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  • 13 May 2008

The Web Habits of Highly Effective People


The Internet has changed the way we consume information, what we know and when we know it. In the age of the iPhone and the BlackBerry, some people are cyber-slaves. Others have web rituals and routines. Granta asked some highly effective people in literature, journalism and publishing to reveal their web habits. Here’s what they had to say:

Alan Rusbridger: editor of the Guardian

My main bookmarked news sources are the Guardian (of course), the BBC, Reuters, Swampland, Talkingpointsmemo, Ben Brogan of the Daily Mail, Washington Post, Huffington Post, Commentisfree and the New York Times. I have done my best with RSS aggregators Google, Yahoo and Netvibes to find ways of pulling them together into one page, but not yet happily. I increasingly download regular podcasts – including several from the Guardian (media, science, football, politics, Islamaphonic) – Slate’s Political Gabfest and NPR’s On the Media. iTunes University is a wonderful, free resource – thousands of hours of lectures and talks on every subject under the sun – perfect for long car journeys or flights. Alex Ross’s blog, therestisnoise, is, like his book of the same name, an invaluable guide to contemporary music and music-making. Technorati is the quickest way of finding out who’s saying what in the blog universe. Jeff Jarvis’s Buzzmachine remains the sharpest commentary on the challenges facing the news industry; Romenesko and mediabistro for American media news; zdnet, techcrunch and boingboing are good for the technological side of things. Abebooks and Amazon for books, old and new (and for downloads to my Kindle). Pianostreet and IMSLP (the Project Gutenberg for scores) for music. YouTube, the BBC iplayer and Flickr for images. Wikipedia, with caution. And, of course, Facebook.

John Kampfner: journalist, commentator

I scour the web for news and comment. Rather conventionally, I have BBC News as my homepage. It delivers fast and accurate information, if somewhat devoid of excitement. First thing in the morning I tend to look on the sites of those national papers that I didn’t physically lay my hands on. I enjoy annoying American friends by telling them what’s in the New York Times and the Washington Post before they get up, and I pick and choose between French, German and Russian newspaper sites as well, favourites being Der Spiegel and Kommersant. Blogs are gradually growing on me, particularly blogs that contain original information, such as the new politicshome. But more often than not I still wonder why people might be interested in the instant rantings or musings of a hack who hasn’t left his armchair. If I do have any spare time, the geek in me takes over and I find my mind wandering to travel sites to plan fictitious trips to faraway lands.

Isabel Hilton: journalist, editor of

My web habits vary slightly depending on what I am working on. Editing China Dialogue means that my web day begins with my Netvibes page which tracks news, China issues and environmental issues every day, including on the blogs. Depending on what comes up I might be reading the regular press (the Washington Post, the New York Times, South China Morning Post, the People’s Daily, China Daily, Der Spiegel, the Financial Times) or one of the more specialized websites (World Changing, Grist, Seed Magazine, SciDev). If there’s time, I might check out China Digital Times, the University of Berkeley’s excellent information source on China, and Danwei, for less frontline news. I spend a lot of time in China so I have to live with the frustration of the Chinese firewall’s blocked sites and censorship. As I write this in Beijing, my mail account is blocked. Other than the regular stops, I enjoy the serendipity of Google, though I rarely get beyond the first page of results. I have accounts at a number of social networking sites, like  Facebook (where I track what my children are up to and get news of friends), and I check YouTube when someone sends me a link. So far I have resisted Twitter.

A.L. Kennedy: novelist

My emails take an hour or so every day. If I’m at home, that’s how I start my morning. And I’ll admit, I would completely lose touch with my friends if I didn’t have Internet contact. I try to keep a percentage of the email use human and positive. Unless I’m really avoiding work, I restrain web browsing to a reasonable level – one hour maximum, unless there’s a very good reason for staying on longer. Abe and Amazon would be regular hits – sometimes for reference, sometimes for purchases. Regular emails come to me from Utne Reader (some decent articles), Greg Palast (always interesting political journalism), Information Clearing House (excellent daily sampler of political journalism from around the world), Lew Rockwell (largely insane articles). For relaxation there’s Comedy Central and Lime Wire – I avoid going anywhere near YouTube because that can eat up a day. I don’t blog or Facebook. If I want to write, I’d rather do it to some kind of definable end.

