Subscribing to RSS Theory

You know that drawer you have in your kitchen that’s full of rubber bands, pens, take-out menus, birthday candles, miscellaneous kitchen utensils, string, magnets and all sorts of other junk? That, to me, is what my RSS reader feels like. No matter how much I try to organize it, it’s always in disarray, overflowing with unread posts and encumbered with mothballed feeds.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been spending chunks of time here and there trying to clean out the drawer, so to speak, organizing the many, many feeds that I’ve haphazardly stashed inside various folders and subfolders within NetNewsWire. My goal has been to group them into some sort of hierarchy that will allow me to make better use of them, to cluster them together logically. Not necessarily by content type, but rather in use-oriented ways, like how often they’re published or how often I tend to read them.

The whole process frustrates me though, mostly because I feel like I shouldn’t have to do it at all. The software should just do it for me. I acknowledge that some customization is often — if not always — necessary to get the most efficient use out of any given software. But moreso than with most classes of software, it’s my feeling that RSS readers shortchange users with only half of the features we need to get the job done.

Subscriber Beware

Most of the readers that I’ve used, anyway, help me collect feeds, but do little to help me sift through or make sense of what I’ve collected. That this caveat emptor policy hews closely to the RSS metaphor of subscriptions is a bit too convenient for my taste. Unless you’re very disciplined and selective in selecting which RSS feeds to subscribe to, more likely than not your feed corpus resembles something like a postal mailbox on the receiving end of dozens of subscriptions a day. Or, put differently, imagine all of the magazines displayed on your local newsstand arriving at your home every month. Or every day. That, to me, is RSS.

I want a more intelligent approach to the problem. Rather than simply dumping posts on me and leaving me to fend for myself, I’d like my RSS reader to help me negotiate that onslaught.

The World Wide Web Won’t Listen

Much as I long ago abandoned the practice of diligently filing my incoming email into discrete mailboxes and directories (I leave every message in my in-box), I want an RSS reader that doesn’t force me to resort to folders in order to impose order on my subscriptions. A single stream of posts, then, that orders posts chronologically, but also employs some intelligence in showing me posts: the feeds I like the most would always appear in the mix, and the feeds I don’t want to read as often appear less frequently.

Granted, this is not easy behavior to encode into what are essentially unthinking applications. Today’s junk drawer-style feed readers don’t learn anything from how we use them. Given any corpus of RSS feeds, a user is constantly demonstrating to the software which ones she favors and which ones she doesn’t, simply by virtue of clicking on posts in her favorite feeds and neglecting posts in her least favorite. The problem is that the readers aren’t doing anything with that input. They’re not watching.

This is a nontrivial expectation, I know. But it’s not like the ability for software to learn from user behavior lies beyond some unreachable threshold for artificial intelligence. Anyone who’s used the launcher applications Quicksilver or LaunchBar has used the technology I’m talking about. Those programs automatically assign scores to your most frequently accessed items, and register the highest scorers as default selections. And as a hedge against the inevitability of automated misinterpretation, they also allow users to assign scores manually and to override those machine-determined defaults. In essence, they’re not just watching but they’re listening, as well. Now if only someone writing an RSS reader would listen, too.

  1. What a coincidence. I just spent the last couple of days doing the same with my own feeds on NetNewsWire. Oddly enough, it seems I thought of the same problem, but came to a slightly different conclusion. I’m not sure how I would feel about a reader that tries to ‘think’ for me, since my favorite posts are sometimes random ones from feeds that are usually junk, but I would like to see a feature that lets me know when I haven’t opened (clicked-thru) any items in a feed for, say, the last month. That way I know it’s probably a feed I might want to ditch.

    In either case, I suppose it’s a case of wanting to the software to, as you say, ‘watch’ what we users are doing.

  2. Over the past couple of years I’ve gone from NewsFire, to Google Reader, to NetNewsWire, and now I’m happily back to NewsFire.

    NewsFire’s simple UI and smart feeds allow for reading feeds the very same way you read your emails. I don’t use any folders for organizing except a few smart feeds for All Feeds, New Stuff, and Flagged Stuff.

    Tip: for an ‘All Feeds’ folder/inbox make a smart feed matching any items as New and Not New.

  3. Google Reader has some features you might appreciate, like the ability to analyse feed use from a statistical perspective. Still too much work, but a step towards the kind of automation you’re looking for.

  4. I also dealt a bit with this recently, oddly, and my current approach has been to abandon normal organization completely: I removed all the folders (basically, I just exported my feed list without groups and re-imported it), and then told NetNewsWire to keep them sorted by the number of unread items. I’m seeing how that works.

    It’s worth noting that NNW does have a sorting feature that tries to watch what you do: View > Sort Subscriptions By > Attention. I’m not sure I find this as useful as the sorting by unread items.

    Side note to Ricky Irvine: I tried NewsFire recently and while I liked it more than NNW in some ways, its inability to handle authenticated feeds turned out to be a deal-breaker for me. (NNW’s ability to do syncing between machines and the NewsGator web interface is also something I use.)

  5. I tried NewsFire recently and while I liked it more than NNW in some ways, its inability to handle authenticated feeds turned out to be a deal-breaker for me.

    But it’s not true! I subscribe to password-protected feeds within NewsFire.

