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.
For the longest time (since freshman year, early 2007), I’ve been dedicated to Google Reader. I briefly switched to Fever and switched back because the mobile interface wasn’t as functional. Given this whole new Google+ thing, I have less and less confidence of serious, necessary product innovation happening with Google Reader.
How I use Google Reader
Currently, Reeder, an excellent app for both Mac OS X and the iPhone, is my primary interface for Google Reader. It’s lovely, syncs well, and is amazingly integrated with other services. Click a button, choose a service, presto.
I’m subscribed to a total of 568 subscriptions, everything from friends to thought leaders to product blogs to aggregators. Surprisingly, not a lot of mainstream news organizations. My subscriptions are bundled into folders: A-List, B-List, B-High (pretty much Techmeme and Mediagazer), and then by topic (Media & Journalism, WordPress, etc.) or context (friends, Automattic, projects, etc.).
A fair number of people I know have switched away from using an RSS reader in favor of Twitter (example), under the auspices that “if the news is that important, it will find me.” I understand the value of serendipity — I also want to be deliberate about the information I consume. I zero my subscriptions on an almost daily basis.
What a Reader should be
A reader is for engaging with information; it’s a tool for consuming, managing, and using knowledge. In addition to presenting new information to consume, I also want it to pay attention to, infer insights from, and make accessible in an evergreen matter what I’ve already read. For me, this presents the pinnacle of personal information management — an intelligent tool that can reinforce what I already know and help guide me towards what I need to know.
Dave Winer has been thinking about this for much longer than I have — read him first. Basically, unread counts and the rigamarole associated with subscribing to a new feed are the two big deal breakers for RSS readers. In addition to fixing this, I think the new reading interface should:
- Present content based on type. Blog posts should look like blog posts. Quotes shouldn’t look like blog posts… they should look like quotes! Statuses should look like statuses, videos should behave like videos, etc.
- Keep track of what I’ve read and emphasize what’s new to me. Similarly, pay attention to links within pieces of content. If multiple pieces include the same link, nest those together so I can quickly skim the conversation once.
- Offer insights into my information diet. Help me better understand what I’m consuming, how often I’m consuming it, and how I can better improve my consumption patterns.
- Sync states across platforms. It bugs me to no end when I read a Twitter mention on the web and the read state doesn’t persist to the mobile app. If you’re sending email notifications too, the act of reading an email notification should put the web notification should be put in the read state.
- Help me budget my time. Prioritize content when I only have 15 minutes to spare, or I’m at work. I’ve seen some websites show “estimated reading time” — take that further.
- Make it easy to engage with the content. Whether it’s sharing, favoriting, or commenting, let me interact within the reading interface. Reeder does the sharing brilliantly; I pick which services I use and the action is only a tap away.
- Help me remember what I know. I partially use WordPress for this (e.g. useful tools I’ve come across or smart information from Clay Shirky). There’s a certain amount of friction with this approach (both good and bad). It would be awesome if I had a secondary system for quickly accessing information I’ve previously come across. A search engine for information I’ve consumed.
That’s what I’ve got. Let’s start iterating.