Marco Arment on “Sane RSS Usage”


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Lately I find myself defending the continued relevance of now seemingly old-fashioned technology. For instance, last week I wrote a blog post insisting that, contrary to recent sentiment, email works just fine. Now I find myself compelled to respond to a post from Marco Arment from a few days ago in which he criticizes heavy use of RSS:

“If you’re subscribing to any feeds that post more than about ten items per day, you’re probably misusing it. I don’t mean that you’re using it in a way it wasn’t intended — rather, you’re using it in a way that’s not good for you…You should be able to go on a disconnected vacation for three days, come back, and be able to skim most of your RSS-item titles reasonably without just giving up and marking all as read. You shouldn’t come back to hundreds or thousands of unread articles.”

In fact, what he advises against is exactly the way I use RSS. I subscribe to several blogs and sites that post at least a dozen items per day. Last weekend I got away for one last, glorious summer getaway at the beach, and when I came back to Google Reader, I was about two hundred updates behind — in my main bucket of feeds. I have several other buckets that are thousands of posts behind. This happens to me all the time, even when I disconnect for a regular, two-day weekend.

Though I try to keep up with my main bucket of feeds, if I fall hundreds or thousands of updates behind, I just don’t worry about it. Sometimes I do mark all as read, and sometimes I just let it run unchecked. I dip in and out without feeling any serious obligation to keep up.

Basically, I disagree with Marco’s conclusion that “RSS is best for following a large number of infrequently updated sites.” I quite enjoy having tons of profligate feeds in Google Reader. Doing so lets me occasionally graze through content streams that I would otherwise never remember to return to in my Web browser. It works great for me, and I don’t feel like I’m doing it wrong or that it’s bad for me at all.

Anyway, Marco is a friend and a smart guy, so be sure to read his full post before jumping to conclusions.



  1. I too use my RSS reader, Vienna in my case, to aggregate hundreds of posts a day from many dozens of sources. I have them well organized by subject matter. Some content streams are read post by post. Others are “marked as read” for a week or more before a particular post catches my eye. There’s simply no other means I know of to stay up to date with so many sources.

  2. What is too much for one person might be trivial to a voracious content consumer. The value of the RSS feed/readers is that we can lead productive lives, go on vacation and spend time away from a screen without missing out. RSS lets us catch up when it’s convenient.

  3. You know how sometimes a blog updates so infrequently you forget it exists, or if you do remember it you assume it’s dead, but then out of nowhere after six months of silence there’s a post, and you only know about it because it pops up in Google Reader? I have a word for that: rssurrection.

  4. I understand Marco’s point—that how I personally used RSS (before abandoning it for twitter)—but I think it’s simply a matter of personal preference.

    With his approach, one gets everything from a narrow list of sources (depth over breadth); with yours, it’s the opposite. Both have merits, and I think a balance is best.

    (Yay for ambivalent comments?)

  5. Agreed, Khoi.

    Google Reader also has this thing newfangled technology called ‘search’. I’ve been hearing that Google are pretty good at the whole search thing.

    Looking for something? Search the feeds you follow before the web as a whole. Job done.

  6. @ethan I think people that feel the obligation to constantly stay tuned in have an even bigger problem with getting manic about twitter given it’s real-time nature.

    I’d be curious how Marco contends with sites like Mashable, Gigaom, Techcrunch, etc. They have upwards of that many posts daily. Does he just not subscribe to prolific sites? Does he visit them manually?

    I’m more like Khoi in my usage. My google reader has some feeds that are maxed out they’ve falling into such disuse. I’ve personally taken to reading most feeds via my ipad. I find the tools there such as newsreaders like Flipboard and especially Pulse help afford a balance between staying connected at a glance (you can flip through them so effortlessly) or disconnecting without fear (pulse limits the number of feeds you can follow so you can only focus so much by default plus they have a shelf life for being in view).

  7. I agree with you. I’m subscribed to dozens of sites that update constantly. And while that may mean that while I’m at work I miss ~200+ posts, it doesn’t mean that I can’t catch up in a reasonable amount of time.

    I mean, let’s be honest, I don’t read ALL of them. I skim the article names and when something looks interesting I read it, if not onto the next one.

  8. I suffered like Marco. The problem was solved for me my switching to two news readers… One is Pulse on my iPad, which allows onlt five sets of 12 feeds, and I use that every day. The other is NetNewsWire, which sits on my Mac, pretty much unused, but I’ll check it every now and then. That’s where those interesting but inessential feeds go.

    Balance and harmony!

  9. I usually end up saying, “Amen!” after reading Marco’s words, but I’m with you on this one Khoi. RSS is so versatile, it’d be hard to offer a prescription for its use.

    I overstock my (web) Reader, but do so with very deliberate categorization using folders. It’ll fill up quickly but I can go straight to favorites or friends and clear out the rest. It works for me, and I _feel_ sane.

    The real thing I wrestle with is your lumping it with “seemingly old-fashioned technology.” I’m sad to admit you’re absolutely right.

    Oh, I’ve tried to convert my friends, but usually the conversation stutters at the acronym. Pile on a vague process and external apps for parsing and you have a recipe for confusion.

    So why do we keep cramming RSS logos into a web page design? I’m a fan, so I’ll keep doing it, but I’m beginning to wonder how many folks it actually serves, and if it needs to be anywhere but a footer.

  10. I get Arment’s point too, and exactly for this reason I changed my folder setup a few months ago. I used to only group feeds by topic, but at some point I split certain groups into two.

    For instance, I split my folder ‘technology’ into two folders, ‘technology’ and ‘technology mass’. The first one contains tech blogs and journalists who don’t post a lot (certainly not more than once a day) and whose posts I value greatly and which I would want to keep up with even though I’ve been gone for a weekend or a day full of meetings. The ‘technology mass’ contains tech news blogs and other big posters. I read them when I have time, and on quiet working days I skim them a lot, but after a few days of holiday I can also merciless press the ‘mark all as read’ button on this folder.

    I applied this split of ‘very valuable content’ vs. ‘mass content’ to several of my rss folders, and I must say I’ve regained my love for Google Reader with this new system.

  11. Honestly, I did the same.I do subscribed a tons of RSS Feeds and receiving a tons of emails too but unfortunately I mark some emails as READ or just choosing more interesting topic to open and read it though.

  12. I think his post is far too personal. The way he uses RSS is different to how many others use it. I use it the same as you, to aggregate hundreds of posts from different feeds. It’s not every day I sit down and read through them, but it’s easy for me to click to the next post if one doesn’t immediately enthral me.

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