All Feeded Up

Here’s a confession: I’m a terrible blog friend.

Over the past few years, I’ve been fortunate enough to have met scores of really interesting people thanks to my work with my old company, my new position at, and — people inside and outside of these companies, nearby in New York and spread out all over the world. Lots of them have become good friends, and many maintain superb blogs and sites of their own; they’re the kinds of sites that I enjoy immensely, that in many instances I aspire to match with my own, and that I readily recommend to others.

When it comes to actually keeping up with them, though, I fall down on the job. I’m terrible at knowing what people are up to, even though they’re writing about it publicly and, for the more famous of my friends, even though their exploits are often guaranteed an echo effect throughout the blogosphere. On more occasions than I’d like to admit, I’m simply behind the curve.

So Many Blog Posts, So Little Time

The problem is there’s so much great, engrossing net activity and blogging going on, and I have so little free time. When I do find myself with a spare moment, I’m struggling just to keep this blog up-to-date, leaving me very little time to just surf. The net effect is that I just can’t keep up with what everyone’s saying, except in fits and spurts. So, when talking to folks whom I consider to be good friends, I’m perpetually embarrassed by my shallow knowledge of exactly what they’ve been up to.

Short of acquiring some miraculous new facility for speed reading, the only realistic solution to my problem is good ol’ RSS feeds. It’s generally acknowledged as the most efficient way to plow through a huge number of posts in rapid succession.

I use NetNewsWire as my feed aggregator of choice, and I like it a lot. But as an intended solution, it presents a problem of its own: I’ve collected so damn many RSS feeds that, when I sit down in front of the application, it’s almost as difficult a challenge as having no feed reader whatsoever. With dozens and dozens of subscriptions, each filled with dozens of unread posts, I often don’t even know where to start.

In the past, friends have advised me to just narrow my list down to a manageable number of essential subscriptions — a bare few that I can consume easily, day in and day out. But every time I try to do that, I find that I can’t really bear to get rid of most of these feeds. They all seem essential, and I’m loathe to give any of them up. Of course, I understand the corollary of that reluctance: refusing to part with most of these feeds means I’ll probably continue to benefit from very few of them.

Keeping Up with the Joneses, Etc.

That’s the analytical perspective. Emotionally, however, I feel as if severing a link to an RSS feed is tantamount to entirely giving up on a blog; with so many other potential distractions out there, the chances of me returning in a timely manner are miniscule. I’ll miss out on the great, meaty content, of course, but more importantly, the next time I talk to the site’s author, I’ll find myself rudely clueless about their recent developments, too.

That’s probably what irks me most of all… giving the impression that I’m just not interested in what these people, my friends, are doing. That’s certainly not the case. So I somewhat vainly endeavor to keep tabs on all of them, continually frustrated by the fact that RSS, on its own, just isn’t a sufficient solution for the more efficient consumption of the level of content someone in my position is faced with daily. I need a better option. Or… can everyone just stop posting for a while until I can read everything you’ve written so far?

  1. i have been feeling the same way recently. i seem to accumulate more RSS with each blog post i read! it’s maddening. finally, yesterday, i tried to “purge” the “unnecessary” and still ended up with 75+ feeds. i’m sure there are people with much more than that, but i can’t imagine it. i find i am spending WAY too much time in my aggregator.
    i think one of my goals for 2007 is consume less, produce more.

  2. Not that this is going to help any, but here is what I do (to manage reading the 100-some-odd feeds I read):

    I use NNW too and my home page in Safari is my NewsGator account. Every 4 hours at work I take a 15 minute break where I digest feeds. I suppose those 15 minutes are to be used for getting away from the desk and stretching, but who actually does that? Anyways, NNW is always running to let me know when new posts come in.

