For Whom the RSS Tolls

As you are no doubt aware, Google Reader is going away. The public outcry hasn’t brought it back, nor open sourced it, by now so that’s not going to happen. There are some options, but I decided that I wasn’t going to switch until May 15th. That will give the smart people an opportunity to vet the options and tell me what to do. I haven’t tried the options, obviously, so I can’t comment on them. Instead, I want to reflect on what I want from an RSS reader.

But first, a word about RSS. I’ve read and listened to a lot about Reader’s demise lately. A lot of people are characterizing RSS a a two-faced beast (most notably John Gruber, but I can’t remember if it was The Talk Show or some podcast on which he was a guest). One face is the user-interface like Google Reader. It’s how I read web pages. I almost never read a website that doesn’t have a feed. In fact, I read less than a handful of sites that don’t publish the full content in their feed.

The other face is this back-end plumbing, this architecture, this infrastructure that is RSS. How you read websites is a personal choice. But whether you pop over to DDoE to see what’s new or you check a feed reader, this site still publishes an xml file. You could write some software that parses that file. You could buy some software that does it. You could do something interesting like the Spreadsheet Page’s Excel Blog Headlines Page. The XML file is out there. Use it, don’t use it, but don’t get rid of it. It has value. Someone needs to build an interface that gets the masses interested in reading pages from a single source. Just don’t call it RSS and it will be fine.

What do I want from a reader? Here’s what I love about Google Reader:

  • Great syncing – Google updates quickly. Really quickly.
  • No duplicates – Google does a good job figuring out which posts I’ve read and which I haven’t. There have been a few glitches along the way but all-in-all it’s been solid.
  • Good rendering – For the most part, the feeds render the web pages really well. I hate the way it shows DDoE code, but other than that, it’s good.
  • Shortcut keys – Google respects the mouse-a-phobes and provides keyboard shortcuts for easy navigation. I can learn new shortcuts, but if they’re not there it’s a deal breaker.
  • Ubiquity – I like Reader on the web, in Chrome for iOS, and everywhere else I’ve used it.

Here’s what I don’t like:

  • Screen Real Estate – Nearly 1/3 of the screen is used up by non-value added bullshit. Some of that is Firefox, but everyone has to do their part.
  • No sorting – My folders are sorted alphabetically, which is the just about the worst way you could organize them. Let me assign a number to each folder that determines the order. Some feeds I read no matter what and some I read when I get the chance. I want the former at the top.

Every feed that I read falls into one of four categories.

News is the least important, the highest volume, the most skimmed (as opposed to read), and the least missed. I have some news feeds, but if they ever amassed too many unread entries, I have no problem blowing away large swaths. Some of my news feeds are:

  • AP Top Headlines
  • A couple Reuters feeds
  • Stack Overflow feeds
  • Netflix new releases

You see that they don’t have to be news in the traditional sense of the word. In fact, I should stop calling them that. Their most defining characteristic is that I don’t care if I miss something.

Content are feeds I read because they’re damn good. If I thought I missed something through one of these feeds, I would go visit that site to make sure. I’m going to read every entry posted to these feeds. That may be because I know the feed has short entries that take no time to read (web comics) or the content is just so good that it’s worth my effort to avoid missing any entries (kottke). Content feeds include:

  • Family memeber’s blogs (let’s call this content ‘highly relevant’ rather than ‘good’
  • Web comics like xkcd, Oatmeal, Savage Chickens, Dilbert, NIH, Scenes from a Multiverse
  • Signal vs. Noise
  • Street Smarts

Not only do I not want to miss a single post, I want to read these right away. When xkcd publishes, I don’t save that gem for later, I read it right now.

Some feeds I read out of obligation. I feel it’s my job to know what’s happening in the world of Excel, so I read a whole crap load of Excel blogs. Some are great and some aren’t. If it’s not a blog that solely exists to sell a product, I’m probably reading it whether I find it currently useful or not. I also read feeds about manufacturing and petroleum. I’m not going to miss a post on these either, but I don’t need to read them today. Mike’s Data Explorer post was awesome, but if I read it five days after he posted, it would still be awesome. I’m not going to list all the Excel blogs I read, you can read my OPML file if you’re so inclined.

Saves are either long reads or things that I wish I were interested in. The Harvard Business Review has some nice articles, but I save them for a rainy day. Same with Kahn’s Corner, Lowering the Bar, and a host of other sites. I may get to them someday or I may not. But I want them there.

