Like many infosphere natives, I deal every day with a massive contradiction: On the one hand, I want to know what’s going on out there, and on the other, I want to get actual work done. Recently, the getting-work-done side has been suffering. So I massively reorganized my feed-reading setup, and it’s helped.

River of News · For years, Dave Winer has been preaching the virtues of the “River of News” approach to feed-reading: let it all go by in a big blended stream, look at it when you have time, and what goes by when you weren’t looking, well, you didn’t need to see it anyhow.

I’ve never been able to buy into that because there are certain people who are important to me: for personal or professional reasons, it is unacceptable that they post something and I not notice. On the other hand, triage is clearly required. And I’d rather not get into mass unsubscriptions; there’s a reason for everything I’ve subscribed to.

Buckets · The key insight is that I just had to make up my mind and sort the feeds into two buckets, one for the can’t-afford-to-miss stuff, the other for everything else.

NetNewsWire has made this easy, but I suppose most other feed-readers would let you do something similar. At the top level, I have two folders, named “A” and “B”; damn, that’s original. I keep “A” in expanded form so I can see who’s posted, and I navigate through it feed by feed mostly with the next-unread key, with regular recourse to mark-whole-feed-read.

The “B” folder is now a pure River of News, which is to say, in NetNewsWire terms, the folder is collapsed and all the articles in the feeds show up together. I scan through these—there are hundreds—really fast with the mouse-wheel, clicking on the handful whose subject line catches my eye, then with one click the whole feed-splodge is history.

I’ve cut my feed-reading time by a huge factor, and I don’t think I’ll be missing much that I’ll regret.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Sam D (Mar 26 2008, at 18:05)

I do something very similar, I to wish I could define the layout on a folder level, for the river I would like the combined view but for my reading feed by feed folder I like the traditional view...

Sam D

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From: andy (Mar 26 2008, at 18:16)

you are assuming, of course, we don't spend our days in our cubicle subscribing to every feed known to man...to pass the time!

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From: David Hall (Mar 26 2008, at 18:26)

I moved to similar type of system with feeds, but what has become a bigger problem in my life of late is podcasts. iTunes doesn't have this kind of functionality, and sometimes it's hard to just mark something as not new without listening to it, or once you start listening. And it's often easy to subscribe to something where there's 90 episodes already in the feed, each weighing in at a half hour apiece. In a few clicks, you can add days to what you "want" to listen to.

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From: Sylvain Carle (Mar 26 2008, at 18:41)

Same approach here, but with Google Reader, expanded and collapsed folders works the same way.

The killer feature for me, prompted the move from NNW to GR was the "share" option.

It's a "natural" output from reading feeds, sharing either to the world (cc:world, reposted on the sidelink section of my blog with one click) or to someone (oh, XYZ really needs to read that, share by email).

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From: Adam (Mar 26 2008, at 18:43)

Another thing to do is use the "Smart Lists" functionality of NNW to create lists based on Title, Subject, or other metadata. This helps filter the feeds in bucket B into more manageable reading lists and may highlight some gems that would otherwise go unread or passed over.

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From: aharden (Mar 26 2008, at 19:37)

Buckets. Bloglines. 'Nuff said.

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From: Don Lafferty (Mar 26 2008, at 19:59)

I can't agree strongly enough. It's one of the greatest challenges of participating in any conversation.

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From: Peter T - Webshop (Mar 26 2008, at 20:35)

I've found AideRSS.com a valuable resource in creating various groupings of feeds and the practice of using judgement and self discipline to know when to stop reading. =)

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From: Assaf (Mar 26 2008, at 20:54)

"I don’t think I’ll be missing much that I’ll regret"

I tried that, but couldn't make it stick, so ended up switching to "I don't think I'll be regretting much that I'm missing".

