Discovery is a pretty broad activity for one tool, but the idea is simple. Some cycles are inward, convergent paths, meaning you end up getting deeper and narrower into a topic over time. For certain topics, this isn’t always bad. Often you would go deeper on subjects that matter to you. In general though, you want to slowly move outwards. It’s a form of diversification. You don’t want your sources to stagnate, or you could end up missing out on a larger context. The path you want to be on is the divergent one, the outward spiral. Cast a wide net first, and then edit out what’s not worth it. Unfortunately, discovery is woefully under served as a category in feed readers.

You could look at how a service like Facebook does it. Facebook uses a black box algorithm to populate your newsfeed with stories it thinks you will find interesting. It uses some form of machine learning to figure out what you want to see. It works pretty well, but most likely it is convergent, meaning it won’t budge at all from what you have looked at previously. Not the end of the world, but it’s rarely if ever going to surprise you. Part of making sure that your feed won’t stagnate is making sure that you keep pushing outwards looking for more voices.

So, if we had a discovery tool for feed readers, it should help with a few common cases: following sources, people, and possibly tags. The first two sources and people are easier to do now. Often sources will have firehose feeds for everything they publish, and if you really enjoy that source, it’s a good idea to subscribe. I really like The Awl, so I subscribe to a feed that has all their stories, regardless of who wrote them. On the other hand, I don’t always want to read all the stories that come from Wired, but I do want to know what Mat Honan is writing about. In that case, I will subscribe to just his author feed. In both cases, it requires a ton of manual labour to go find those feeds for individuals. It would be much more awesome if I had a tool that could aggregate stuff like this for me.

I call this tastestalking. You, for whatever reason, enjoy someone’s taste, and want to just follow what they have to say. In many cases, I found that people produce great content across many sites; Twitter, Del.icio.us, and Pinboard are just a few. If you end up following those people in many places, you can get a fuller picture of what and how they are thinking about certain topics, which in turn help inform your own thinking.

Another reason for discovery is so your feed is never empty. The best way to combat this is to follow people. Just follow anyone, seriously, anyone referenced in anything that is currently in your stream. The fact that someone you already read is choosing to mention another person is a positive signal.

You are also running up against a natural decay of feeds to which you did subscribe. People stop writing, they have major life events, their companies fold. There are a ton of reasons why feeds stop being published, so you should always be subscribing at a slightly faster rate then the old feeds are decaying.

And finally, edit. If a feed just isn’t cutting it anymore, kill it.

Juxtapositon In Feed Readers

Juxtaposition is a technique that gets used quite often without anyone noticing. It gets used and misused daily by the media to great effect. To understand the power of juxtaposition I think it helps to talk about the Kuleshov Effect:

“Kuleshov edited together a short film in which a shot of the expressionless face of Tsarist matinee idol Ivan Mosjoukine was alternated with various other shots (a plate of soup, a girl in a coffin, a woman on a divan). The film was shown to an audience who believed that the expression on Mosjoukine’s face was different each time he appeared, depending on whether he was “looking at” the plate of soup, the girl in the coffin, or the woman on the divan, showing an expression of hunger, grief or desire, respectively.”

The mere act of putting two objects next to one another causes the brain to create a connection between them. This technique can be used to synthesize ideas that aren’t actually represented in the frame.

It can even play a role in the daily rhythm of reading feeds. Just like film, feed readers are splicing together many different streams of information. In film, it’s a series of images, and in feeds, it’s a series of posts, but its the same principle. You benefit from the ability to organize your feeds into folders and then consume them as a group. That way, your brain can make connections between the posts. Luckily, feed readers are flexible enough to mix together streams like this, but it’s only one form of flexibility.

Flexibility is the basic tenet of a feed reader. It lets us get more out of what we read, it makes us more efficient, it even lets us juxtapose posts as we see fit to help build a richer context. Interestingly, Google Reader was founded on this premise.

If you read some of the posts that Chris Wetherell wrote about the birth of Google Reader, you will find that he considered flexibility to be one of the foundational pieces of Reader.

“I believed a feed reader’s interface might have to be athletically flexible to match a wide variety of reading styles.” — Chris Wetherell

I don’t think this is true of just the interface either. Feed readers are already flexible, but they could do so much more. Folders and labels are a great place to start, and, as we have seen, there are a great many feed readers that support this form of flexibility. But we could see more. Even if it’s just so that we can support more people. Again, Wetherell:

“On this point I’m relying on data that is attainable at Google because of size and market dominance as well as having routine user studies and follow-up. So because of this data I’m making an assertion that there is something inherently different about the inflexibility of feed reading styles than compared with other software.” - Chris Wetherell

If this has upheld over the years, it’s possible that we haven’t fully expressed all the different ways a feed reader could work. That means feed readers aren’t as inclusive as they could be. There is even a bunch of low hanging fruit that hasn’t been picked yet.