    And upon reading this I see that I’m a feed junkie. =(

  3. Perhaps a setting on an RSS reader that allows you to only display posts longer than a certain length would do the trick. It seems to me that most posts with real news and/or stories are fairly long, and that the short ones are often “Hey, this is cool” or “I had a bad day” or somesuch—less important if your goal is keeping up with people. People write more about the things that really interest them.

    It wouldn’t work if all the blogs you wanted to read usually have lengthy posts, but if the majority have lengthy posts only every few days (or weekly, even) it would cut out the posts that are less important to your goal of actually keeping up with your friends’ lives.

  4. I’m also a total feed junkie… and I feel your pain. I just have my feeds bookmarked in my browser (don’t use a specific aggregator. The way I’ve found to manage them (this works for me, anyway) is to divide them up into small groups within separate prioritized folders.

    I have a design1 folder of about 30 of the feeds I read most and that pile up the most posts per day (ex. Gizmodo, Coudal), another folder called design2 of about 30 feeds that are either updated less frequently or simply less pressing as far as priority (ex. BiblioOdyssey, Info Arch Japan). Other folders are categorized by work, news, music, NYC, etc. and hold 5-25 feeds each (I find if I have over 30 feeds in a folder, things just get too crazy).

    If I’m running short on time, I can check all feeds in a single folder at once. Doing it this way lets me skim by small groups of usually less than 10 posts (a browser window’s full, depending on the source), which somehow makes things more manageable… to me. I also know which feeds I can skip, and which I know I’ll want to make the time to check.

    But yeah, it’s a bit of an organizational nightmare… I do love those feeds though. RSS rocks my world. I haven’t picked up an actual newspaper in over a year, I think…

  5. Khoi,

    I feel your pain. In fact, I’ll assume that almost everyone who reads Subtraction on any sort of basis can as well.

    Faced with the same questions as you, I’ve spent hours on end editing the feeds I subscribe to and read countless posts from anyone and everyone about how to properly read, organize, track, and keep on top of such information overload…all with barely moderate success. After finding what works best for you in the time you have to do it, stick with that. As you know, sometimes there is one way and often there are many ways.

    Although, through dealing with the same overload you have, I have come to one concrete conclusion: don’t fault yourself for living your life. It may be of the “don’t sweat the small stuff” vein, but it’s important to stay active in the most visceral relationships of your life. Sacrifices, no matter how worldly or minute, are all something people have to deal with. Yeah, I get intimidated when I’m faced with hundreds of unread entries but frankly, I don’t care.

    It will all be there when I get to it. That too is also the beauty of RSS.

  6. I used to use Newsgator Online. I had 200-300 feeds at a time broken up into folders by subject, and I always felt I was missing things because, really, who has time to open up the “Tech” folder and page through every post every day?

    Not me.

    I switched to Google Reader, abandoned my folders, and now I see every headline and decide in an instant whether or not it’s worth cracking open.

    Not that interesting?

    Bam. “J.” Next post.

  7. I’ll second the google reader suggestion. I do have my feeds split into folders so that the high-volume low priority feeds (digg,, gizmodo, TechCrunch) can be read “when I have time” while higher quality original sources get read immediately.

    I find the key is to make a snap decision whether the article should be read or not. This takes around 1 second per post (less on the low priority feeds) so you can burn through a LOT of items this way. This is why I like google reader, as I can’t usually tell just by headline whether a post is worth reading.

    Posts under a paragraph get read inline, longer worthwhile posts get v’d (opened in a new tab, you can about:config firefox to open these in the background) for a more careful reading. If I don’t get around to the high volume list, I mark all as read. Most of the info expires after a day, so it’s not worth reading old stuff and I’m one of the obsessive-compulsive about unread people.

    I’m subscribed to 350 feeds and I can skim through all non-high-volume items in about a half-hour (I do about 400 items/hr overall). The problem is that filtering that much information scrambles my brain and I have to do something else for an hour before I can code again. Hoorah for lunch hour.