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From: John Cowan (Mar 26 2008, at 21:07)

So am I an A or a B? :-)

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From: Joe Clark (Mar 26 2008, at 21:20)

I think separate feedreader applications are just nuts for anybody who’s serious. I mean, I’m supposed to read 1,300 RSS feeds in 12-point font in a two- or three-pane interface in which every link opens in a new spawned window in another program?

I think not.

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From: Mark Meyer (Mar 26 2008, at 21:20)

What I would really love to see is for some enterprising feed reader to employ a sort of bayesian filter scheme similar to apple mail's spam filter, but instead of 'spam/not spam', it would be 'interesting/not interesting.' Perhaps it could even keep track of your reading habits (locally, of course) and factor your reading habits into the mix. Then you could make smart lists, etc. based on the interesting score.

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From: Josh (Mar 26 2008, at 23:03)

Mark Meyer, I agree!

I also would love to see Google apply the same "special sauce" they've got going for their Google News page onto Google Reader. Google should be smart enough to sense articles that are discussing the same thing, or reviewing the same new product, or sharing the same meme/link. Group them together so I don't have scan through so many duplicates!

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From: Whither (Mar 27 2008, at 01:47)

The problem is that every single RSS application out there is optimized for attention instead of ignorance. The tools enable you to subscribe and retrieve very easily but don't do anything to simplify the *reading*.

It doesn't have to be high-tech and automatic with Bayesean classification and whatnot -- just let me discard yesterday's BoingBoing posts that I was too busy to read without having to do it manually every day.

Simply being able to blanket-label feeds as "unimportant, but interesting" would be a huge boon to almost everyone that deals with the RSS problem.

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From: Kevin Dangoor (Mar 27 2008, at 03:32)

I actually wrote such a feed reader in 2005:

http://www.blazingthings.com/zestynews/index.html

Alas, I got distracted (http://turbogears.org/) soon after that product entered alpha testing.

By default, if you use the "river of news" style in Google Reader, it does some sort of filtering based on your reading habits. It looked to me like it's based on which feeds you read the most rather than the content itself.

Zesty News had a cool feature that I still don't see anywhere else, which is to group and sort feeds in certain ways. (Like BBC Top Stories: show the top 3 stories grouped together, in the original feed order).

One of these days, I'll get around to updating the Blazing Things site so that it no longer has Zesty News on it, but for now...

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From: Andrew (Mar 27 2008, at 04:30)

I use a similar technique, but my folders are labelled:

'Signal' and 'Noise'.

If I have time (and inclination), I can expand the 'Noise' folder and browse feeds individually, but if I'm in a hurry I can get the 'river of news' version and skim in seconds.

This has (mostly) stopped my zero-feed-count-chasing during the day.

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From: Sam Prince (Mar 27 2008, at 06:43)

@Mark Meyer: I think there was a feature something like you describe in RSSOwl many moons ago. You could rate individual items and I guess the idea was that it would return a filtered feed. The system was called Amphetarate - I'm not sure if it's still around.

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From: David C. (Mar 27 2008, at 09:59)

I do something similar using Apple's Safari browser.

I have a folder on the bookmarks toolbar where I place all my RSS feeds. Safari displays the count of unread articles for all contained feeds next to that folder's text. When the folder is opened, each individual feeds' article counts are visible. I can either select a single feed, showing it (and marking its articles as read), or I can click "View All RSS articles", which will display list containing the merged content from all the feeds.

Using the "Article Length" slider in the right-side margin, I can reduce each article's view down to a single line. If the title and initial text catches my eye, I can then click on it to view the linked article.

It would be really trivial to move from this to a system with two toolbar-hosted RSS folders, one for frequently-read feeds and another for less frequently read feeds.

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From: Michael Hall (Mar 27 2008, at 12:14)

I take a pretty similar approach.

NetNewsWire is nice because you can further tune how often feeds are updated individually or by group.