The hygiene of RSS feeds is lacking, but there is a lot of metadata that can be gleaned from feeds that doesn’t seem to be widely used. For instance, authorship and tags. Why don’t we see more feed readers sort information in this manner? Being able to read the most recent stories by Author X and the most recent stories tagged B seems like a great feature for a feed reader. If you built features using this sort of information, a feed reader could be even more flexible.

Hopefully, you can see a couple of reasons why flexibility is key for feed readers. The more ways you can put two stories next to each other, the better off you are. The more ways in which we can juxtapose two posts, the better off we are. These contrasts spark new ideas in the reader and create a more interesting context.

Reading Efficiently

Now that we covered context, I think it’s important to talk about motivation. It frames the entire issue. What motivates you to read? The answer to this question puts you on entirely different paths.

For example, if you are motivated to read to pass time, thats fine, but much of what I am talking about is useless to you. Yes, you are reading, but you aren’t reading for comprehension, nor are you reading because you want to move on to something else. Flipping through a magazine is like playing Angry Birds or channel surfing. It can be how some of us kill time, but it’s not reading efficiently. It’s fun, but there is no larger goal.

On the other hand, if you are motivated to read because you want to consume information and convert that information into knowledge, then you will want to read efficiently. That’s the kind of reading I’m writing about.

This can mean a number of things to people, and that’s fine. Some people want to read to stay up to date, others want to cover a lot of ground while not spending to much time reading. The idea is that reading efficiently covers the whole spectrum of reading goals.

Efficiency can be thought of as a mathematical formula. How much did you consume, in what amount of time, and what do you have to show for it? If you read a ton quickly, but you can’t recall what you read, then you are wasting your time. If you want to have a high recall, and thus consume a small amount of material slowly, that’s fine, but, as you can see, this is a balancing act. You need to decide what your goal is before you can do anything to optimize for it.

I try to practice a high volume, fast-paced, modest recall method. I read for work, for professional development, and because I enjoy it.

It can be hard to feel as if you aren’t just missing everything. After all, skimming is normally a lossy practice. It can be hard at times balancing skimming with understanding. But this is one area in which a feed reader shines.

One feature that many people ask for when they talk about replacements to Google Reader is de-duplication. A classic example is the announcement of a new service from a large tech company. Every tech blog is going to cover it. The argument is that if you subscribe to all the tech blogs, you should only see one article about the announcement.

But sometimes there are reasons to have many different posts about the same idea. It helps you to understand the main idea better. Each post will have a couple of different points about a new story. Each author understands the idea in a slightly different way. In this manner, by quickly scanning 3 or 4 takes on the same news story, you end up gaining many different perspectives into the announcement.

This helps you to understand what everyone is actually talking about. In this way, you can skim a number of articles, and you aren’t just doing this because you lack concentration. You are doing it because it can help you to understand the whole story.

More On Sync and RSS

Sync is key for feed readers got picked up by Dave Winer on Twitter here is what he had to say:

“Sync Is Key For Feed Readers (If so, then make web apps, and you’re done). http://4fj.r2.ly/” — @davewiner

And then Peter Rojas responded:

“@davewiner I need an offline mode for my RSS reader since I often read on the subway, so mobile app is important to me.” — @peterrojas

They went back and fourth a couple of times, but I think it boils down to the long term vs short term.

I am trying to write about what feed readers should do right now. People are looking for real alternatives, right now. Sync is still incredibly important for all the reasons I enumerated in the original article.

But, I have been told by learned people that most of what Dave Winer is talking about comes true. So, looking at this from his point of view I can see where he’s coming from.

Looking long, a few things are going to happen. The Internet will speed up. It will become more pervasive and your mode of consumption might converge. If that is the case then sync is less important. It’s totally possible that we will begin to converge upon HTML, or a common UI expression grammar. Again, if this is the case then sure a webapp could work.

Right now though, we don’t have much choice in the matter. We need to design something that can replace Google Reader and a key piece of that is sync.

Two Quotes About Google Reader

I understand that I am innately drawn to people talking about RSS readers. I shouldn’t be surprised when I find a good quote about Google Reader any day, but these are two good quotes.

