It’s time to iterate on the product formerly known as the RSS reader. Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr are going in a direction that emphasizes usability and ephemerality over durable value and utility. I want someone to do to the RSS reader what Apple has done to the iPhone. The iPhone is a phone — but it’s also a completely different paradigm.
One nice thing about email: its state persists across devices. More social applications should do this.
Here’s a hypothetical tool I’d love to see someone build. The point of access is a bookmarklet you can click on any article page. When you activate it, you receive an overlay of information about the article like:
- How much of the content is rewritten press release based on Churnalism
- How much of the information within the article you’ve already read (and highlight what’s new)
- What your Twitter and Facebook friends have said about the article
- Whether or not the link has been submitted to Reddit, Digg, HN, delicious, and the comment threads associated with each
- Links to related coverage
- # of links within the article
- # of words in the article
- Sources cited in the article (see Nate Silver’s post about NYT citations)
- Display information, like the font-size and line-height (see Steve Yelvington’s post about font size across publications)
And so on. It’s your rich heads-up display to the information you’re consuming.
The service is dual-purpose too. Every article you scrobble is logged, and you can track data points like:
- Most common publications you read
- Most popular authors you read
- Which topics you read
- # of articles you read every month
- # of words you ready every month
On the web application, you could set a “budget” for your information consumption, see areas where you’re lacking and where you’re excelling, and view recommendations for getting up to speed on a subject.
Importantly, the tool shouldn’t be tied to any publication. The New York Times, for instance, could start doing part of this based on passive behavior of logged-in visitors, but it’s probably a narrow scope of the person’s entire consumption.
Bookmarklets are much more user-friendly than browser extensions, and I think services like Instapaper are popularizing them beyond the technorati.
After a couple month trial, I’ve decided to move back to Google Reader from Shaun Inman’s Fever. Originally, I made the migration on the allure of several shiny gems: a gorgeous interface, code that I could host on my own server, a refresh rate I could dictate with cron, and an innovative approach to filtering the signal from the noise. With each feed you add, either as Kindling you read on a regular basis or Sparks to feed the fever, the links count towards “what’s hot”, a visualization of the most popular stories for any given time period based on the information flow you’ve curated.
The deal breaker, however, is the mobile interface. In terms of reading experience the two RSS readers are comparable but sharing from Fever is a multi-step pain. Google Reader is at most a two-step process: open the item in a new Mobile Safari tab and hit the Tweetie bookmarklet. Because Fever is a standalone web application on the iPhone, I have to copy the link, close the application, open Tweetie, and then paste the link. I do a significant percentage of reading on the go, so it’s back to Google Reader.
It’s also a golden opportunity to again rethink how I structure my information flow. The art of how people organize their RSS readers is fascinating and writing about it offers tremendous learning potential; consider this a nudge to reflect and articulate how you’re managing your information flow.
My approach is to organize feeds by both priority and topic. I originally started with three priorities, A, B and C, and slimmed that down to A and B when I moved to Fever. If it’s a relatively low traffic feed with content I’m very interested in, then I’ll drop it in the “A-List” bucket. Publications that fit in this category include Daring Fireball, Nieman Journalism Lab, Publishing 2.0, Snarkmarket, and Open the Future. The “B-List” bucket acts as a second tier of importance and includes sites like … My Heart’s in Accra, /Message, and Oregon Media Central. Feeds I’d like to read/skim on the days I have the time to, or that I don’t mind marking all as read, fit into different topical buckets including Business & Economics, Education, International Development, Media & Journalism, and Technology.
This functions, but I’m ready for something new with a couple of goals in mind. First, I’d like to add more feeds to my stream. In the move from Google Reader to Fever, I culled my subscription list down to 262. This metric says “amateur web worker.” So, secondly, in the process of adding more feeds to my stream I need an approach that adds more nuance to my prioritization system. The filtering offered by Fever was this in parts, however I don’t believe I had the breadth of data to make it a useful daily tool. Whether using Google Reader’s system of folders can actually scale remains to be seen, but I shall experiment. And continue searching for other peoples’ approaches to structuring their information flow.
Later: There’s an additional piece to this puzzle. I’m obsessive compulsive about getting my RSS reader to zero nearly every day. This I am proud of. What it means to my method of parsing information is that I ideally want to weight everything in such a manner that I maximize the my efforts in relation to amount of time I have.