I’ve written about my love for the search box before, but in Rob Walker’s latest newsletter, he summed it up better by recalling a conversation we had while he was working on his great forthcoming book, The Art of Noticing:
It started it with some commiseration. “So much of what we spend our time thinking about right now,” Austin observed, “is just stuff that’s been pushed at us.” Agreed! This led to some back and forth about social media. I’m definitely a minimalist when it comes to, say, Twitter. But Austin made this observation:
“I’ve been thinking a lot about the search box versus the feed,” he said. “Let’s take Twitter. When I open it, everybody wants me to think about something.
“What I love to do is, whenever I find out about something that is new to me, like an author I’m not familiar with. I type her name in the search box and I limit the results to people I follow. It’s almost like your own personal search engine filtered by people you respect.”
(This filtering isn’t complicated: Make a standard Twitter search, and to the left you’ll see a box that says “Search Filters.” Choosing to narrow to results from “People you follow” is one of your choices.)
This is a nice practical tip, but also a useful broader lesson: It’s easy to blame the digital world for our distractions, but in part it’s up to us to learn not only when to tune it out, but also how to use it wisely. “The internet it still is so valuable to me,” Austin told me. “But it has to be self-directed.”
Bottom line: Spend less time on the feed, more time on the search box.
In the process of writing this book, I realized that the experience of research is exactly opposite to the way I usually often encounter information online. When you research a subject, you make a series of important decisions, not least what it is you want to research, and you make a commitment to spend time finding information that doesn’t immediately present itself. You seek out different sources that you understand may be biased for various reasons. The very structure of the library… allows for browsing and close attention. Nothing could be more different from the news feed, where these aspects of information—provenance, trustworthiness, or what the hell it’s even about—are neither internally coherent nor subject to my judgment. Instead this information throws itself at me in no particular order, auto-playing videos and grabbing me with headlines. And behind the scenes, it’s me who’s being researched.
More search, less feed.