toread is tobehuman

In technology, one of the best ideas to emerge from the world of social software is the ability to tag other people’s works and creations for our own reference. There are some interesting behaviors that come from having a free-form text description of our own information, but the behaviors that come from tagging other people’s stuff have been the subject of an enormous amount of research and speculation with good reason: Fascinating things happen.

The most profound, to me, is the tag “toread”. Though sometimes used as a public indicator with the knowledge that others can see this declaration of intent, toread is usually a simple reminder that the tagger wants to come back to that story, that article, that bit of information, and give it the attention and focus that it deserves.

There are, of course, some social uses for this sort of information. In an imaginary geek-dating scenario, tagging the right book or blog post with toread could be an assertion of identity. Or it could be used as a social filter: “Everybody with [insert horrible author here] tagged ‘toread’ can safely be ignored.”

But the reason “toread” is profound is because it’s the biggest tag in an invisible tag cloud that surrounds us all. We can’t truly see all of the aspirations that John Battelle calls the “database of intent”, and it’s a good thing we can’t. Aside from those quiet desires that lurk inside us, though, there is something simple and beautiful about the desire to come back to read something interesting.

The idea of “toread” shows us everything great about humans: Our desire to know more, learn more, and improve ourselves. Toread represents the idea that we can be the sum of the knowledge of everyone who’s ever preceded us, that given enough time we can absorb the cumulative learnings of humanity. It’s the tag that represents the fundamental desire for self-improvement, and for bettering ourselves and the world. It’s one of our most popular tags, even though its presence is always redundant — we wouldn’t save anything if we didn’t intend to read it again. Toread is to want to live.

At the same time, toread represents everything that’s tragic and flawed about humans. We intend toread but get busy with the mundane minutia of our lives. We only choose toread the things we already know. There’s something bittersweet and wistful about the fact that everytime we save something toread, we’re acknowledging that we can’t read it right now, because life gets in the way. And then someday we die, never having had or made the time toread.

The most beautiful thing, though, is that we have the tools to make manifest this part of human nature that’s always been with us. In our idle hours, we can look at the wanderings of the minds of our friends and family, browse through their intentions and aspirations, and maybe even adopt some of them as our own.

A big thanks to David Weinberger for the prompt to think about toread, just one of many brainstorms that were inspired by his delightful and insightful Everything is Miscellaneous. Thanks also to Smeerch for the photo above.

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