Wednesday, 10 December 2008

One easy way to be smarter at browsing for information

Did it ever occur to you that you're playing the role of book editor every day? Well, you are. Except it's a virtual book. Our web-browsing sessions are unique, virtual books. Each "virtual book" is a collection of the web pages and posts that we read within a given time frame. This virtual book is more powerful than most books. It is customised to your tastes. You were its editor.

What you should do is:
  1. Protect "exploration mode". Ring-fence exploration mode and do not allow off-topic intrusions such as email or side-links to spoil your virtual book.
  2. At the beginning of the journey, fire up a text editor and ask yourself "what is the topic of my virtual book for the next hour?"
  3. In your text editor, write occasional notes, paste links, ... you are writing the table of contents of this unique virtual book.
  4. Take the same trip again at another time. Being the VBE (virtual book editor, remember?), you are a professional: you know that half of what you read is not well thought-out or credible. Thus, you are aware that to edit a really fine book, you will need to visit it again, dropping the not-so-good content. Those notes you took first time round, they'll come in handy now.
Taming the web browsing phenomenon

Our typical web-browsing experience is haphazard. On pages 1-10 of my virtual book at (say) 08.12.2008 at 7pm, I am reading on financial analysis, then I turn the page to read many pages of email. Some of these pages, I skim quickly, others I rip right out the virtual book, and others I invest in - that email from my sister, for example. Then I start scribbling in the virtual book: I am replying to my sister (the virtual book has blank pages). Then, I turn the page and I am reading a few pages of news. Then, it is back to financial analysis, although now I am much less attentive, so I jump through to a link on the side containing a book review, and so on and on.

We obviously cannot eliminate the disjointed, disconnected nature of our computer activities. Let's call it "responsive mode". "Responsive mode" is our default online mode: a scatterbrain-type mode in which we're doing a dozen things an hour. (By the way, have you noted the irony of being disconnected in the connected universe of the internet?)

A unique, customised virtual book

This virtual book is even more powerful than most books. I made all the decisions on its contents. Imagine if you were holding a book and then as soon as you didn't like where a page was going, you ripped it out. That's what we do online, we skip the post/page.

With a real book, you're stuck with its fixed content. If you're on page 50, you still have pages 51-300 ahead of you, and their structure and content is fixed. The pages of your virtual book are changing dynamically: totally dependent on your priorities and snap judgments.

It is possible that a two-hours burst of web-browsing is equivalent to a small virtual book: about the size of say Machiavelli's The Prince. And unlike The Prince, which you may feel disgusted by and put down right away, your virtual book is responsive to your needs, so you do end up reading all through it.

My virtual book moment

Today, between 6pm and 9pm, I was browsing through some of the RSS feeds to which I subscribe. I followed some interesting posts to their respective blogs and followed links from one article to another, trying to focus on my topic. Because I wanted to read the articles well, I printed them out too.

At the end of this intense browsing session, I found I had used about 300 sheets of paper. The stack of articles could easily have been a book.

That's when I realised that in three hours, I had read, or skimmed through, a book 200-300 pages long.

I realised that the hours I fritter away add up to tomes. I sit infront of my computer everyday and read at least one 'virtual book'. I tend to lessen the weight of stuff I read online - in the sense that, psychologically, I don't feel I have studied and pondered something well enough unless I've read it in print form.

In fact, I do study and ponder online. We all do. We spend bursts of time, every day, being Virtual Book Editor - VBE (you may put that on your business card, and link to my blog while you're at it). We ought to acknowledge this editorial role we carry out when we're reading up on something; give it the respect it deserves.

Questions to readers
  • I am particulary intrigued by the uniqueness of each virtual book. It totally depends on the time frame, our circumstances, the context. You could go on the same journey tomorrow and be editor of a different book. Isn't that interesting? And also troubling?
  • The unit of reading in real books is pages. With virtual books, the unit is paragraphs. Sometimes, just headlines. Do you agree?
  • We flip pages in real books. With virtual books, we follow links. What does this tell us?

  1. A great RSS-feed-to-pdf converter - get your RSS feeds in magazine format.

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zbelljegger said...

I'm surprised no one has commented on this yet (especially considering your exposure on reddit) as it's quite an interesting concept. The thought that I might be reading the equivalent of a fat novel every night simply floored me.

I also realized that I was practicing "responsive mode" reading (which might also be referred to as "interrupt driven" reading, to borrow a PC architecture term) long before the Internet came along. I've always surrounded myself with such a vast array of reading material that if I got bored or fed up with something I could simply set it aside and pick up something else. Or I would take a detour into a reference work for some quick exposition and wind up getting totally sidetracked. I rarely read a book from cover to cover.

I think now though I might attempt - at least some of the time - to give more direction & focus to my nocturnal meanderings, and perhaps author an actual, physical, sellable book in the process.

Twirling, turning life chunks. said...

Thank you for comment, zbelljegger.

"Interrupt-driven" reading is how we live most of our internet time, unfortunately.

I hadn't made the connection between focussed reading and writing a book yourself. But it is a natural extension, and perhaps something that would motivate my post more. ("Exploration mode can help you draft your own book.")

I should mention that someone on reddit commented that "proper" use of stumbleupon should help focus exploration mode. I don't know, because I am not much of a stumbleuponer.

avant said...

superb post.

tools such as delicious, tumblr, friendfeed etc are increasingly enabling your VBE concept.

the interactive nature (commenting, blogging etc) of the reading also elevates the experience over and above regular book reading.