Creating ways to digest online content

September 13, 2011

culture / design

One of the defining things about the experience of reading online is that it is completely impossible to read everything, or even everything that would be interesting to any specific person. This has caused profound disagreements among people who try to understand our culture, from the ones who tell us the internet is making us stupid, to the ones telling us it is reducing our attention spans, to the others telling us that it is changing our minds no differently than any other medium before it.

This fact is also causing profound attempts from some of the best designers (and also fascinating companies) in the world to think about how to design reading experiences in the digital age. These attempts are trying to wrestle with the vast amounts of interesting information available to us, as well as innovations in product design, interface design, and technology around the ways we read content.

I’m fascinated by all of these things. I’m a designer, of course, and hope to be involved in some of these attempts to shape the reading experiences we have. I’m also a person who loves to read, and hope to experience the things we shape. I love to read intensely into subjects I’m passionate about, and have no interest in losing that part of my life. But I’m also a deeply curious person, and I love to learn about all kinds of things whether I’m qualified to do so or not.

As designers, one of the initial things we need to do when we try to design things is figure out what problem we’re trying to solve. If we don’t know what the problem is, we need to stop designing until we do. With reading in the digital age, there are likely enough problems to keep us all busy for decades, or to overwhelm us into not doing anything. These problems will at times have solutions that attempt to solve several of the problems at once, or that only attempt to solve one of them, and both courses of action are necessary.

How do we digest the content available to us online?

At the moment I want to look at one of the problems: how, as readers and people who want to know things, to digest the content available to us online. For most of my life (aside from some awkward years growing up), I’ve been given and have developed a curiosity and willingness to try to learn things, and this only increased when I got the chance to spend most of my teen years growing up with the web. The two things fed each other, but they also focused each other. In a very literal sense, my life would be nothing like it is without the web and my experiences with it.

Partly because of this, I have a way that works for me to digest the insane amount of content that is available and interesting to me, and I think it has something to offer to this problem in a broad sense. This, then, is the goal I’ve learned to use and encourage others to use:

Find something(s) that you care deeply about. Read deeply into those things. Branch beyond them by following the trails led for you by people you trust.

Here’s how it has worked for me.

Find something(s) you care deeply about.

As you know, I care deeply about spirituality and theology, and specifically the kingdom of God as Jesus defined it, lived it, and invited us into it. This means a number of disciplines (ecclesiology, missiology) and practices (of creating a life rooted in that kingdom) are very important to me.

I also care deeply about design, or “how things work” in addition to how they look and feel, as Steve Jobs has defined it, and specifically design on the web. This means that the code and disciplines (web standards, interaction design, typography, user experience, etc.) that create good websites are very important to me.

And finally, I care deeply about justice in the world, or “what love looks like in public” as Cornel West has defined it. Again, this means that the struggles for and against justice that occur among the oppressed, the oppressors, and everyone in between are deeply important to me.

Of course I think these things are worthwhile passions, and I love to share them with anyone who will listen, but at the moment I’m suggesting that everyone can find the things that they care deeply about, and this is no less important now than it was in the age of books made of paper, and I think those who suggest that it is have failed to understand the internet, and failed to understand human nature.

Read deeply into those things.

The three things I mention have defined my life in a very real sense. Each one feeds into and is fed by the others, and together they shape the things I try to do and the person I try to be. While it has also happened in relation to offline content in books and things, I have learned to read deeply into each of these things online.

Certainly I don’t read everything written about these things, as this is impossible, but I’ve developed relationships of trust (sometimes just me trusting these folks, but often mutual trust) with people in each of these areas who have deep things to say, and they help fill my mind and my heart each day. I’m a better person, I think, and also better at the things I do because of this.

This can be true of anything that anyone cares deeply about, and that’s the beauty of the web and the ways it shapes us. Whatever the things that people are passionate about have the potential to shape the ways they read and use content online. This, again, is part of human nature and is not unique to the web, though the amount of stuff certainly is. But it is one of our core tasks, as designers of reading spaces, to create opportunities for people to experience these things deeply.

Branch beyond them by following the trails led for you by people you trust.

This is the part of my goal that is most unique to the web. Few people with things to say online are only interested in one thing. They usually talk about a number of things, and there is literally no end to the trails down which the ones you trust can lead you. This is the way that the web broadens our worlds. It should never cause us to leave our physical, embodied spaces behind, but it can always make the ways we live in those spaces different by helping us see what else is out there.

There is not necessarily any need for these trails to become things we’re equally passionate about. But maybe they will, and maybe we will find other people we want to trust on those trails. I wasn’t always passionate about Africa, but it has become a thing that drives me, and leads me to people I love and trust, because of the web. On the other hand, I don’t understand quantum physics and am not particularly passionate about it, but I will often read things about it because people I trust link to them, and I find it fascinating.

I think creating these experiences is also one of our core tasks as designers of reading spaces. It doesn’t have to be contradictory to helping people read deeply. Rather, the combination can give such work structure and ways to evaluate it.

Putting it together again

As I said, the goal I’m looking at is this: Find something(s) that you care deeply about. Read deeply into those things. Branch beyond them by following the trails led for you by people you trust.

There are tools (especially Twitter, Google Reader, Readability, Instapaper, and some others) that help people to do these things, but it’s only beginning. If I am able to contribute anything to the evolution of reading online, my hope is that it will be in designing things that help others to adopt this for themselves as I have, and see where it can lead them.