My reader should have two panes. The left pane holds Content feeds. The ones I want to read right now. The right pane holds News feeds. It will be pretty full, but I’ll blow through them in no time. When I have no content feeds, the left pane turns to Obligaton feeds. The Saves feeds never show up unless I specifically ask. I can put any single post into Saves while still keeping the feed in another category.

I can set an expiration on any pane. I may say, for instance, that entries from News feeds go away if I don’t read them for five days. For me, personally, every other pane will be set at ‘never expire’, but others may want their Obligation entries to fall off after some time. The panes show all of the unread entries from the feeds assigned to them. If you want to see entries you’ve already read, you can search for them. Entries can be shown in chronological order or the reverse. Feeds can be rated 1 to 5 stars. A combination of age and rating determines what’s on top in a pane. The feeds inherit all these features from their pane, but can be overridden on a feed-by-feed basis. For example, I read almost everything chronologically so that’s how my news pane will be ordered. A notable exception is Stack Overflow, where I prefer to see the newest (least likely to have been answered) first and I will set that feed to be reverse chronological. All other feeds in the News pane will inherit the chronological property from the pane.

So there you have it. Give me two big panes, keyboard shortcuts, effortless syncing, and a semi-consistent experience across web and iOS and I’ll be fine. Oh, one more thing: I’ll pay $100 per year for the service.

7 thoughts on “For Whom the RSS Tolls

  1. Your observation is right on the mark…I was liking Feeddemon, but, alas, I see the person who keeps it up is no longer doing so…I liked how it fitted over the Reader to give me those things the Reader for some reason never did, e.g., sorting

    I am now migrating away from Google except with searching, because Google drops stuff for its usual secretive reasoning…I use Gmail as a backup to my main Yahoo email account…I have often wondered how much wasted memory and other resources Google, Yahoo, and M$ spends on supporting non-use, and wondered why they never purge….I would think Google could save a bundle with a purge of just Gmail, surely enough to save the Reader

    This would be a super time for Yahoo and/or M$ to step forward with something, maybe a ground-breaker….A ground breaker though I suspect will have to come from that innovating team the Eponymous Lads in the Garage, i.e., the Harvard drop-outs who come up with the latest, greatest techy thangy to be the next zillionaires, and we did not know we could not live without…This paragraph is why I am waiting till about a month before the Reader shutdown before deciding on what to do, other than transition more and more from Google

  2. At first, I moved everything over to BlogLines. It was the RSS client I used before I switched to Google Reader. It worked well.

    However, I am now using It checks each RSS feed and emails the new items to me.

    So, now, I have email AND RSS items all in the same reader — Google Mail. I have everything going to various folders, as I want them filed. It’s great. I love it.

    And the formatting of the RSS emails is wonderful. Better than what I saw in either Google Reader and BlogLines. And no need to email useful RSS entries to myself. I just keep it instead of delete it as I’m going through my normal email reading.

    I have some folders that are specific to an RSS feed, some where I mix various RSS feeds (a number of daily comics go to a single folder), and some where I mix RSS feeds and emails (e.g. my EXCEL folder).

    Go ahead and try one or two feeds, to see how well it works.

    To tell the truth, I was always surprised that Google didn’t add collection of RSS feeds directly to their Google Mail product. Why create a whole new client to navigate through received items?

  3. Possibly not much use now, given its impending demise, but you can drag and drop the feeds and folders to reorganise them.

  4. I’ve been using Feedly for the last couple weeks. On the plus side, it syncs with your existing Reader organization (while Reader is available I suppose), it’s free, it’s pretty (with configurable prettiness), and the UI is generally intuitive (especially in a full browser). The IOS app is much nicer looking than Reader on IOS Chrome, but takes some getting used to. I haven’t tried to find out if there are keyboard shortcuts, which is usually something I would demand too, but in this time of panic I’m more concerned about keeping my RSS addiction satisfied.

    I haven’t really identified any weaknesses vis-a-vis Reader, with the caveat that I haven’t sought out keyboard-friendliness.

    I tend to organize my feeds as you do (though not as fastidiously as you do). A couple options for the “Saves” include the built-in “save for later” option (which I have not tried), and integration with Pocket (which I am rapidly falling in love with).

  5. +1 for Outlook.

    It gives me email and RSS in the same program, and it’s the only program that’s open whenever I’m logged on.

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