The first come from a tubmlr blog, I thought it appropriate, called Britticisms. She seems to be an RSS reader after my own heart. In response to the question, could you list some of the blogs you subscribe to via google reader, she started with:

“I’m only going to post up to five in each category because I am a neurotic that subscribes to tons of feeds. I also organize all of my feeds in subfolders for easy access.” - Britticisms

While I have fully embraced my odd love of feed readers Britticisms seems to be down right coy about it. It makes me wonder how many people don’t talk about their feed reader usage because they find it “neurotic”.

Anyway, the second quote comes from Ask MeFI in response to the announcement of yet another Reader replacementt. The discussion like many MeFI discussions is above average for the Internet, but there was one user who hit a cord with me:

“July is going to be so much more of a pain in the backside than people realize. After the initial shock, a lot of people were blithely smug, saying Reader’s complacency had held the “industry” back and that there would be plenty of startups to fill the gap, even going so far as to wish it good riddance. They’ve got no idea.

I did a lot of reading in the days after the shutdown announcement, from current and former Googlers and developers who worked with RSS, including mathowie (who flirted with the idea of making his own clone). Reader is like an iceberg, the vast scale and utility of which is hidden behind its deceptively minimalist, even outdated homepage.

It’s not just the interface and UI, which is pretty easy to clone. It’s the staggering infrastructure that powers it – the sophisticated search crawlers scouring the web and delivering near-real-time updates, the industrial-scale server farms that store untold petabytes of searchable text and images relevant to you (much of it from long-vanished sources), the ubiquitous Google name that makes the service a popular platform for innumerable third-party apps, scripts, and extensions.

It’s possible to code up something that looks and feels a lot like Reader in three months, with the same view types and shortcuts. But to replicate its core functionality – fast updates, archive search, stability, universal access, wide interoperability – takes Google-scale engineering I doubt anybody short of Micosoft/Yahoo can emulate. It was very nearly a public service, and its going to be frustrating trying to downsize expectations for such a core web service to what a startup – even a subscription-backed one – can accomplish.”


I have said this a couple times now, and I will continue to say it. We don’t need another feed reader, what we need now is a stronger platform for all RSS readers.

Sync Is Key For Feed Readers

Sync could simply be explained as the process of making everything the same in multiple places. In terms of an RSS reader, I think it’s the technical cornerstone of the tool. Information doesn’t care where you are or what device you are on. It is created at breakneck speeds, and you should be able to manage it from anywhere on any device. While this is a clear value proposition, not everyone would agree, but there are other reasons why sync is important.

Until the world has an ansible, information will take time to travel, and any means of connectedness can falter for any number of reasons: trains, planes, or living in a place with crappy mobile service are all ways in which many of us experience unreliable Internet connectivity. One way to combat this is to make sure there is a way to sync all unread posts. Many readers already do this, but not all. One reason they don’t — and I don’t think it’s a bad one — is that downloading all of your unread items is slow. That’s true if you are just grazing for information. But is that what you want to do when using a feed reader? You have to answer that yourself if you are making a feed reader, but I, your opinionated author, would argue that you should just do offline as a start, and do any other sync as an additional improvement.

Another reason to make sure that all unread stories are downloaded is context. I want to know where I am in my unread items. I don’t need to know the number, although that would be nice. What I need to know is how close to the end I am. That scroll bar on the right-hand side of the screen shows you where you are in relation to the end of the feed. When things get globbed on to the bottom as you go, you don’t ever really know how far down the feed you are. If you had all your items on your current device, you would know where you were.

Importantly, I don’t think one type of sync precludes another. Having a well-built backend would make it possible to do any kind of sync. Also, when considering the flexibility needed when creating a feed reader, this might be one of those things that you should be able to do in whatever ways makes sense. By making sure there is choice for the consumer, you can satisfy a wide array of reading habits. Yes, this is another reason for there to be many reading UIs connected to one platform.

Thanks to Jon Mitchell (@ablaze) for editing this post. He just started on amazing new journey at The Daily Portal if you are interested in new ways of publishing online you should check out his site.

Super Human Reading Powers

Growing up I was told that I had a learning disability. Some form of dyslexia, I think, I don’t remember exactly what it was. I don’t really think about it that much now days because I don’t think its holding me back any. But, I have started to think that the reason I enjoy using feed readers so much is because of whatever learning disability I had, or have is. Also, how I use a feed reader as a tool to stay afloat could probably be used by others to achieve spectacular results.

I used to take these tests every other year or so. I remember them taking a whole day. They would ask me to do things like remember a series of numbers then repeat the series back to the proctor in reverse order. In another test they would equate words with symbols then display a page with only those symbols on them and ask me to interpret page into words. Some tests involved numbers, others involved grammar, and part was an oral interview about my life and how I dealt with school. The tests were used to test my cognition. How did information make it from the outside world into my head and what ways were best for me.

