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.


Tuesday, May 5, 2009 2:00:04 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
The problem is that you need a mix of both approaches. Blogs are like half of my RSS subscriptions (maybe even less) and there are some feeds that you don't want to miss a single post. What I would like to see is a reader where I can designate a feed as a "river of news" type or "must read" type. This way I can save time and frustration skipping the unimportant stuff (while occasionally taking a glimpse at it) but still be properly informed about things that matter.
Tuesday, May 5, 2009 3:16:18 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
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?"
To be honest, I don't know that feeling.

I have a dozen or so rules sorting minor emails into minor folders. It doesn't take long to read the ones left in my inbox.

I think people think it makes them look important if they claim to be overwhelmed. But if they were actually important, they'd get their secretary or staff to filter out the important stuff.

When my RSS list gets too big, I unsubscribe from whatever feeds aren't as useful or interesting as the best.

Using Twitter instead might work in principle. But even when the Whale's not Failing it loses or delays quite a lot of tweets; and lots of sites that aren't achingly hip don't have a twitter feed.

Now that I'm over 35, I think I can safely say that this problem is due to a lack of moral fibre amongst the younger generation. Unsubscribe from your pointless feeds, tell people to stop sending you pointless emails, and say no to the extra fries.
Tuesday, May 5, 2009 3:22:04 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
I have a couple of labels which contain feeds I want to read all of, but i end each day with literally thousands of unread news articles - I only skim through a few(~50) of the latest per day

If you dislike feeling that you should read *all* the articles in your reader I have a suggestion - deliberately subscribe to far too many to read & sink into the river, it's helped me feel fine just skimming latest stuff as it's unreasonable for me to expect myself to read them all (and probably not possible)

Hope this helps & doesn't drive you insane instead ;-)

- imma
Tuesday, May 5, 2009 3:34:40 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
It's interesting that you feel that way. I find that using a reader such as RSSBandit is the most efficient way for me to keep up with the feeds I follow. I certainly don't feel pressured to read every post in every feed (although the feeds I follow have a pretty good signal to noise ratio). Once in a while, if I am overwhelmed, the Mark as Read button comes in handy.
Tuesday, May 5, 2009 3:35:49 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
Sing it! Amen! I wrote a very similar post a few months back: http://mikepk.com/2009/01/rss-bankrupt-were-in-a-new-world/

Rss-reader-as-email-client was an important approach to give people a familiar paradigm for adoption, but now that model is doing a lot more harm than good IMHO. The sheer number of sources makes it fundamentally untenable.
Tuesday, May 5, 2009 3:36:49 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
Darn typo... my blog is http://mikepk.com not mikepke.com
Tuesday, May 5, 2009 3:46:25 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
I also wonder whether or not twitter is going to kill (or at least diminish) RSS. More and more I'm getting to blog posts via twitter before I see them in my feed reader. And, I've found twitter messages easier to ignore. They do not (yet) have the "must read" status. I am still on bloglines, and don't have much incentive to move everything to google reader. I use bloglines very much in the "scan and open" method. I like reading articles in their native design (especially when it is design/code blogs, they have formatting that the RSS reader couldn't duplicate). So I'm able to open up a series of tabs and close the reader.
Tuesday, May 5, 2009 4:52:30 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
I built up my own reader from scratch and i've been using it for almost two years now. The biggest thing that I changed and which helped me consume news better was to provide multiple views of my feeds. I found that basing all rss reading on feeds was the biggest problem. I started with a tag cloud view by using the categories from the feed and if less then 5 were available grab some from the title. This really helped me because if there was news about google that tag would bubble up and I could read every google tagged article in a river of news style flow. I also made it so I could put weights on certain tags so that topics i'm interested in would bubble up faster. I then put weights on feeds so that in that river view i'd get the latest google news first from the blogs I found more important. Check my blog but I now have 4 very unique ways to consume rss and 3 standard ways plus a built in mark for later system. I've tried to keep a blog updated with what i've done, but i'm not much of a writer.
Tuesday, May 5, 2009 5:47:12 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
Have you had the chance to look at feedly (www.feedly.com)? It was created based on the idea that an RSS reader should not look like an email inbox list but more like a fun magazine-like experience powered by a personal recommendation engine. Would love to know what you think about it.
Tuesday, May 5, 2009 6:02:07 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
I think you're over-analyzing this. Its not such a big deal.
Bob W
Tuesday, May 5, 2009 6:55:33 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
To me the main problem is a lack of "intelligence" of the reader-software. In addition to features like categories/tags a good reader should give learn what is interesting to me much like an anti-spam software does.

