Friday, December 08, 2006

The RSS beast

Matt Linderman at 37 Signals posts about "Taming the RSS beast":
There should be an alternative to one-size-fits-all RSS feeds for busy sites.

Too many high-volume sites assume everyone wants to read every post. That's wishful thinking. Some readers may want 5+ posts a day from your site, but what about moderate fans who only want 5 posts a week? Or casual fans who want a mere 5 posts a month? These people just want a glass of water yet sites insist on pointing a firehose at them.
Matt goes on to quote the frustration of Khoi Vinh at his feed reader:
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.
Matt also quotes an older Wired article that nicely states the problem:
I want to solve the question of "I don't have any time and I subscribe to 500 feeds. I just got off the plane. What do I need to read?"
Current RSS readers merely reformat XML for display. That isn't enough. Feed readers need to filter and prioritize. Show me what matters. Help me find what I need.

Matt's post focuses on issues for people with hundreds of feeds in their feed reader -- a common problem for us geeks -- but I think the problem is much broader than that.

Not only do most people not want to read every post from various feeds, but most people do not want to go through the hassle of tracking down and subscribing to individual feeds in the first place. XML is for geeks, not something that should be exposed to readers. Most people just want to read news. Next generation feed readers should hide the magic of locating content.

Overall, feed readers need to do a better job of focusing on scarce attention. Readers have limited time. Feed readers should be helping readers focus, filter, and prioritize. Feed readers should throw out the crap, surface the gems, and help people manage the flood of information coming at them.

See also my Jan 2006 post, "RSS sucks and information overload".

See also my March 2005 post, "A relevance rank for news and weblogs".

See also my Sept 2005 post, "Findory RSS Reader, Part II".

Update: Got to love the title of this recent post by Nick Carr, "Lost in the shitstream".


Steve Eisner said...

Glad you picked up on this post Greg. I'm sure you see that one way forward is to do a lot of selective filtering for the user ... that solves the "don't want to read every post in a blog" problem. And while I admit that that's a real problem (including on the Signal vs Noise blog you quoted!) I think there's an easier way to get 80% of the way there. I blogged about it earlier this year at:

I repost this hoping that the folks who influence RSSReader v.Next will add in the simple feature of feed organization via prioritization. It's a more granular filtering technique that's complementary to something like findory but may be an easier first step...

Greg Linden said...

Thanks, Steve. Prioritizing feeds manually can help, but I think it takes a lot of time to do. That might discourage some people.

You know, what might be cool is if the feeds were automatically prioritized based on what you read. That would not require any work from readers and would be useful.

Going a step further, you could prioritize the articles themselves based on what you read. Which is what Findory tries to do.

Steve Eisner said...

Exactly - that's why I suggest that this is very complementary to something like findory. It's just that the one step further involves doing all the work you've done!
...whereas this just requires an rss reader to have + and - keys next to each feed (or something like that) :)

As I mentioned in the post, I really don't have to change the priority of a feed very often. If a high prio feed gets REALLY full then I admit it's not that important to me, and move it down. And on those rare days that I get some free time, I dig into the lower priority feeds. If one stays consistently empty, then I bump it up.

(As a side note, if there were a findory-powered RSS reader, I think I'd still want visible sources w/ priority controls to help me sort through all the recommended items.)

Anonymous said...

I see you're "RSS Sucks" and I'll raise you "the readers are hard to figure out."

Do you ever wonder why only bloggers seem to read blogs? There is such a dizzying array of ways to subscribe to blogs, read feeds, etc. To comment on this site join this thingy, to read this feed figure out this opaque reader thingy, to search a topic first search for a blog searcher.

At this point I have no idea how many accounts on how many reader/consolidator/search sites I've created. I'm just glad I don't need my SSN to create the accounts.

Greg Linden said...

Hey, Steve. Findory does have a feed reader at

Though it does not have the ability to manually set the priority of feeds, it does feature and highlight recommended articles in your feeds.

You can try it out pretty quickly by importing your feeds from Bloglines or by uploading OMPL. If you try it, I would enjoy hearing your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

I use live bookmarking to read almost 10 blogs, recently I added your blog in the list.

Anonymous said...

Um, what we need is a "feed of feeds." With social tagging. And AJAX. And monkey lovin'. And put something about "Bayes" in there too.