I was really bad at the reverse number thing. I couldn’t really go more then like 4 numbers. Holding things in my head has never been something I was good at.

Around my senior year in high school my parents got me a book about going to college and having a learning disability. If I can remember what it was called I will link to it here, but I can’t. The book had some good information, but there was one part that stuck out to me. It was something like.

You don’t have to read everything. What you need to figure out is what your professor wants you to get out of the reading. Then just answer that question. Also, if you enjoy something read it, but don’t waste time reading things that you only partially need to know.

It was an epiphany, It was this bright line that has followed me since. Up to this point I had felt as if I was failing at reading. I didn’t read everything that teachers assigned. Most cases, I’ll admit it, I was bored to tears by the reading, but other times, I just couldn’t read as fast as others.

In that moment though these two things in my life formed a new working theory for my studies. The recognition that I only needed to get out of reading what was needed for class mixed with all that testing helped me to realize that reading was a tool to gather information, and not the final goal. By understanding what I was looking for before I dove into it would help me at a bare minimum keep up with others. I realized that I just needed better tools.

At that time feed reading was just a glimmer in Dave Winer’s eye, but I was pre-destined to be a RSS user. Feed readers are the best tool for me to read a large amount of material, and walk away with some understand of what I just read. It is uniquely fitting to my cognition.

That said this tool that lets me stay afloat, should give everyone else super human reading powers. If I started with slightly broken cognition, and this tool is like my crutch, then for everyone else it should make them faster.

The reason why I think way to much about this stuff is that it has helped me out a lot.

The Pogue Piece on Reader

David Pogue wrote a piece yesterday about Google reader. Explaining the Reader situation in plain english. In it I think he exemplifies the current market while completely missing the larger picture.

What he gets right is the broad picture, i.e., What a feed reader is, and what has happened. He had a good solid broad definition. Makes it sound simple, which could be one reason no one wants to pay, but sufficient.

“Google Reader is what’s called, somewhat geekily, a newsreader, or painfully geekily, an RSS aggregator.” — source

What he unintentionally though is exemplify the market. I can tell from this snippet that he doesn’t read sites like I do, he doesn’t read sites like Daring Fireball that are full content:

“Occasionally, you can read the entire article without leaving the newsreader page; that’s up to whoever published the article.” — source

Which exemplifies the market. There are is no one way that people read. Which means that not everyone will be pleased with feedly, the reader he recommends as a replacement.

I am left with a sense of anguish, sure he covered the bases, but I just have more questions that will go unanswered. If Google Reader is so niche that it couldn’t be a Google product, why the hell is David Pogue writing about it. Also there is no talk of money. How is Feedly going to survive when they don’t have a viable revenue source? Aren’t we just looking at another countdown to the closure of yet another feed reader?

What’s ever more clear to me is that we need a platform. One that is paid for, so that we can create a stable base for others to experiment on top of.

Context Is King

Websites place content within a context of their choosing. They make certain decisions for the user that range from simple to subtle. The fact that using a feed reader gives more control to the user over context is the best and most basic reason to use a feed reader. While the case to be made is not that every website out there has nefarious reasons for its context. We simply don’t always need to let the website make those decisions. It’s not a simple binary decision. The user must understand what is happening. The question becomes how can context affect the user?

There are a number of ways that websites make decisions for you. For example, they might choose Arial as a font. That’s a simple design choice that doesn’t affect the site much and could hardly be argued to affect how you understand something. But, there are bigger, less aesthetic choices that have a far greater effect. Sites get to choose what their beat is. A theoretical blog called Yarn Central won’t spend a lot of time on toy trains. Which make sense, but editorial choices can be more subtle. When should a local website cover a national story? What kinds of stories does the Times of India run about Pakistan? These are all decisions that get made for a user on a given website, and if you choose to only read by essentially clicking around, you could not only subtly miss a lot, you could also waste your time. There is no need for you to accept the context that websites choose for you. You don’t need to concede context unless you want to.

Now some sites are inextricably connected to their design, but in those cases it probably doesn’t make sense to read them in a feed reader. Also, there probably aren’t many sites like that which you would want to consume in a feed reader anyways. The websites you would want to consume in a feed reader aren’t strongly connected to their design for the exact same reason that you would want to read them in a feed reader. They are meant to inform, and thus they tend to conform to a certain design aesthetic to make it easier to read. That is, in the best of cases. In the worst of cases, the design of a website is meant to incur as many page views as possible, actively discouraging the user from consuming the content efficiently. Either way, there is no need for the user to concede context.

