Farhad Manjoo has an article on Slate entitled Kill your RSS reader which captures a growing sentiment I’ve had for a while and ranted about during a recent panel at SXSW. Below are a few key excerpts from Farhad’s article that resonate strongly with me

In theory, the RSS reader is a great idea. Many years ago, as blogs became an ever-larger part of my news diet, I got addicted to Bloglines, one of the first popular RSS programs. I used to read a dozen different news sites every day, going to each site every so often to check whether something fresh had been posted. With Bloglines, I just had to list the sites I loved and it would do the visiting for me. This was fantastic—instead of scouring the Web for interesting stories, everything came to me!
But RSS started to bring me down. You know that sinking feeling you get when you open your e-mail and discover hundreds of messages you need to respond to—that realization that e-mail has become another merciless chore in your day? That's how I began to feel about my reader. RSS readers encourage you to oversubscribe to news. Every time you encounter an interesting new blog post, you've got an incentive to sign up to all the posts from that blog—after all, you don't want to miss anything. Eventually you find yourself subscribed to hundreds of blogs, many of which, you later notice, are completely useless. It's like having an inbox stuffed with e-mail from overactive listservs you no longer care to read.

It's true that many RSS readers have great tools by which to organize your feeds, and folks more capable than I am have probably hit on ways to categorize their blogs in a way that makes it easy to get through them. But that was just my problem—I began to resent that I had to think about

organizing my reader.

This mirrors my experience of that of many of my friends who used to be enthusiastic users of RSS readers. Today I primarily find out what’s going on in blogs using a combination of Twitter, Techmeme and Planet Intertwingly. The interesting thing is that I’m already subscribed to about half of the blogs that end up getting linked to in these sources on a regular basis yet I tend to avoid firing up my RSS reader.

The problem is that the RSS readers I use regularly, Google Reader and RSS Bandit, take their inspiration from email clients which is the wrong model for consuming casual content like blogs. Whenever I fire up an email application like Outlook or Hotmail it presents me with a list of tasks I must complete in the form of messages that need responses, work items, meeting invitations, spam that needs to deleting, notifications related to commercial/financial transactions that I need to be aware of and so on. Reading email is a chore where you are constantly taunted by the BOLD unread messages indicator silently nagging you about the stuff you haven’t done yet.

Given that a significant percentage of the time, the stuff in my email inbox is messages that were sent directly to me that need some form of response or acknowledgment this model is somewhat sound although as many have pointed out there is a lot of room for improvement.

When it comes to blogs and other casual content, this model breaks down. I really don’t need a constant nagging reminder that I haven’t read the half dozen reposts of the same tech news stories about Google, Twitter and Facebook after I’ve seen the first one. Furthermore, if I haven’t fired up my reader in a while then I don’t care to be nagged about all the stuff I missed since they are just blogs so it is OK if I never read them. This opinion isn’t new, Dave Winer has been evangelizing “River of News” style aggregators for several years and given the success of this model for social networking sites like Facebook and microblogging sites like Twitter, it’s clear that Dave was onto something.

Looking back at the time I’ve spent working on RSS Bandit, I realize there are a couple of features I added to attempt to glom the river of news model on top of an email based model for reading feeds. These features include

  • the ability to mark all items as read after navigating away from a feed. This allows you to skim the interesting headlines then not have to deal with the “guilt” of not reading the rest of the items in the feed.
  • a reading pane inspired by Google Reader where unread items are presented in a single flow and marked as read as you scroll past each item

Looking back now, it seems to me that the way we think of RSS readers needs to fundamentally change. Presenting information as a news feed where the user isn’t pressured to read every item or feel like a failure is one way to move the needle on the user experience here. What I wonder is whether it isn’t already too late for this category of applications as services like Twitter & Facebook take over as how people keep up to date with what’s going on with the people and content they care about.