How to Internet: Dividing Attention

There’s a huge cornucopia of stuff on the internet, far more than even the most adept writer could hope to survey with even a full book on the topic. My goal is not to tell you what to pay attention to. Rather, I hope to give you some interesting places to start and some guideline with which to find others.

In the spirit of covering everything, I think the first thing on the current internet that one must be aware of is 4chan’s /b/. /b/ (never safe for work) is a profane, juvenile and largely distasteful part of the internet. But it’s also the home of its roiling subconscious mind, and so the font of much of its native creativity. LOLCats started on /b/ as did just about a million other memes that you may or may not have heard of. I recommend one remain aware of /b/, but frequenting is probably bad for your health.

A step toward where we might like to spend time is reddit, a community that constantly makes reference to itself as the bridge between /b/ (where internet memes are born) and Facebook (where memes go to either become overused or misunderstood). I check reddit at least once a day, and it’s always good for some lulz (a variant of LOL, usually used to connote enjoyment, satisfaction, or fun). It’s not the place you should go looking for high quality analysis of recent events or to get an education, but it’s always fun and sometimes educational.

Some other less-well-known but very solid personal favorites:

  • Waxy.org Links — Andy Baio occasionally writes longer articles of quality that are worth following, but it’s his odd little link blog that really makes an impression and offers a view of the things Baio likes that are newly popular on the internet.
  • kottke.org — Jason Kottke has one of the longest-active and most popular link blogs on the Internet. His coinage of “Liberal Arts 2.0” makes a pretty good story for what I see as the core of interneting. (Jason’s also building a meta-social-media site called Stellar–currently a closed beta–whose Interesting aggregator constantly churns up interesting and pleasant diversions you don’t need to be a member to see.)
  • Metafilter — Metafilter is probably the most widely praised and cited internet community. The main blog is posted by members of the community, the only barrier to posting is the one-time five dollar registration fee. And yet, if you’re willing to deal with the volume, there are few places that will give you a better view of what was recently popular or noteworthy on the internet. Also of note is AskMetafilter, a subset of the site dedicated purely to asking and answering questions. (If you’re volume sensitive, I recommend the Popular Favorites view.)
  • The Lone Gunman — I thought about not including this on the grounds that self-referencing is even less acceptable on the internet than it is off. But then I decided that I’m just a guest here, and so it’s not really self-pimping. When Lloyd’s here, his stuff is regularly interesting and thought-provoking, and not really as internet-culture-y as much that I’ve cited above.
  • Wehr in the World — Justin Wehr’s blog is probably less about internet culture than Lloyd’s is, but it showcases a type of confident curiosity that I very much like. His blog is the single strongest recommendation I would have for fans of Lone Gunman.
  • The Browser — Further still down the road from the internet-culture that emanates from /b/ is The Browser, my personal favorite source for mostly old-media articles that are interesting and available on the internet. Among wide swath of sites that try to do this on the internet, I like The Browser best for its brief but opinionated and informative summaries of the content it links to. More people who are trying to emulate its mission need to learn the value of this.

These personal recommendations are a place for you to start to pay attention to the internet. They’re not going to be all you’ll ever want to pay attention to, or all that’s worth paying attention to, but they’re more useful than nothing. Even if you hate them all, you now know six websites you don’t need to spend your attention on.

One of the first rules of the internet is that you only need to follow what you like. There’s so much stuff on this world wide web that paying attention to stuff that doesn’t excite or challenge you is just plain stupid. (To be clear, I don’t mean like in the sense that internet critics frequently take it of “this is in complete accordance with my worldview”, but rather in the sense of “I feel this is worthy of my attention”. The best political writers, for example, are those with whom you disagree but share enough that you can grok their perspective.)

The second rule in paying attention on the internet is to follow and unfollow promiscuously. Don’t be afraid to offer your attention to something that looks interesting, and never be afraid to take it back. As I said, there’s no point following what you don’t like. But because following publications and people is so cheap on the internet, it’s also worth it to learn not to be afraid to try something that you suspect you might like.

These two rules paired together are the best advice I can give about how you should actually divide your attention on the internet. Tomorrow, we’ll make it easier to do that dividing, and reduce the time you need to spend to pay attention.

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