  6. @Watts: Yeah, I use authenticated feeds within NewsFire (although recently – which might be a by-product of using OpenID with Basecamp – my authentication doesn’t seem to alway stick).

  7. Ever since reading Rui Carmo’s brief discussions of his Bayesian-based classification setup for RSS feeds (see Taming my RSS feeds, the Bayesian way‘ and the first bit of An update on my RSS setup‘), I’ve been hoping that something like it will find it’s way into NetNewsWire. My RSS reader is uniquely positioned to capture data about what I pay attention to, and filter the incoming flood of information accordingly (which NetNewsWire has already made baby-steps towards via ‘Sort by attention’). Moreover, Ranchero is probably swimming in data gathered from the various NewsGator products. Feeding that into a classification/recommendation system seems like a killer feature (e.g. ‘People who follow X, Y, and Z generally find A interesting as well.’).

    There’s still a lot of room for growth and innovation in this space. I certainly hope we see it sooner rather than later.

  8. I have used various methods and am currently subscribing to as many feeds as I want but relying on NNW to sort and manage them. Most of them go into a group folder that I’ll browse from time to time but mostly I am using NNW’s Smart Lists to pull out things I’m interested in. I browse mostly by Smart Lists and one folder I keep of feeds I really like. Using ‘Sort by attention’ helps identify feeds that I might want to move to my daily reads folder.

  9. Some level of organization made my life much better. For feeds, I use four buckets. 1) Must read. 2) In time. 3) Optional. 4) Status.

    The must read is exactly that. In time means usually I find good stuff, but it’s not critical. Optional is just that – sometimes I just blow those out completely and start new. Status is my way of bringing back all the updates to things like flickr comments, twitter, etc.


  10. Google Reader has a feature you may be interested in, and which I got hold of until very recently. By typing the ‘G’ key followed by the ‘U’ key, you get a floating box with all your feed names. Results are refined by typing a few more keys, just like in Quicksilver. The feed list is scrollable (alas, not in Safari) and selecting a feed name and pressing Return displays that feed of course. That’s the most Quicksilver-like approach to RSS that I’ve ever seen so far, and oddly enough I don’t see myself using that feature often (perhaps because I have yet to wrap my mind around how can I mentally associate pressing G+U to this function – S+F as in ‘show feeds’ would have been a wiser choice).

  11. I’d like to see similar behavior in a feed reader. I’d especially love a reader that would parse the info and present similar stories as a nested item – I subscribe to various news sites & often get the same AP or Reuters story from 5 or 6 different feeds. It would be great to get those stories once & the unique material as well.

    NNW attention report could be improved by monitoring whether the application was focused (front-most) or (optionally) using the iSight to track eye positions. The feeds that were actually read as opposed to skipped would drift to the top. As it works currently it seems to record which links are clicked through not so useful as most items are read within NNW.

  12. I use Google Reader in Firefox with the AideRSS plugin. Works like a charm. Rated this post a 6.7, so it grabbed my attention for a read. Skimmed over everything else. And Google Reader has tagging too, which is nifty for sorting ideas from posts you want to keep.

  13. I use Netvibes. I organize my feeds into tabs according to the ratio of read to unread posts in each feed. That way my first tab is mostly must-reads and if I have time I’ll work my way through the other tabs.

  14. I’m with Jason. It’s about feed priority not feed category. I’ve organized my feeds into a Don’t Miss and a Whatever category. The first is kept small and slim for what’s worth my time, the second for feeds that maybe look worth following that I don’t want to forget about. Still, I don’t have to worry about blowing away all of the unread articles in the second folder since I’ve decided ahead of time that I don’t care if I miss something there.

  15. A perfect RSS-reader hasn’t been created yet, though more and more people share the same discomfort about the feeds organisation.

    That’s a pretty strange reaction of the market – not creating a product when the demand is at a 100% level!

    Among the existing rss readers, I find to be the most helpful… Yet, still not ideal.

  16. I would really recommend reducing your feeds to just 10 that you can’t live without. It’s very liberating to be able to turn down the noise and nice to be able to actually interact with a site (rather than a scraping of a site) every week or so.

  17. Google Reader offers really interesting statistics on which posts you have ‘read’, I imagine the next step is letting you use that information for your own organization.

    The only problem is that it doesn’t really know what I am reading versus what I am skipping as I scroll by. Unbolding posts is how we get them to go away. They will need a way to make a distinction between reading and skipping.

    Unfortunately, Reader also has a pretty interesting Recommendations feature which is making it hard for me to reduce my total feeds by looking at my existing ones and finding some other really interesting ones for me to add.

  18. I can’t stand RSS feeds. I don’t want to spend my whole life reading everything in some painfully ugly Google application, or any other reader for that matter. What ever happened to just visiting websites? I keep my 25 most visited websites meticulously organized in my Firefox toolbar, and I can fly through them really quickly. When I’m bored or want to depart from my regular 25 favorites, I’ve got another set of about 30 sites (also meticulously organized) for additional browsing. That gives me plenty to read on any given day I don’t see how the additional time spent managing an RSS reader would help me make the process any faster.

  19. netvibes is definitely my favorite, I can access it at work, or my PC at home, or when I’m at starbucks on my mac, or on my iPhone anywhere. I keep my feeds orgnized in tabs by content type. For instance subtraction is in my ‘Design’ tab. Nice.

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