Who, what, where, when are all important when reading a website. All of which a website should give you, but those are all things that you can piece together outside of a website. Once I have subscribed to the Yarn Times blog in my reader, I know who is publishing these articles. If I read something interesting, I will see who the author is. If this is a person I did not know previously, I can figure out who they are. This is a context that I build up. It’s unfortunate that, for far too long, managing this context has been put on the reader, but websites don’t always do this any better than an individual could. This is also a place where a feed reader is currently just as good as websites, but with a little work could be come miles better. Again, you don’t have to concede context. Just because the Yarn Times says that Aunt Shirley is the inventor of the double-secret backstitch closer doesn’t mean you can’t know that while she may have invented double-secret backstitch, it’s just a variant of the single-secret backstitch, which everyone knows that a simple 8-year-old in training could do. Prognostication aside, we all apply what we know externally while reading something on a website, so why not just level the context playing field and read everything in one place?

If you haven’t got it by now, the whole point is that we don’t need to concede context to these sites. In fact if you don’t use a feed reader, you miss out on a larger context. A context of your choosing.

The feed reader is the best tool at giving you the context you want. You have control over the visual display as well as editorial control. Past that, you can determine the rate and order in which you consume content. In its simplest form, it levels the visual design playing field, but it also strips the extraneous elements from the experience. Think about this: You could put common feeds into folders allowing you to pursue feeds that are common, or you could put differing opinions side by side. Think about a folder where you could read the Daily Kos next to the the Weekly Standard. That isn’t something an editor would naturally do, and yet because you are taking back the context, it’s something that you could do.

Context is king, and throughout this series’s I will come back to this idea because it is so foundational to the whole idea of feed readers.

We Are In The RSS Cambrian Explosion

I don’t think the revival of readers will happen because one person made it happen. This was hard for me to fathom, because I wrote an article about how there would only be room for one player, but we are in the middle of a Cambrian explosion. The people making the new readers are mostly going it alone, so far. But, on more than one occasion I thought to myself, what if they were all on the same team? We are seeing 5 or 6 individuals, and countless hobbyists, go up against a couple of VC-backed teams to replace a tight market. A market created because a very large player decided to vacate a market they don’t think is worthwhile.

We can’t escape the power law — not everyone will win — except if you think about it like this: someone needs to go for the platform play. I know I am biased, but hear me out.

If RSS readers need to be impossibly athletic to account for all the tastes in reading styles, how can we ever imagine one perspective will capture them all? Plus, we aren’t all looking at a complete separation of concerns. Just because I like to read in list view doesn’t mean I want my reader to also have a social component, and vice-versa. Furthermore, just because you can create a good visual reader doesn’t mean you are also going to be the best at handling the backend operations.

This all leads me to believe that these silos shouldn’t be silos. If you are making an RSS reader right now, you should look at the market. Look for that feature you hate or are panicked about creating. Their color scheme sucks, who would ever want a social reader, I can’t believe they don’t have a sync API, blah blah blah, those things you hate, those people should be your next conversation.

Basically, at each level, you should have cooperation. Someone needs to write the backend infrastructure for syncing feeds. On top of that, we should see a bazillion interfaces, one for every type of person. The key here is that each new interface should not be its own backend. That way you can try out many different interfaces and find one that works. On top of the basic interface, we need social aspects. What if you could share interesting things and they were exposed to more than the people on your respective feed reading silo?

Besides the things that you might think of as core to the feed reading experience, this would open the door for hobby projects. It would allow many people to play at the fringes. Many, many experiments wouldn’t make it, but the prerequisite to experimenting wouldn’t be developing a feed reading backend. Allowing for experimentation would be the most important part.

When I was an intern at Yahoo, I had the chance to go to a lunch where Jeff Winer spoke. I don’t remember the specifics of what he was talking about, but I do remember this one idea. He talked about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The point he was trying to make was that if Yahoo was purely trying to keep itself fed, how would it ever self-actualize? I believe he was arguing that we should reduce the number of competing projects internally so that we could instead concentrate on making Yahoo a great company. Like many things I saw at Yahoo, it was a great idea never used, but this is the key. If we want to see innovation, and we want to see the total size of the market expand, we need experimentation. We can’t all do that if we are trying keep ourselves fed.

Thanks again to Jon Mitchell (@ablaze) for editing this post. He just started on amazing new journey at The Daily Portal if you are interested in new ways of publishing online you should check out his site.