Questioning Content Consumption

Given a recent expansion / explosion of free time, the ever-increasing number of Netflix shows / podcasts / general media out there, and my lifelong struggle to climb mount tsundoku, I’ve been thinking a lot about content consumption lately, especially in relation to the act of writing / producing and as the realities of age (and limited time) continue to set in.

Given all the recent high profile investment taking place in the media and entertainment industries, and the ever-increasing need for subscriber counts and other KPIs to justify lofty (if not atmosphere-exiting) valuations, it increasingly feels like there’s a war going on for your attention – for your time – and if one doesn’t play an active role in this fight, one will succumb to choosing whatever’s available (or chosen for you) on Netflix / Spotify / Kindle Unlimited, as opposed to activating your personal, internal discerning critic to dictate the entertainment / education / diversion you want to consume in your precious time. This may sound simple or obvious, but for me this is a reality that’s very much still setting in – the need to be intentional and fairly selecting in your consumption.

VC, blogger, and constant inspiration Fred Wilson responded to an interesting user-submitted question several weeks ago related to his own content consumption, and how he manages to balance a “busy job with significant content consumption and some healthy time off.” Fred responded that rather than having any systemized curriculum or ruleset, he lets his routine, friends, and curiosity dictate his consumption. He uses the impetus of writing a daily blog (one with a loyal readership, no less), and the need to write, reflect, and share interesting and relevant content with his audience as a major driver of his consumption.

In addition, he points to a network of friends that are constantly sharing interesting news and content that they find around the internet with one another. The primarily commonality among these friends is not domain expertise (in Fred’s case, venture capital or technology), but rather curiosity and a wide breadth of interests. As someone who strives to reflect these qualities, this resonated with me. While I’m sometimes shamed for my propensity to share links “of interest” to a deliberately selected group of friends via email chain, I do enjoy the digital “salon” that sometimes evolves from the link, as well as the odd-reciprocal link or article sent back in exchange. It is truly interesting how much stuff on the internet can slip through your grasp if you’re not on social media and/or plugged into the various corners, cubbies, and sewers of the internet.

Related to this, Fred closes his response with what he deems to be his “most important” filter for consumption – now allowing technology to dictate the type of content to consume. Considering today’s prevalence of recommendation algorithms and Amazon’s scary-if-not-sometimes-hilarious correlations in your purchase history, this is nearly impossible as an overarching rule, but I do agree that the more you can manage the internet’s view-hungry apps and sites from running your life (last week’s NYTimes Magazine piece on the tiny red dots that run our lives was a helpful/scary reminder), the better.

As I write this post, I definitely feel like Fred’s post was a helpful reminder in some ways, and a wake up call in others, that prioritizing the content that you consume is very important and helps avoid wasting too much time or adding too much superfluous information to our already-crowded heads. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve slowed my reading down to make it through a particularly arduous book, or finished a movie that I was already “out” on, just for the sake of completion / conclusion. I know the different between reading an engaging, can’t-put-down, want to highlight/write in book and a book that’s an absolute pain to slog through, yet I feel like I don’t internalize this enough, or actively ask myself how this book is serving me and whether continuing it will continue to serve me. Removing this “tyranny of completion” is a continued struggle, but something that’s always helpful to identify and absorb whenever possible – after all, it’s my time.

One of the things that I’m grudgingly accepting in my adoption of the Kindle Paperwhite is its impact on my ability to truly discern what interests me and how I want to spending my reading time, and then attribute a truly non-meaningful amount of money behind it (often <$15 for most books, which comes down to less than $3/hour if you average a book’s completion time at 5 hours, a fairly conservation estimate.) In some ways, this has been counterintuitive and surprising to me. While I enjoy the sight of a room filled with books (curated by yourself or others, as recounted by the FT this weekend), I definitely have a familiar feeling of oppression returning to my bookshelf – books left purchased and unread, or books that were started and left to be finished, one day.

In comparison to this, the Kindle and Kindle Store experience has felt liberating. Don’t like a book that you’re reading? Well, you’re only 20% in, so you better stop now. Even more psychologically liberating is the ability to remove the book itself from your “library” (as opposed to the near-sacreligious, if not painful act of throwing away / donating books), and thereby removing any pangs of guilt associated with not reading it. After all, there’s a nearly-unlimited (sorry, Amazon) amount of books out there that are interesting and engaging and left to be read – no use slogging through a book that you’ll never have to explain to curious / nosy house guests.

I’m not sure if I’ve reached any concrete takeaways or conclusions as a result of this post, but do see it as a helpful reminder that our time on this Earth is limited, and there’s no reason to take on shitty content or hold off on the good stuff for a later date (when I shamefully admitted that I was holding off on reading Proust, Tolstoy, or even Gravity’s Rainbow to a friend yesterday, he looked at me sideways). Of course, there are always cheat days as well – can’t be helped, and oh, so delicious.

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