RSS is More

What’s the right way to use your RSS reader? Tim Lehman asks the makers of NetNewsWire and Google Reader.

Snarkmarket’s Robin Sloan doesn’t think I’m managing my feeds correctly. He said so himself when commenting on the Bureau’s best new blogs list. “All hail Joanne McNeil and her 749 feeds,” he wrote. “This is, by the way, the correct use of Google Reader. It’s not an email inbox… it’s baleen.” Consider me and my puny 95 feeds properly chastised.

Sloan’s reasoning for following so many feeds is compelling, almost romantic, even.

[William Gibson] said it’s like dipping a finger into the zeitgeist. It this river roaring past, and you’re just taking its temperature. The reason to go for scale — to subscribe to 700 feeds, not just 70 — is to increase the chance of weird combinations, of unexpected collisions that reveal something new and interesting.

However, the idea of following that many feeds terrifies me ― I can barely keep up as it is. I feel guilty whenever my unread count in NetNewsWire, a desktop RSS client for Macs, begins to pile up. The thought of missing any story gnaws at me, so the idea that I should be consuming news from eight times as many sources is a little frightening.

Gibson’s statement is bold, striving to reach some zen-like state where you willingly allow the rush of information to pour past, jumping in for yourself only when you feel compelled. Stretching this simile further, if following 750+ feeds is equivalent to a raging river, then maybe my ~100 are analogous to a small, woodland stream. Most of the time it’s entirely manageable — I could jump from one bank to the other if I had to — but sometimes, after a hard rain, it overflows and there’s nothing I can do but look down and watch from the bridge above. It’s less zeitgeisty than Gibson’s river, but I don’t have to worry about drowning.

I asked Brent Simmons, the creator of NetNewsWire, how these considerations factored into developing his software. While he was quick to point out that it’s impossible to generalize how people use RSS readers, and that of course there’s no “correct” way, he’s begun to worry about their utility.

“I do get concerned, though, that we, and our tools, haven’t evolved to handle this level of information,” he said. “It’s like when food is scarce, and suddenly it’s abundant — we over-eat. I think we over-read and over-communicate. It’s not just RSS: it’s Twitter and email and Facebook and IM and IRC and so on.”

I’m glad he brought up Twitter and Facebook, because it’s easy to forget that RSS overload is only really a problem for a specific subset of internet users. Simmons mentioned that at one point he figured out how many feeds the average NetNewsWire user subscribed to. It was 26. For most people, the question of how to deal with the crushing social ubiquity of Facebook is likely far more pressing.

I also spoke with Brian Shih, product manager of Google Reader, via email. He told me about the way using Reader changed the way he interacts with feeds:

For me personally, I know it made a big difference when we launched the ability to turn off unread counts. I used to try to read everything, but since turning off unread counts, it’s gotten a lot easier to just read when I want to, and ignore the rest.

I think there’s something to this. If I didn’t have that unread number staring down at me each time I open NetNewsWire, I might not feel so obliged to click through each headline (nor would I feel so guilty when I didn’t). But that’s such an obvious, surface-level detail. Surely, there’s something deeper, something more innate driving my inability to just allow those stories to flow past me.

Navneet Alang at Scrawled in Wax mulled over the same need for information in response to McNeil’s blog-bonanza-revelation:

How many feeds is not enough? This still feels like the right question. Because zero — or even fifty — is far too little. To be removed from that current would feel like death. But my problem is that my capacity to deal with that much potential information, always hovering just out of reach, has changed my ability to focus on one thing for an extended period of time.

So, how many feeds is not enough? That’s almost impossible to answer, says Simmons — “Enough for what, exactly?” — but there’s clearly a line somewhere. “I often think people subscribe to many more feeds than they need to, and they spend less time working on their own stuff than they’d like to. Which concerns me a lot, since NetNewsWire was designed to save time.”

Fever, an RSS reader designed by Shaun Inman, attempts to solve this very problem. By encouraging users to subscribe to as many feeds as possible, Fever self selects important stories based on how often they’re linked to by other blogs. The idea is to stop paying attention to unread counts, to free oneself from the tyranny of reading everything and focus just on reading what’s necessary.

In practice, I missed the unread counts. (It’s possible to enable unread counts in the application’s preferences.) As much as the buildup of unread feeds drives me crazy, I like the sense of accomplishment I feel when the counter hits zero — it’s the same feeling I get when checking items off a to-do list.

Not everybody shares that view. Judi Sohn, for one, says good riddance to unread counts:

I’ve always thought the whole idea of an unread indicator on a feed reader is silly. When you read the newspaper, do you really read every single word on every page? Does anything blink in your face telling you that you missed that article on page 14?

I think that comparison is misleading. While I don’t read every article, when I have time sit down to read the paper, I do try to at least glance at every headline. Using NetNewsWire is a similar experience — I don’t read every article piling up in my unread folder, but I always feel better flicking my eyes over each headline rather than resorting to the nuclear option and hitting mark all as read. That’s why I’ve switched back to NetNewsWire from Fever: I think it’s better for quickly scanning headlines and getting a better sense of everything that’s out there, rather than just what everybody else is talking about.

For me, I worry less about overlooking to information from the internet-at-large than missing a story from a favorite blog. Maybe I won’t experience some of the serendipitous intersections of news that Sloan talks about, but this way I don’t miss a single Gruber rant or Awl Listicle. That’s probably a false dichotomy — there’s no reason it should have to be an either/or decision — but it feels right. I don’t have any answers, but I do enjoy my spot by the stream.

Tim Lehman is a graduate of Macalester College. In his spare time, he attempts to relive the four months he spent studying in Amsterdam by drinking Grolsch and eating sub-standard Minnesota falafel. He may well be missing the point.