Kevin Conroy Scott: literary agent

As a lefty American living in London, I suppose I’m obliged to start the day with the New York Times as my homepage. (My wife, who is Colombian, starts with El Tiempo from Bogota.) At the moment I am obsessed with the American election. I want Barack Obama to win – which is, again, typical given my profile – and feel responsible for things as they stand because in 2000 I was registered in the state of Florida and declined to send in my absentee ballot. I’m completely addicted to the Internet Movie Database for researching film stuff that I write about, and of course the Guardian website for football, the West Ham fan pages for keeping up with the claret and blue lunatics, and the American cable network ESPN to keep up on my beloved Florida Gators and American college football. And I guess any literary agent worth their salt can’t get by without, which is a very easy to use and up to date currency converter. It reminds me that I must get out of publishing and into the currency markets if I ever want to buy that house in the south of France.

Maud Newton: writer, blogger

When I told my husband I’d be contributing to a feature about the Web Habits of Highly Effective People, he laughed, not unkindly. The very ADD impulses that enable me to blog the way I do tend to hamstring larger projects, like the novel I’m writing, the review that’s coming due, the day-job work. No doubt this is true of most people who keep weblogs for fun rather than for profit — a dying pursuit, apparently. What still excites me about the Internet is that it facilitates endless foraging, and not only courtesy of my favourite blogs and newspapers. As more publications and critics go digital, I find myself sampling the offerings of literary magazines, squandering hours in the Harper’s archives (which stretch back to 1850!), formulating ever more intricate and passionate dissents, and even availing myself of the Mormons’ vast genealogical resources. I guess this is a long way of saying: I’d be glad to detail my habits if they were consistent, but my system is not to have a system at all.

David Godwin: literary agent

My web habits are an eccentric mix of public interest and private passion, much like anyone else’s, I imagine. Every day involves a visit to the New York Times website, the official site of the PGA Tour, Madame Arcati – the best site for gossip, plus regular scans of US regional bestseller lists – cricket and football scores from the BBC, and also the Guardian web pages, especially the Commentisfree section. I also scan literary blogs but in a very disorganized way.

John Ryle: writer, filmmaker, anthropologist

I get the Slate news summary by email every morning. This used to arrive complete, but now they just send a teaser. To read the rest I go to Slate and slalom through display ads and pop-ups, where I’m often detained by other articles, fulfilling Slate’s aim. I use Firefox with iGoogle as my default browser, customized with Yves Behar’s Earthlight theme, the headlines from the New York Times, a moon phase gadget and weather forecasts for places I am living in or about to visit. I also subscribe to Google email alerts for esoteric areas of interest. And I check the following publications quite often: Open Democracy, The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, the Sudan Tribune and the aggregation site Arts & Letters Daily. I don’t read blogs much. For academic research I use J-Stor, Lexis-Nexis, Google Books and Wikipedia. A day seldom goes by that I do not gaze at Google Earth, a wonder second only to the Earth itself. I also check on sites I’ve had a hand in building: the Rift Valley Institute, the Rift Valley Youtube channel and the Sudan Open Archive. Some day I plan to complete my own site.

Andrew Brown: writer, journalist

Every morning, at breakfast with the laptop, I open six tabs in Firefox that have all the ‘broadsheets’, plus the Daily Mail and the Financial Times. I skim them, and bookmark everything that looks interesting into Later I sort through these bookmarks on my work computer, and copy anything of lasting interest into a zotero database. When I have half an hour to spare – which will certainly turn into an hour if I let it – I go through a huge bunch of RSS feeds from blogs and newspapers in FeedDemon, classified roughly as ‘friends’, ‘science’, ‘religion’, ‘Swedish’ (which intermittently includes one of the Stockholm papers) and ‘politics’. I try not to keep up with American politics, which would just be too time-consuming. When I actively want to procrastinate, I look at tech sites: xkcd for laughs, lifehacker, metafilter and Good morning Silicon Valley. Also, librarything– people who read Granta should really know about librarything.

