only connect!

Shreeharsh Kelkar has emailed with some questions that I thought it might be interesting to answer here. Here are the first two:

1) Just briefly, how do you decide if something is worthwhile (“clippable”) while browsing the web? Obviously, the easiest is when it relates to a particular project you’re doing. But what about the others which you think may be useful some day but can’t really say? How often do you end up going back to them? Or even better, using them in a project?2) Finally, do you “clip” anything that you think will be relevant at some point in the future or are you more discriminating?

Over the last couple of years I have developed, gradually and not altogether intentionally, a three-stage method of organizing and responding to what I read online. It works like this:1) If I see something long enough and complex enough that I need to read it with care, but don’t have time to read at the moment, I send it to Instapaper. And by the way, Instapaper’s “mobilizer” — its built-in tool for extracting the text from a webpage — provides the ideal way to read anything on the iPhone. It’s now built in to Tweetie — um, Twitter for iPhone, so clicking on links in tweets takes me to the mobilized version rather than the original web page, which means that it loads fast and is easy to read. Brilliant.2) If, having read something, I think I might want to come back to it later, I clip an excerpt and send it to Pinboard. I used to use Delicious for this, and Delicious is still a fine tool, and free, but Pinboard is more elegant. I then use Pinboard’s tag cloud to browse the relevant clippings when I’m working on a particular project.3) But if I know (or think I know) that a particular article or story or blog post is going to be important for something I’m doing, and I can’t take the chance on it disappearing behind a paywall or just plain disappearing, then I convert it to a PDF and send it to my preferred Everything Bucket, Together.By the way, it has become clear to me that I save too much, both to Pinboard and to Together. I go through and purge from time to time, but I would like to develop habits that make me more thoughtfully selective at the point of reading.Here’s a funny thing: in general, I dislike having more apps open at once than absolutely necessary — I like to streamline my workflow, and will even at times use a second-best tool in order to keep things simple. And yet, even though I could bypass Pinboard and keep all my clippings in Together, I don’t. Similarly, I could gather everything in Zotero, but I can’t stand the way Firefox looks. I’m weird that way.Similarly, I could keep all my notes and jottings in Together, but I don’t: I use the brilliant Notational Velocity instead. I am not sure why I violate my own principles here, but I think it’s because I’m keeping tasks that make different cognitive demands on me in different environments: note-jotting in one place, articles that need skimming in another, articles that require serious attention in a third.Here is Shreeharsh’s third question:

3) I use Evernote to make notes while I browse the web and one of the things I find is that while I do clip extracts from web-pages there, when the time comes for me to go back to the article, I often just google the article rather than searching for it on Endnote (I usually remember some keywords from the article). Does this happen to you too?

It does! — and that’s interesting, no? It’s often faster to Google something that to look through the materials I have so painstakingly filed (especially when I’m not sure whether I’ve put something in Pinboard or Together). “Search, don’t sort” is the Gmail motto, and it seems to work here too. But I don’t always remember what I need to remember to do a good Google search; and the sorting and filing itself is cognitively useful, I think — it helps me to organize my thoughts and keep them in good marching order, even when I don’t go back to the materials I’ve collected later.

the right tools

“Use the right tool for the job,” Walter Koehler says in response to this post, where I complain about having to use too many communications applications. That’s great advice for carpentry and auto repair, but I don’t think it’s always applicable to life on our computers. There are a lot of highly specialized software applications out there, and while specialization brings certain benefits, it has significant costs as well. A few years ago, I was using one application to write books, another to prepare class notes, a third for essays, letters, and so forth. Each of them was well-tailored for the jobs I was using it for, but I spent a great deal of time (a) switching between applications and (b) figuring out which tool to use for various projects. That got increasingly frustrating over time. Once I made the decision to write pretty much everything in one app my efficiency and clarity of mind increased dramatically. Whether I’m working on class notes or articles or blog posts or books, I’m in BBEdit — I even write a lot of letters in it, which probably doesn’t look all that professional, but hey, I’m a tenured full professor, what do I care? It’s amazing how much you really can do in plain text files if you put a little of your mind to it. And almost everything that I don’t do in plain text I do in my browser, where I have my email (Gmail), and my personal organization. Which means that I spend about 90% of my time in two applications. This simplifies my life, and that makes me happier. Of course, you can carry all this too far. I’m not going to go the Giles Turnbull route and put my whole life in one big-ass text file — though don’t think I haven’t been tempted — and I’m certainly not going to follow the example of those über-geeks who use Emacs for everything from basic text-editing to web browsing, email, life planning, and taking over the universe. Nor am I going to spend all my life in my browser, as some people do who write in Google Docs and have tricked out Firefox with fifty-seven extensions. But sometimes it makes a lot of sense to give up specialization for simplicity.