“Surfing” is entirely the wrong metaphor for how I use the internet. I suppose there are some times that I’m joyfully skimming along the surface of waves that rumble ashore and flow back to the sea, like when I’m browsing pictures on Flickr or going through my morning funnies at GoComics. But it’s unusual that I skip through the surf without plunging into some depth that leads to a tangle of undersea caves.
I’m much more a spelunker, moving slowly and deliberately through dark tunnels looking for shiny stones and flecks of precious minerals. At the end of a long journey, I’ll often have half a dozen or more browser tabs open–right now, I’ve got an essay about imagination by Tim O’Brien, a site about getting your shit together, the beautiful bound short stories from Madras Press, and an article about graphic novels by Elif Batuman waiting for my attention. And these obviously aren’t things that merit a cheery “LOL” before chucking them back into the sea–these are things that I want desperately to put in my pocket so they can continue to enrich me.
For almost four years, I’ve been using Instapaper as my pocket in the cloud. It’s a bit like a bag of holding, always expanding to accommodate more and more and more bits of treasure. But if you go looking for something specific in that bag, o woe unto thee: you can lose far more time searching through all those things you said you’d “read later” than it would take you just to turn to Google.
I know that clutter is one of my core weaknesses, and I’ve been trying to conquer it–I’ve successfully beaten back physical entropy in the kitchen, dining room, and living room since the New Year. Fighting virtual clutter holds out just as much promise for efficiency, clarity, and happiness. To that end, I’ve pared back my Facebook news feed–only people I actually care to hear from show up now, and all of those annoying quote memes and right-wing rants from people I kind of knew in high school have disappeared, leaving only the people I like and admire. And I’ve been filtering Twitter with lists, and unsubscribing from redundant or unuseful or stressful RSS feeds (though I’ve kept them on the back burner just in case: the Mother Jones feed had been annoying me at the end of November as just another source of unedifying news about Republican obstructionism, and then the Newtown horror struck and they became the go-to source for deep and reliable information about gun violence).
Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits has the sort of simplicity and discipline to which I aspire and which I know I’ll never achieve, so I was struck by this article about online uncluttering. I’ve put a lot of the suggestions into practice–getting rid of unnecessary social network detritus, trim back the news feeds–and additionally added the LeechBlock add-in to keep myself honest about time spent at Google Reader and Facebook. But one of the tips–”Clear your [Instapaper] queue out weekly”–was proving difficult because of how much I use Instapaper, and for how long. I had more than 20 pages of links in my “read later” folder.
But after two days of going through things I’ve saved since the start of 2009, I’m finally at a point where I can empty my Bag of Holding on Monday while also keeping a few things around longer term without adding too much to the clutter.
The first thing I did was go through my “read later” folder link by link, doing one of two things: archiving if it was something that I didn’t need anymore, or moving it to a categorized folder if I still needed it for a little while. I found that there were a handful of categories that warranted folders:
- Books: if I stumble upon or hear about a book I want to read, I add a link to its library or B&N or publisher page. Unfortunately, buzz for books often starts up months before they’re available, so I may add a link in January for a book that’s not available until March. For some books I’ll grab the Nook “free sample” instead–for a collection of stories by a writer I haven’t read, for example, so I can get a feel for their voice–but that can lead to quite a bit of clutter on the Nook instead (I probably have a couple dozen “free samples” floating around my Nook library).
- Music: when I hear something interesting on the radio, or stumble across an album on eMusic after my monthly budget is blown, I’ll toss it into this folder. Since the St. Paul Public Library offers three free MP3 downloads each week to cardholders via Freegal, this is a good list to check each Monday to get ideas for my weekly songs.
- Video: I’m not much of a video watcher–I haven’t watched TV for years, rarely use Netflix, avoid YouTube and Vimeo–but occasionally I’ll get a recommendation from some site that I like (Steve Himmer and Andrew Sullivan often suggest good short items); I throw those into this folder and watch when I get a chance.
- Kerouac: I really do intend to update the Hey Jack Kerouac site again; cleaning up the things I’ve saved might help me get there. In the meantime, this folder holds the useful and interesting Kerouac things I find.
- Stories: lots of Clarkesworld and Fictionaut stories, and things from other journals and sources, go here–fiction that I want to read when I have time and space after emerging from the mines.
Instapaper offers a bookmarklet for each folder, so I can easily put things directly into the right spot, or toss them into the “read later” pile and deal with them later. The rest–the more ephemeral, uncategorizable, interesting things that I pick up from the trail–go into the default “Read Later” folder. These are the things that I can purge with a lot less worry, things that I’ll likely share here on a daily or weekly basis. (A lot of what I’ve linked to yesterday and today was a result of this purge: some quite old things made it into the list, but they were things that I think are still valuable and interesting and that I wanted to pass along before discarding.)
I’m sure that a true unclutterer would look at the list above and label it all as “junk drawer” crap: there’s no reason to keep so much “when I have time” stuff, because either I’ll never have the time or I should be making the effort to change my life so that I do have the time. But I’m taking baby steps, imposing some discipline as I trim back the fat and allocate my findings with a little more thought. It’s like going into the labyrinth with the utility vest I take hiking instead of just my trouser pockets: I’ll probably still come back with junk that I don’t need, but at least I’ll know which pocket holds that junk.