How do people deal with the torrent of information pouring down on us all? What sources can't they live without? We regularly reach out to prominent figures in media, entertainment, politics, the arts, and the literary world to hear their answers. This is drawn from a conversation with Rusty Foster, the computer programmer and freelance writer whose "Today In Tabs" email newsletter, a snarky collection of links around the web, is republished daily on Newsweek.
The very first thing is the alarm turns on at 6:30 and it's always NPR. Morning Edition comes on — and a lot of times I'm mostly asleep the whole time I'm listening to Morning Edition — so sometimes I'll think that I dreamed things that the news stories are about. So it's nice when something very strange happens and they do a story on it and I wake up thinking, "Wow, I had the weirdest dream. Chris Christie closed a bridge, and it was crazy. I don't even know."
My media diet is much more about trying not to consume media all the time.
Then I grab the phone — of course, lights off, not out of bed yet — and look at Twitter. I kind of have my whole life set up to defend myself against media. My media diet is much more about trying not to consume media all the time. I don't have cable, I don't really watch TV at all. TV, I think, is useless for news or for information. It's good for entertainment; I watch Netflix.
Basically, I read Twitter. I follow links that people send. To come to my attention a story has to be interesting enough to bubble up through everybody else. And I find that it does a good job weeding out the ordinary boring nonsense. [My Twitter] is not organized at all. I just have my regular feed. I have a list of people who frequently provide good stuff for Tabs that I look at maybe once a day, but it's really low volume. So I pretty much can catch up on that in 5 minutes. Otherwise, it's just my follow list.
I have Growl set up to pop up a little notification every time somebody tweets. Which is sort of crazy, I realize.
I have three kids, so usually I get 15 or 20 minutes to look at Twitter in the morning and then I have a lot of stuff to do till I race off to school and whatever. I'm just sitting in front of a laptop all day basically. I'm writing part of the day, programming part of the day. What people find insane that I do is I have Growl set up to pop up a little notification every time somebody tweets. Which is sort of crazy, I realize. But my feed isn't that high volume, it's slow enough. Every few seconds a little tweet will pop up, and I ignore a lot of them if I'm doing something else. But it's almost like company because I work by myself. I haven't worked in an office with people for more than a decade. So in some ways it's company and in some ways it just keeps the churn going on, so if something does pop up I'll notice it more often than not.
[At night,] I come home and have dinner with the family and don't look at the phone. I looked at the phone a little Wednesday night because things were still blowing up at dinner. [Ed.: Foster was recently involved in a spat with The Guardian's Heidi Moore, over the origin of Today In Tabs.] Typically, I put it away, and don't really get any news. I have dinner, I'll do the dishes, read to the kids. Then usually my wife and I will watch a TV show or something. We've been working through our college years series on Netflix. We just finished all of Buffy and Angel, and now we're watching The X-Files, which is nine seasons. So it's gonna be years of X-Files, I think. Nine seasons and there are these crazy, '90s, 23-episode seasons. It's super long. I can't imagine how they made so much television. There were a few years where we watched Law & Order every night, because it's always on somewhere. I think we've seen most of Law & Order already.
I'll spend a couple hours pretty much just scrolling through Twitter and collecting links. ... I'll go back five or six hours at that point.
She usually goes to sleep before me, so after that is my prime tab-collecting hours. Then I'll spend a couple of hours pretty much just scrolling through Twitter and collecting links. That's when I'll go back five or six hours at that point. I just go through hundreds of tweets. I use Tweetbot on my phone and I think that cuts off at about 900-something. But I skip a lot. I sort of have to remind myself that the point of Tabs is not to be a completist, "Here's Everything That Happened." It's the stuff that comes to my attention. I don't wanna dig, I don't wanna have to dig. That's not the point of it. So I scroll, but I don't really go searching for stuff.
I get a couple of newsletters as of recently. I get Alexis Madrigal's "Intriguing Things," which is usually pretty good. And I get [sighs] Muckrack. I mostly get it to see how much overlap there is, because I cover a lot of media stuff and they do, too. Every once in a while there's an interesting tip from there. But I usually skim.
I get The New Yorker because a friend shamed me into it and actually bought me a subscription. I actually read it on my phone. I get the print one and I don't ever read it. I don't have time to look at it. I don't like magazines. I've never liked magazines. I've really never been a magazine reader at all.
Regularly, I listen to "Welcome to Night Vale" religiously. Most of the stuff I do is not informative at all; it's entertainment. But "Welcome to Night Vale" is great. The TLDR podcast is awesome that PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman from On the Media just started. So I love that, and I also love On the Media whenever I remember. Radiolab is the other thing that I make a point of listening to. Those are all pretty good.
Facebook just swallows everything. Twitter is much more external. It forges connections and things happen in the real world because of it.
Facebook I used to use a lot a couple of years ago, and then various things happened and I sort of drifted away from it and started using Twitter. I realized in the last year or two that I spent a lot of time on Facebook for a while, and everything that you create for Facebook disappears into a black hole. Facebook just swallows everything. Nothing comes out, nothing ever happens from it. It's just like it's a void. By comparison, I get on Twitter, and within a year I have all these great projects, and I met some people and I'm doing freelance things. All these great things have happened, and it's just from doing the same sort of thing I did on Facebook, which is just engaging with people. It's weird, Facebook is very internal, it absorbs everything. And it feels like Twitter is much more external. It forges connections and things happen in the real world because of it. So Facebook now I skim it every couple of days, and I use it mostly to communicate with close friends and share links with my family.
Defend yourselves against the media. It's attacking you all the time.
I'm not on Twitter to get into fights with people or argue. So if something annoys me, then I'll just block it. I block brands a lot actually. Like when somebody mentions a brand and the brand's Twitter account comes in and tries to join the conversation. I hate that shit. So I'll block brands at the drop of a hat. If you're a consumer product, I've probably blocked you. News, like Newsweek or The New York Times Twitter accounts... not so. They actually provide something. Otherwise, occasionally, instead of fighting people I'll just block them. It's my feed, so that's what it's for.
If you read Tabs for a while you get an idea of the things I tend to read a lot. It's mostly because a lot of it is the people that I follow either work for certain websites or I read them a lot. The Verge crops up a lot for tech news. I actually read The Awl, not every single day, but The Awl is one of the few sites I make a point of going and looking at, which I don't for very many other things.
Caitlin Kelly is one of my favorites. She's a producer at The New Yorker and just has a genius for finding good tabs. I love everybody. Everybody I follow is my favorite people. I don't follow any people I don't like.
I think more people could do well to remove sources of media from their lives and figure out what they really can't do without.
I'm reading the new Thomas Pynchon book right now, which is good. It's almost news-related because it's about the first dot-com bubble in New York, which is great. He's got all these great little details that I remember from 2000 in there. I just read a book called The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt, which a friend basically took off the shelf in a bookstore and put in my hands and said "Read this." It's so good. I really, really love that book. It's about a single mother raising her son. The title is terrible and it sounds really boring, but it's really good.
Don't watch the news on TV. Defend yourselves against the media. It's attacking you all the time. It's just such a fight for attention. People have limited attention. Pay attention to who you're paying attention to, you know what I mean? There's so much media, you could spend every second of the day just viewing articles online. Most of it you shouldn't. You just don't need to. I think more people could do well to remove sources of media from their lives and figure out what they really can't do without.
The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.