  8. I wrote my own web-based aggregator, Temboz, precisely to deal with the problem of information overload (and because in my book a RSS reader has to be web-based, and I don’t trust hosted solutions).

    The way I handle it is to flag particularly noteworthy posts with a “Thumbs up”. My aggregator keeps statistics on which feeds have a high ratio of thumbs up (adjusted for time, so recent good posts count more than old ones in a feed that has lost its edge).

    The article view is still sorted in chronological order, but the default view for all feeds (equivalent to NNW’s view) lists feeds with articles by decreasing order of quality, followed by feeds with no unread articles by decreasing signal to noise ratio. When I am overwhelmed and unable to keep up, this allows me to do triage on my reading, without losing the unread posts. The blogroll on my blog is also sorted by decreasing SNR.

    I am still tuning my formula, currently a blog on which the last article was a keeper, but that hasn’t been updated in a while keeps an artificially high SNR, so at some point I may have to introduce a penalty for blogs that aren’t updated frequently (even though I always prefer a blog infrequently updated, but of very high quality, than one constantly updated with drivel).

    Another option my aggregator offers is the ability to suspend a feed. It isn’t deleted, and old posts are still archived, so there is less to feel guilty about…

    The big publishers like Apple or Microsoft are only now making RSS mainstream, but I am pretty sure the next versions will focus on managing information overload, possibly with advanced techniques like Bayesian classifiers, so the aggregator learns by itself what you find interesting and adjusts accordingly.

  9. Yep, it’s hard having to get rid of some feeds but I’ve done it too just to make life easier. I’m a bit of a feed junkie so too many just makes me unproductive!

    I actually use a menu item for OSX called RSSMenu ( to track my feeds. I find it saves a lot of time because it only takes a quick look through the list (you can make folders and group feeds together) to see any new entries being highlighted.
    You can read the title then if you hover your mouse over the entry you’re interested in then you get the content of the feed appearing in a kind of tool tip. It’s perfect for quickly checking out a feed entry’s content to see if you want to read it.

  10. I’m relatively new to the feed scene, but with the help of NNW I’ve already built quite a collection. Finding the time to just filter them is a major effort. Despite that I found this post though.

    I know exactly what you mean about thinning them out. Every time I unsubscribe I feel like I’m standing in front of the author insulting their hard work. In the spirit of the social web, may be the unsubscribe process should allow you to submit you reasons or apologies as a series of tags?

  11. I have found a mix of RSS blog-reading, and, yes, social-networking sites has been pretty good for keeping in touch. That combined with IM.

    The social-networking sites actually seem the best way to maintain some small bit of contact with acquaintances and old friends, while IM and blog reading are perhaps for the “inner circle”.

  12. I’ve found that once I get behind in blog posts, there’s no way I’m going to find the time to catch up. So I call a clean break and just read the most recent posts. I found using a traditional RSS reader was frustrating, in that

    Thus I modded a wordpress plugin (friends-rss) to develop my own, low-key web-based RSS reader. Basically it works by showing me previews of posts from within a category all in one place, without me having to mark anything as read or not. Thus, I always seen the most immediate posts and can stay up to date, without feeling like I’m falling behind when I do. I found having Unread (183) or something along that lines to be a disincentive to reading blogs: it began to feel like work to “catch up.” I much prefer the system I have now, where I stay as up to date as I can without having a big glaring number reminding me how far behind I am, while still being able to go back and catch up if I find extra time.

    You can see it in action with my friends here:

    A few notes on the Comment system here:
    After typing in Name, Email and Web Site, if I tab over to the text box, it goes past the “Forget this information” option, which then clears what I’ve typed in.

    Also, hitting preview gives me this error:
    Build error in template ‘Comment Preview Template’: Error in tag: Can’t find included file ‘includes/footer.html’

  13. I think more important than the technical aspects of this dicsussion are the social implications. With the advent of more and more information “pushing” technologies, it has become very easy to get overwhelmed. The truth is, we suddently have access to loads and loads of fantastic content, and there just isnt enough time for it.