My though goes like this:
Let the software
- display all items in river-of-news or by predefined folder structure or a mixture of both
- learn implicitly by using attention data (was an items title clicked to open the whole item yes/no)
- learn explicitly by assigning one or more categories (eg important, mustread, readlater, programming, seo etc) to news items (or by not categorizing an item, thus marking it not relevant) and then comparing alle the new items via bayesian filter/hidden markov model

Tuesday, May 5, 2009 7:38:37 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
Turning off unread item counts in Google Reader helps a lot, as it does in gmail, come to that. perceibgin things as flows rather than to do lists is the valuable part in both cases.
Tuesday, May 5, 2009 8:06:34 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
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.

This strikes me a behavioural issue, rather than a technical one. I don't read all the posts in my RSS reader. It doesn't bother me.
Wednesday, May 6, 2009 6:03:02 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
For me, at least, I've solved this problem.

With Google Reader, I've turned off all counts of unread things. I also have a category called _watch, which ends up at the top of the categories list. Occasionally I pop open the reader, skim down stuff, and read what looks interesting. The rest stays unread, except for the _watch folder, which I make sure to actually look through once in a while.

I specifically don't mark everything read, so I can go infinitely far back if I want. But I rarely scan past the first few read articles; that's a sign to me that there's not much rewarding there. Occasionally I'll focus in on a particular feed and read deeply, but 85% of my use is just to skim the most recent things and read what looks interesting, starring the occasional item for later thorough reading.
Wednesday, May 6, 2009 8:20:42 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
I think the folder model is broken, not the feed reader. I'd like RSS Bandit to dump the tree and adopt a tag based feed sorting/dsiplay model. It would also work better with Google Reader which I don't mind but find slow, prefer an off-line reader.

You then tag "must read" feeds to review daily, consume others as & when you want. Mark all as read isn't the end of the world you know! I have 1122 feeds in Bandit, maybe 20 that are "must reads" daily. It's like I didn't feel any obligation to consume an entre news paper!

Twitter was an unmangable mess until I "tagged" it by grouping follows in Tweetdeck, if you could integrate tweets into the Bandit, with a similar tag/group mode maybe it could embrace both worlds.
Thursday, May 7, 2009 6:58:24 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
It's going to get worse. Rmail 2.0 or Reblinks is going live this month. Clear out your inbox.
Thursday, May 7, 2009 9:59:52 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
Some excellent points in the post and the comments. I abandoned my rss reader a while ago because it provided less value (measured in time & energy) than surfing curated web sites. Finding a balance between information discovery and information overload is where I think rss readers fail and why people end up consuming content online instead. Scanning just seems easier for me online even going to a few sites than rss readers.

This is bc scanning eliminates the problem of all-or-nothing subscription - just because I like a post doesn't automatically mean I want all posts from that author. Your marking as read solution is I think tackling this problem which is indeed an issue I had when I used a rss reader. I do think though another problem may be part of the overall lack of adoption.

Could it be the use cases differ? I think email consumption is sender centric, you scan for authors first, subject second. Rss feeds on the other hand, are subject centric, i.e., the topic is more interesting than who wrote it. If that is the case, a single line for each item makes sense for email but not for blog content. Snippets help here but scanning for content still is better done online than in a rss reader.

So marking things as read is a good solution but maybe the interface itself needs to change. Ideally I would like commentary that bubbles up via collective intelligence methods (backlinks, digg, et cetera) so I can discover good new content people are finding along with commentary around my specific interests/headlines that I can scan for or set in a client.
Friday, May 8, 2009 11:26:08 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
I agree entirely, the metaphor of viewing RSS Feeds as email is broken.

I've been trying to put a new spin on this problem with my picoFeed project which offers a more 'Interest' (or Tag) based news discovery/consumption.

The idea being you're more interested in the content of blog posts than being 100% loyal to reading everything from that author.
Monday, May 11, 2009 12:05:15 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
cure your insomnia. use rss bandit. no kidding aside, there are feeds you're following all the time. after a while your brain becomes saturated. you're reading but nothing gets through and you are ready for bed. that happens to me only with information aggregator. it's not just a ui. it's how and what's represented in front of my eyes. there are many feeds and many unread items within on daily basis. if would prefer to go through my feeds looking at some form of summary or synopsis (or abstract as we do in science papers) for unread items. it's tiresome to read through complete item (even diagonally) in order to decide am i going to read it. that would be great improvement. it requires ui to change, meanwhile it requires bloggers to fill summary element to serve that purpose.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009 8:08:00 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
Amen to the idea of designating different feeds. In particular I need a way to separate the "newspaper" feeds from the "blog" feeds. I want to read everything my wife and Jeff Atwood :) posts. I don't want to read everything Slate posts. And I don't want to read anything on the random neighbor's blog, but I want keep the link around just in case I run into her at a PTA meeting. What I don't have it a way to separate these - I guess I could tag them.
Saturday, May 16, 2009 6:24:21 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
i gust want to say some thing "great job"

Update your Twitter randomly according to your intrest Or, from Rss Feed Or, from your own tweet message list Or, Any combination of t
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