RSS: Really Simply Shallow

Subscribing to a site’s RSS feed is the most efficient way to keep up with new posts, but Brandon Lueken explains why it’s not the best way to read the web.

Early last spring, I realized that keeping up with every website I liked just took too long. To keep a tighter rein on my online habits, I downloaded an RSS reader—News Gator’s FeedDemon. But after some months of daily usage, I hated RSS feeds.

I found the way of organizing information outside the context of the original website to be alienating, and prohibitive of further browsing. The design of the RSS feed creates an unnecessary barrier between the reader and the author for the sake of convenience. As a result, I no longer felt like part of an online readership for many of the sites I used to frequent and, in some cases, found myself laughably out of touch with the sites that kept me up to date on current events.

The layout of my RSS feed doesn’t specifically prevent me from in-depth reading, rather the design attempts to encourage it. The layout of my RSS feed looks like this.

This is the ideal format, but not the standard. Often when reading personal blogs hosted by Blogger, the settings on an individual blog will collect images at the top in a header, or force me to click through to a separate tab to view the full content. However, in this format the headlines are bold, and often times I find that I will simply browse from headline to headline and not read a word of the accompanying article.

The worst crime of this layout is the little numbers that sit beside each feed. Originally, I started using the RSS feed to make browsing my favorite websites quick and easy, and I could catch up when I missed a day or two. But when the posts are assigned a numerical value, I find that I’m more driven to simply browse through everything briefly just to say I finished reading all the posts, rather than whole heartedly browse to my heart’s content. Those little numbers make reading a chore.

Another crime of the RSS feed is divorcing the content from context. Admittedly, the RSS feeds eliminate bulky layouts and annoying flash ads, but it also doesn’t allow me to see comments or encourage me to open links. Not only that, but I have to make sure updates to Flash have also been performed in the RSS reader, or else some content won’t display right.

I realized the problems of my RSS feed when I started reading a physical newspaper during my breaks at work. After making as much headway as possible on The New York Times crossword puzzle, I would flip through the rests of the Arts section, then move through the rest of the paper. I previously had the Seattle Times as an RSS feed, but the updates were so frequent that it was useless. Google News isn’t much better, and only offers you links to other articles anyway. I found I was more willing to flip through the physical paper and actually read the articles than I was online. Something about that format of the modern newspaper is simply more conducive to in-depth browsing than an RSS feed.

Admittedly Google News still has a place in my daily on line reading, but often outside my RSS feed. I found that even in Firefox, I was more likely to likely to continue reading a website than in FeedDemon. I started experimenting with my reading by browsing as much as I could outside of my RSS feed. I found that I was much more willing to catch up on other websites, but when I wanted to weed through a great deal of posts quickly to make sure I caught everything, the RSS reader worked like a charm. For collecting and sifting through information, RSS feeds are ideal. But as a primary lens for the internet, it is very, very poor.

However, I find I get more out of a physical copy of the paper than I do a website. I read articles to the fullest extent, trust the author more, and don’t try to cross-reference facts. The presentation of the information is more authoritative, while the internet is still tinged with despair as newspapers keep trying to solve the problem of attracting devoted readers and making them pay for the content. As it stands now, most websites are cluttered hodgepodges with poor design and information overload. I cannot conveniently flip to the Sports section; I have to dodge other headlines and clumsy navigation to get there Visually speaking, it’s not nearly as appealing, either.

Design matters because it dictates how information is presented to us—it can draw us in, or it could turn us away. I’m still working to find out what works best for me, but for those who claim to be platform blind–”the iPhone is just as good as a computer!”–you are obviously stupid.

Brandon Lueken is a graduate from the University of Puget Sound with a Bachelor's Degree in English. He has done many things, including editing his college newspaper, writing and directing a short play, angering large groups of people en masse, and acting as both the good and the bad shoulder angel. One day, Brandon hopes to give people their dreams, but whether this is literal or figurative, no one knows.