    Over millions of years, our brains have evolved systems for filtering sensory information down to a managable amount of input. Without such filters, we would go insane! (and in some cases, such as autism, the results of broken filters can be explicitly seen)

    In my humble opinion, all this new web technology we are seeing— social software, filtering sites such as techmeme and tailrank; they’re all just machies we’ve invented to do the filtering that our brians can’t

    Why suddenly are we expected to know every minute detail of our friends lives? Yes, perhaps 10 years ago they didn’t have such easy ways to publish such information, but nothing has changed on the basic level of how much information we can deal with. I think information overload is a perfecly acceptable and legitimate excuse for not knowing whats up with your friends. And if you do have the craving to know whats going on with them, why not give them a call, or shoot them an email? With all this meta informaiton, a lot of interpersonal information gets lost.

  14. Most people group their feeds by topic. Here’s a suggestion that makes it easier to manage feeds:

    Group your feeds by behaviour. Here are my categories

    Quick – anything that’ll take me two seconds to read (flickr photos
    Links – link blogs
    Light – blogs that generally consist of shortish pithy posts.
    In-depth – blogs that usually have long in-depth posts
    Me – eg my flickr comment feeds
    Announce – svn commits, status feeds, release feeds

    Grouped like this, it’s easier to pick off the low hanging fruits and slowy chip away at the 100 pound gorillas.

  15. We were just talking about this here. I’ve gone cold turkey and stopped using a reader altogether. I’m all the way back to a nicely organized set of bookmarks and I have to say that the experience of “reading the web” is much, much more enjoyable this way.

    Sure. I miss a few things here and there but I find much more by accident while page browsing than I ever did while trying to scan a zillion posts in a river of text. Plus now, a visit feels like a visit and in general I’d rather spend more time less often with friends than the other way round.

  16. I kind of agree with you Coudal, sometimes just springing open a bunch of trusty old tabs gives the clean slate feeling just nicely.

    As for RSS, another vote for Google Reader here which I use from wherever I’m at, via Safari or Firefox. Group stuff up and push through it real quick when sifting, and spend your time in tabs for the succulent rewards.

    Dan Lurie’s right about media pushing tech. You do have an excuse to be a little out of touch. Nothing an uncomfortable moment coming clean about it won’t fix!

  17. Sometime ago I read the World Wide Web size was estimated at about 100 million+ sites and counting. More than 60-70% of that could easily be blogs. Sure, feeds give you that desire of wanting to be on top of everything… but who actually can? I’m facing a similar dilemma as I still keep an average of 300-400 unread posts in my Bloglines account. Welcome to the age of information overload.

    Solution may be just as simple as stop pretending you can keep up with everything what is going on in the world, and focus on having a life instead, if you know what I mean.

  18. i say skim. skim heavily. get an overall idea of what’s going on and move on to the next thing. read only the stuff that seems interesting to you. that and you might have an easier time of it all once november and naploblomo (or whatever it’s called) is done 🙂

  19. I popped out of my RSS reader on here to say exactly what James Wheare said. His comment is probably the most valuable thing if you’re swamped with feeds, as you can read what you need to read in short timeframes.

    My aggregator used to be just stuffed with things, and I realised that I only read maybe 20% of them, even grouped in James’s categories. I found that in a lot of cases you can cut a lot of the RSS feeds with a few guidelines.

    1. Kill repetitive content – A lot of mainstream feeds show pretty much the same content. If there’s a lot of overlap, trash the one you find is worse.
    2. Kill useless feeds – A lot of feeds were one-time adds that I didn’t care so much about.
    3. Kill feeds that haven’t been read for more than a month – This, sadly, seems to happen. Be it a friend’s blog or not, if you’re not reading it then the content obviously really doesn’t matter to you. Just delete it.

