes my ‘completionist’ tendency somewhat rare. Extrapolating a bit, here is how I classify other feeds in my life:

Taking the time to enumerate this classification has been helpful. By explicitly realizing that my usage of services like Instagram is more stream-like, I was able to quell the desire to view every post.

Importance of Creation and Consumption

An implicit assumption we make with feeds is that we have to both read and write (post) to it. However, this conjunction doesn’t always have to be true. After all, we’re the users of these services! Historically, Twitter has been criticized for its inability to convert lurkers into avid Tweeters. However, this can be a blessing in disguise, especially at a personal level. Reversing this, I use Swarm and GitHub as write-only feeds. I’ll checkin and commit, respectively, but rarely browse their feeds. I believe there is an opportunity for a service to use this decoupling to its advantage, as I noted in my previous post, “Nostalgia and Upper Bounds.“

[I]magine if services like Twitter allowed tweets to be posted at any time, and only surfaced the feed during specific, limited hours of the day. That could do wonders in eradicating continuous partial attention.

Filtering and Reading Later

  • Reduce Inbound Information
    • Whether it’s your following or subscription count, the most reliable way to shrink your feed is to reduce the number of inbound sources. Like Dunbar’s Number for social relationships, I think there is an equivalent for each service, based on its atomic unit for content. The tricky part is finding that number. For my usage of Twitter, this limit hovers around 300 accounts5. Beyond that, my timeline escalates from a stream to a firehose. The following technique can help facilitate this filtration process.
  • Saving for Later (at Specific Times)
    • When scrolling through a feed, people commonly defer content to apps like Instapaper, Pocket, or Pinboard for later consumption. The resulting ‘queue,’ when properly managed, can give you a better perspective in assessing the value of specific content. For instance, a common trait amongst posts I archive is time-dependency, causing them to go ‘stale.’ Moreover, to avoid repeating the same mistake of constantly checking this queue, I’ll reserve specific hours in the day to go through it.

Mental Noting

As the number of feeds in our lives scale, it’s important that our consumption patterns evolve in lockstep6. Ultimately, the handling of information overload will have to take place within our heads. This is where mental noting comes in. Common amongst meditators, noting involves recognizing when your attention has been swept away by a thought or feeling, gently labeling it—”oh, that was a thought about yesterday”—and returning to the breath. Applied to social media, this can help catch urges to check feeds and return to the present moment, when you find yourself mindlessly scrolling.

So, the next time you find yourself with an empty moment, urging to press ⌘ + T, typing ‘t’ or ‘f’, and pressing enter, try to be aware. Gently catch yourself. Do you really need the dopamine hit of a few tweets? Probably not. This is how I’ve recovered from information overload. Hopefully, it can help others too.

⇒ “Information Overload’s 2,300-Year-Old History

Andy Puddicombe’s ice cream metaphor for social media on Radio Headspace has stuck with me.

⇒ The infinitude of feeds is why I stay away from dating apps like Tinder. Instead, I prefer alternatives like Coffee Meets Bagel, which emphasize finite feeds spanning multiple days. However, I’m still collecting my thoughts around online dating, but that’s for another post.

  1. Tweetbot’s hallmark feature 

  2. Labels are almost concrete implementations of mental noting

  3. Nathan Bashaw and Will Hoekenga touched on this in a recent episode of the Hardbound Podcast. The link is timestamped and the relevant section ends at 31:47. 

  4. Feed Wrangler for feed management paired with Reeder has worked well for me. 

  5. There is a delicate balance here. Too small of a number could introduce a filter bias. 

  6. Buster Benson noted that the source of this evolution will ultimately need to be internal