Philip Gwyn Jones: publisher

I’m late with most things these days, failing to keep up with everything because I’m keeping up with everything. Things (and sites) that keep me keeping up: I start the day with the Guardian news email feed, with its well-picked highlights, and BBC News for the basics, with Urban Junkies for the fripperies. I use Arts & Letters Daily for guided slaloming through the mental chicanes; Prospect and London Review of Books archive pages when I need to hunt a writer down and/or read them up; Commentisfree for the intelligentsia equivalent of Talk Radio or a bracing cab ride; Open Democracy to be reminded to go behind the news façade; Stuffed and Starved is crucial reading about the global food crisis; and Laif and Panos when I need photojournalism; in this current US election season it’s Joe Bageant who talks most sense; and Publishers Marketplace for the latest book industry activity. When one of those rare quiet-anxious moments descends and I need to get cerebral about publishing I go here. I’ve just discovered the guided serendipitous joy to be had at and have all the zeal for it of the late convert (even though it’s not a website, strictly speaking). And then for consumption, there’s amazon, always amazon.

Jonathan Derbyshire: journalist, blogger

My first port of call each morning is Arts & Letters Daily. I find I can rely on Arts & Letters to sift the websites of all the major newspapers and magazines in the English-speaking world for interesting articles. It’s good to have someone else do that heavy lifting for you, and this way you know you won’t miss the op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer that everybody’s talking about. Bookforum’s website also helps keep cosmopolitan intellectuals supplied with talking points, and Sign and Sight does much the same job with the feuilleton pages of German-language periodicals. I haven’t entirely abandoned the reading habits of the print era, so for example I visit the New York Times site on Sundays, when the Book Review is published, and Le Monde on Fridays for Le Monde des Livres. I suppose one day I should learn how to use a RSS feed. There are a number of sites I visit several times a week, often for research purposes. I have an electronic subscription to the New York Review of Books, which gives me access to an archive containing almost every article ever published in that magazine. And, like any jobbing literary journalist, I couldn’t live without the Complete Review.

Amanda Gersh: writer, blogger

My homepage is the New York Times. That’s about as literary as it gets for me these days, since from there I go straight to my blogs. Replying to thoughtful comments is part of the deal as a blogger so I try to do that regularly. I have three blogs because my Cookie magazine gig is now syndicated on Yahoo’s new women’s magazine, so there are three places where comments may be left. While at Yahoo I usually glance at the top stories – sometimes I find something up there and reference it for a future mention in a post – typically a silly science piece or a bit about some guy who used a hedgehog as a weapon, that sort of thing. Because I blog about motherhood, I also peruse relevant sites, such as Offsprung, a tongue-in-cheek parenting spot, and Babble. I also do the bloggy mutual support thing of visiting a tiny handful of mombloggers who amuse me: finslippy, for example, or pioneerwoman, who lives in Oklahoma and takes pictures of cowboys. I don’t visit these sites every week, but now and then I’ll stop by. At least twice a week I go to sk*rt, a search engine where women bloggers put up links to their pieces. If the editors pick your post it drives more traffic to your site. The PR stuff is tedious and awful, but it’s necessary for me since blogging is now my job.

Andrew Hussey: journalist, author

I love my laptop – a tiny Sony which fits neatly into my rucksack and which I can take everywhere on my bike. I live in Paris, which is a very Wi-Fi friendly place, and do a lot of work in different parts of the city. So – although it’s a cliché – I do a lot of stuff in cafes, mainly answering mails or checking stuff out on the web. I get online about nine-ish most mornings, usually with a coffee in the Au Chien Qui Fume in Montparnasses, halfway between my apartment and the office. I hate the Bibliothèque nationale de France – although I have to go there a lot – and prefer to check out books and articles online rather than putting up with bad architecture and grim toilets. I do my hardcore writing in my rather lovely office overlooking the Esplanade des Invalides. I listen to a lot of Internet radio – in the office it tends to be the excellent talk show on France-Culture or hip-hop stations from Casablanca or Algiers; at home, more predictably, its Jonathan Ross and Radio 4. I am also a YouTube junkie – there’s a lot of good, serious stuff I use for teaching; interviews with Céline, Georges Bataille that kind of thing. But I also like to check out Brit comedies – I’m big on Johnny Vegas in Ideal right now. But best of all I like to check out the press in the evening – reading the New York Times or the Liverpool Echo in my favourite bar with a cold Leffe beer is the best justification I can give for the existence of the Internet.

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