    Using just these three simple filters I was able to cut my feed list down to roughly 60 feeds of absolutely killer content, and I can manage to keep up on them daily or every other day.

  20. I am the final filter for everthing I read, so why doesn’t my RSS Reader keep track of what I open and read so that over time I can see which feeds I find valuable and which I can dump? Until that happens, RSS readers are nothing more than big junk drawers that get filled with stuff. It sounds like Fazal Majid is getting there with his homegrown RSS reader and James Wheare is manually doing this when he organizes feeds by behavior, but is there anyone out there working on something like this, a smart RSS reader? If so, I’d love to hear from you.

  21. We need an aggregator aggregator.

    Barring that, I wonder if there were room for features in a newsreader like automated pruning, or even “archiving” less-frequently updated feeds. Another criteria might be feeds you’ve read infrequently.

    Excuse me if someone else posted this idea, I skipped to the end.

  22. Wizag offers a personalized topic discovery engine. It learns from what you interact with and discovers and ranks topics in all your feeds using semantic processing based on your reading history.

    The idea is extract the current topics that are important from the hundreds or thousands of posts that you aggregate so that you can quickly look at the topics to find out what you want to read.

    You can also get TopicAlert, the hot topics in your feeds, delivered to your email or on any webpage.

    Hope this is helpful in sorting out the large number of posts that come to your aggregator each day.

  23. The whole ‘drinking from the firehose’ metaphor is actually very apt, especially given the tendency of feed subscriptions to balloon if you don’t prune regularly – I do a feed triage every few weeks to avoid just that.

  24. I just d/led BlogBridge. You might want to give it a try. It’s a newer product I think, but I’ve managed to find my way around it. Features that I like are the ability to publish to a central opml file and also create smartfeeds that filter the important stuff from the other stuff. Just thought I’d mention it anyways.

  25. 37 Signals have taken this issue up over at their blog Signal vs Noise.

    They make an important observation: The problem is not so much that of the reader – often it is individualised of course but what can Khoi or I help that there is so much stuff out there?!

    Instead, 37 Signals argues that it is time for a feed from high-traffic and high-content sites for their best-ofs and evergreens.

    Not a bad idea at all.

  26. That’s not a bad idea, no, but I think I’d rather see something happen on the client side, as several people have commented here. An RSS reader should be more than just a catch-all for feeds. It should also help users make sense of them, distill the important ones from the unimportant ones, etc.

  27. I have always struggled with managing feeds and James Wheare’s suggestion to organise by usage seems like a good way to do it.

    I also quite like NNW’s sorting by ‘Attention’. Although I don’t know how it calculcates what gets to the top (simply clicking on a feed, or visiting the feed home page, etc.), it works nicely to bring all the groups of feeds I tend to read more to the top of my feed list.

    Off to reorganise my feeds as per James’ suggestion while hoping it doesn’t blow up in my face and become an unmanageable mess. 🙂


  28. If your RSS application has tagging or categories, create a category called “frontpage” or “essential” and throw all your favorite feeds in there.

    When you have limited time simply puruse this category/tag, and when you have more time to kill you can explore the other feeds.

    This is exactly what I did after I found myself with over 300 feeds in my aggregator!

  29. BTW, I have hand rolled my own web based aggregator as well using php. I’m sort of swamped with work right now, but if anyone is interested in helping out (it will be open source once I’m convinced it’s safe enough to let out into the wild) drop by and give me a shout. Let me know where you’re coming from and I’ll give your email priority (my x-girlfriends been waiting weeks for an email, hehe).

    I’m definitly interested in the idea of a priority system, but it seems like it could be really tricky to implement. I was going to have a “watched” section on my aggregator, where any posts containing a custom list of keywords go, but that hardly qualifies as a “smart reader”. Essentially this would just be a static keyword search.

    Honestly, I think just about any system would ultimately be flawed. I’m tempted to think the system really needs human/community intervention where people vote and the popular posts rise to the top.

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