Simply Jonathan

The Unread Badge

A long time ago, I tweeted about how uncomfortable the unread badges on email programmes and other software make me feel. That there is something I have to attend to.

When I got Reeder for the iPhone (which, by the way, is a great Google Reader synchronisation app for the iPhone), and discovered that the settings allowed for an unread badge, I quickly turned it on. I reasoned something along the lines of ‘well, I have to know how many unread items I have, because that’s what one does with these sort of applications’. I quickly turned it off, however.

The thing is, the unread badge hangs as a symbol of guilty conscience, there is something I should attend to, which I haven’t.

Marco Arment published an article on the side effects of writing software for oneself, in this case Instapaper, because one gets to make the decisions. He makes explicit mention of an unread count on the folders. It just so happened that the evening before, I had sent an email to Marco requesting this very feature — Marco assures me it wasn’t directly spurred by my email, despite my initial belief, but I was nonetheless one of the requesters.

This time, my reasoning wasn’t to do with ‘unread count’ per se, it was more of a convenience issue for me, I didn’t want to browse through all the folders I had, to see where I had some reading material stored. Marco’s response was well argued, though — Instapaper generally doesn’t store material that you urgently have to respond to. And that’s what the unread badge signifies: urgency.

And so very little of what we do at a computer is really urgent. A co-worker might think some email is urgent, but it is rarely really urgent. We pollute our views and realities if we think that every email, every new item in our feed reader, and every new tweet really need attention within five minutes.

When we sit at our computers (at least on our personal time), it should be a pleasant experience. Connecting with friends, reading interesting stuff, playing games, all that jazz. But if we make the illusion that any of these (specifically the second point of reading) are urgent, don’t we remove the feeling of enjoyment?

I think so, and that’s why I’ve disabled the unread badge in and automatic synchronisation of NetNewsWire and Mail.app. Reclaiming my computer, letting it act on my premises.

Now, if only I could get Tweetie to stop synchronising automatically, and stop reminding me that I have unread tweets.

This is Simply Jonathan, a blog written by Jonathan Holst. It's mostly about technical topics (and mainly the Web at that), but an occasional post on clothing, sports, and general personal life topics can be found.

Jonathan Holst is a programmer, language enthusiast, sports fan, and appreciator of good design, living in Copenhagen, Denmark, Europe. He is also someone pretentious enough to call himself the 'author' of a blog. And talk about himself in the third person.