I knew Mat Morrison and I were the same kind of nerd the first time I had a beer with him: we talked about how we organized our Google Reader subscriptions.
If you're not that kind of nerd, that might strike you as a short conversation. You'd be wrong. My Web browsing has a serious bent towards taxonomy. You never know when you'll need to refer someone to an important aviation or sustainable pottery or moustache maintenance blog. One of these days you might have a hankering to sit down and read RAND Corp white papers. I'll be perfectly prepared for all of those scenarios, and you'll come crying to me. In theory.
The consequence of constantly adding subscriptions is that I have a teeming horde of RSS subscriptions in my Google Reader and I never get to a point where everything's read. We read to learn and to sate our curiosity, but a considerable part of reading is the accomplishment of it. Finish a newspaper, or get to the last page of a novel - and you've done something. An RSS reader with hundreds of subscriptions in it stops acting like a newspaper and starts acting like an encyclopaedia, a useful resource that you'll never see the end of.
In addition to losing that satisfying end point, my Reader had started to become an inefficient time sink on a meta level above even just reading it - the very organization of my subscriptions takes time. By choosing to organize my RSS subscriptions by topic, I've involved myself in a never-ending taxonomy exercise. Is Garfield Minus Garfield a Webcomic or a picture blog? File Gawker in the "New York" folder or start a new - and potentially emasculating - "Gossip" folder? Every new subscription comes with its own classification dilemma.
When Mat and I were first talking about this, he pointed me to a post he had written that explained his RSS organization system. Borrowing from 43 Folders' Matt Wood, he organized his Google Reader folders not by topic, but by the context in which he read them.
So instead of folders like mine ("Football", "Tech news", "London") Matt suggests folders that correspond to how you read: "News", "Can't Miss", "Skip 'Em", etc.
It made instant sense to me, and I spent a few hours that week reorganizing my bookmarks. Now, eight or so months later, spent a few hours over the last few days re-taxonomizing my folders. I gave up.
Matt's is an elegant system that dispenses with Website taxonomy and gives you a built-in triage system, restoring that recycle-the-newspaper feeling of accomplishment when you read through a high-priority folder. But I am not an elegant system, it seems.
Website taxonomy was a waste of time, perhaps, but I loved it. When I would describe the contextual system to people, I would often ask, rhetorically, "Who sits down and says, it's time to read about economics or sports?" This was the newspaper model in practice: the RSS reader is a newspaper you edit yourself, populated with a huge variety of topics.
Over the last few months, I learned that I was the answer to the rhetorical question. I do sit down with an intent to read one particular subject - games, politics, what have you. When I sit down to go through MP3 blogs I do just that and nothing else. The RSS reader isn't a newspaper for me: it's a magazine rack, filled with specialty niche magazines that I read one at a time. I'm not the promiscuous reader that I imagine Matt Wood is.
So while I've learned to love my need to classify the Web, all my old problems of my old system return. I'll just file it under "Cognitive surplus" for now.