I keep a select number of high priority items on an hourly cycle, quite a few more on a four hour cycle, and then a bunch more on a 12 hour cycle, with the "skip during manual refresh" box ticked so they can't even menace my puny attention span if I find myself with a few idle minutes and want to make sure I'm all caught up with the important ones.

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From: Danny (Mar 27 2008, at 15:46)

Top-level, I have a Firefox bookmarks folder of a couple of dozen links which I Open in Tabs several times a day. Several of the tabs are Planets - Planet RDF, Planet XMLhack, Planet Swhack etc. Bloglines is another tab.

Within Bloglines I've about 10 by-topic buckets, which I peck as the mood takes me.

Stuff I don't want to miss is likely to appear in both (say) Planet RDF and Bloglines. The redundancy isn't bothersome.

I don't worry too much about missing important stuff (if it's that relevant to me I'll hear about it somehow eventually), or for that matter having lots of old items stack up - who cares wexactly when most things were posted?

I did try putting all my Bloglines subscriptions into a Venus install, but I found that totally unusable - trivia mixed with stuff I need for work.

So basically it seems to me the only reason you'd want River of News alone is if you're only interested in a particular subject (on a specific reader), or suffer from serious constipation and don't want a reminder...

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From: Patrick McElhaney (Mar 28 2008, at 10:34)

I read/skim entries in the order in which they arrive, regardless of source. I don't skip anything and never "mark all as read."

The downside is I tend to get several days behind. For most blogs, that's not a problem. This entry, for example, won't be any less relevant a week or a month from now.

But some of the feeds I read have actual news that I want to read as soon as possible. So I put news sites and newsy blogs in a folder called news (in Google Reader). I read the news folder first (G-L-N) and spend whatever time I have left in the all feeds view (G-A).

Patrick

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From: bifocals (Mar 28 2008, at 13:47)

I spend a lot of time perusing news online with NetNewsWire and a large number of subscriptions. But recently after learning about "alltop.com" I tried it. It is a nice interface. Now I start my day with "mac.alltop.com" and "news.alltop.com" and then just by moving the mouse I am able to read the expanded headlines. I find that I am able to scan the headlines a lot faster this way. Also, I watched one interview with the founder. The approach he described for selecting the sites for each of the categories is interesting (i.e., he talks to the experts in that field). The "about" link on their site gives more details. Check it out.

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From: Aristotle Pagaltzis (Mar 28 2008, at 15:30)

Patrick McElhaney:

That works… as long as you subscribe to a couple dozen feeds. By the time you’re hitting half a thousand feeds – even if you make sure you don’t subscribe any single feed with a torrential posting pace (I *love* glacially moving weblogs) –, you have such a fire hose on your hands that you need a triaging process. I go through some 300 or so items a day. If I actually read every single one of them, I wouldn’t be doing anything else, and if I filed the ones I didn’t read, I’d have five figures’ worth of backlog at this point.

C.f. The Navigator.

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From: Patrick McElhaney (Mar 31 2008, at 18:05)

At the moment, I have 199 feeds, and I'm averaging about 250 posts a day. I have 533 in the queue right now.

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From: Nathan Ridley (Apr 01 2008, at 17:24)

There is a bayesian feed reader that learns your likes and dislikes at http://www.feedzero.com - it's a web based reader and very new at this point, but looks promising.

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From: Antone Roundy (Apr 02 2008, at 14:54)

I doubt that I'm subscribed to nearly as many feeds as you, but my approach is to put it all in one folder, and as I'm skimming over it all, skipping most of it, if there's something I want to read but don't have time for in the moment, I flag it. Then once in a while when I feel like spending a little time reading, I go through the flagged items.

Sometimes when I'm particularly busy, the flagged item list gets a bit long. But nothing important is ever lost, and the system is drop dead simple.

And if there's a particular feed I want to catch up on more than everything else that's flagged, I can also click on jus that feed, and all of it's flagged items will still be there, whether they've gotten pushed out the bottom of the feed or not.

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