I'm very close to declaring feed reader bankruptcy. And not just simple "I don't think I'll ever catch up with my backlog," but rather that I'll pull out of the whole RSS reading game all together. Needless to say, because of the ultimate subject matter--information collection and utilization and cultural participation on the Internet--and my own personal interests and tendencies this has provided some thinking... Here goes nothing:

Problems With RSS

Web 2.0 in a lot of ways introduced the world to ubiquitous RSS. There were now feeds for everything. Awesome right?

I suppose.

My leading problem with RSS is probably a lack of good applications to read RSS with. It's not that there aren't some good applications for RSS, its that RSS is too general of a format, and there are too many different kinds of feeds, and so we get these generic applications that simply take the chronology of RSS items from a number of different feeds and present them as if they were emails or one giant feed, with some basic interface niceties. RSS readers, at the moment, make it easier to consume media in a straightforward manner without unnecessary mode switching, and although RSS is accessed by way of a technological "pull," the user experience is essentially "push." The problem then, is that feed reading applications don't offer a real benefit to their users beyond a little bit of added efficiency.

Coming up a close second, is the fact that the publishers of RSS sometimes have silly ideas about user behaviors with regards to RSS. For instance there's some delusion that if you truncate the content of posts in RSS feeds, people will click on links and visit your site, and generate add revenue. Which is comical. I'm much more likely to stop reading a feed if full text isn't available than I am to click through to the site. This is probably the biggest single problem with that I see with RSS publication. In general, I think publishers should care as much about the presentation of their content in their feed as they do about the presentation of content on their website. While it's true that it's "easier" to get a good looking feed than it is to get a good looking website, attending to the feed is important.

The Solution

Web 2.0 has allowed (and expected) us to have RSS feeds for nearly everything on our sites. Certainly there are so many more rss feeds than anyone really cares to read. More than anything this has emphasized the way that RSS has become the "stealth data format of the web," and I think it's pretty clear, that for all its warts, RSS is not a format that normal people are really meant to interact with.

Indeed, in a lot of ways the success of Facebook and Twitter have been as a result of the failure of RSS-ecosystem software to present content to us in a coherent and usable way.

Personally, I still have a Google Reader account, but I'm trying to cull my collection of feeds and wean myself from consuming all feeds in one massive stew. I've been using notifixlite for any feed where I'm interested in getting the results in very-near-real time. Google alerts, microblogging feeds, etc.

I'm using the planet function in ikiwiki, particularly in the cyborg institute wiki as a means of reading collection of feeds. This isn't a lot better than the conventional feed reader, but it might be a start. I'm looking at plagger for the next step.

I hope the next "thing" in this space are some feed readers that add intelligence to the process of presenting the news. "Intelligent" features might include:

  • Noticing the order you read feeds/items and attempting to present items to you in that order.
  • Removing duplicate, or nearly duplicate items from presentation.
  • Integrate--as appropriate--with the other ways that you typically consume information: reading email and instant messaging (in my case.)
  • Provide notifications for new content in an intelligent sort of way. I don't need an instant message every time a flickr tag that I'm interested in watching updates, but it might be nice if I could set these notifications up on a per-folder or per-feed manner. Better yet, the feed reader might be able to figure this out.
  • Integrate with feedback mechanisms in a clear and coherent way. Both via commenting systems (so integration with something like Disqus might be nice, or the ability auto-fill a comment form), and via email.

It'd be a start at any rate. I look forward to thinking about this more with you in any case. How do you read RSS? What do you wish your feed reader would do that it doesn't?