Feeding Our Reading Habits

When Google announced they were finally shutting down Google Reader I started writing a series of blog posts about the future of feed readers. I decided to release them together in one document; this is it.

Foreword

It all starts with reading.

For anyone who wants to work in technology, reading is the first step.

It has arguably never been more important to stay informed. Industries are changed by new knowledge every day. New opportunities are formed constantly in an ongoing online discussion. To be a part of that, one has to stay conversant in the topics of conversation.

Needing to read is the new normal. Yet the tools we use to read are barely keeping up with our need.

In publishing, many of the tools are actually working against us as readers. Some of us in the publishing world still love reading, I promise. For us, it has been especially hard to see the way advertising economics have driven the reader's experience into the ground. To make a buck at scale, publishers have to do ever more advertising against ever less original material, stretched out into ever more, thinner, smaller chunks. So the status quo for websites has become almost illegible, yet the volume of posts to read has become overwhelming.

In reaction, software developers have begun to build applications for readers that gather reading material, clean it up, put it in context, and make it easy to archive, respond to, and share. The market for these tools is in its infancy. But with the imminent shutdown of Google Reader, it's time for reading software to grow up. The old standard is going away, and a new standard for online reading must be built.

That burden is on publishers' shoulders as well. Their most dedicated readers have gotten used to Google Reader. Without a clear, compelling way forward, publishers stand to lose those people. So forward-thinking publishers are developing better designs and software, too. The road to a better future of reading is being paved from both ends, and we need to meet in the middle.

That's why Alex Kessinger and I started working together. He's a developer, I'm a writer, and we're both insane power users of a vast array of reading tools. We both want to save reading. As we've built both The Daily Portal and this book together, it has certainly felt to me as though we're making progress. We'll make online reading work for everyone when software developers and publishers are involved not just in conversation but collaboration. We'll build the next big thing together.

So it's a pleasure to welcome you into this book. Alex has a crucial perspective to offer on the future of reading. Not only is he a great developer, he's a voracious reader, and he may owe that appetite to the very technologies he's trying to save right now. Whether you're a writer, a developer, or anything else, you're a reader, so you have a vested interest in a bright future for reading technology. Alex has such a future in mind. I hope you'll listen to him.

Jon Mitchell keeper, The Daily Portal

Intro

It's an interesting time for feed readers. Google Reader will be closing on July 1st. The stated reason is declining usage. If that wasn't enough, feed readers have never seen widespread adoption, and by most accounts won't ever. Yet, everyday there is more to read, and the rate at which it's created is increasing. We need better reading tools, and feed readers are the best tool for that job.

Luckily, there are a bunch of people ready to take the torch from Google. There are at least 3 large companies, and 10+ smaller projects going after the market.

But, before we just rush for the solution, we should pause a moment and ask ourselves, what is the goal? We need to make sure that we know why we use these tools and how they help us. Maybe we can do more then just save these tools. Maybe we can grow them to a point where they can not only sustain but grow.

Ultimately, if the next wave of innovation can't fix these problems in a sustainable manner, we might be facing the extinction of feed readers.

So, here is my plan for this document.

We need to talk about why we are using these tools. How do they benefit us? Why the hell aren't more people using them?

Then, what are the tools that we actually need and what are just nice-to-haves? Also, what is the best way to use these tools?

Feeding Our Reading Habits

Why Use a Feed Reader at All

You Are the Reader

That gives you certain liberties; pace, time, place and context are yours to control. After all, with so much material in the world to consume, why not read on your own terms? This is part of the reason feed readers could be so powerful, because right now they're not, but they could be. They give the control back to you.

Control is the reason you would use a feed reader at all. They put you in control of your media consumption. It gives you the power to define the rules. In this section, I want to talk about the three kinds of control that you gain when using a feed reader.

The first is context. The ability to control the context in which you read is key. From an aesthetic context to an ideological one, you should not let it be controlled by someone else.

Second is pace, or efficiency. You should be the only one in charge of what you skip and what you spend time understanding.

Last is flexibility. Flexibility is important to the whole process. You need the flexibility to decide when to read, where you can read, and how you share with others.

Reading Context

Think about this: You could put similar feeds into topic based folders, or you could put differing opinions side by side. You could have have a folder where you could read the Daily Kos next to 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.

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 feed readers let users control the context is the most basic reason to use one. It's not that every website out there has a nefarious context. It's that we don't need to let the website make those decisions.

First though, in order to make decisions about context, the user must understand what is happening. So, how can context affect the user? There are a number of ways that websites make decisions for you. 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 less visible 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. But editorial choices can be more subtle than that. 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 miss a lot, and you could 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.

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, and when are all important when reading a website. The site should give those facts to you, but you can piece them together outside of the site. If I have subscribed to the Yarn Central blog in my reader then I know who is publishing the 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 myself.

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 become far better. Again, you don't have to concede context. For instance Yarn Central could say that Aunt Shirley is the inventor of the double-secret backstitch closer. Which could be true, but as a reader you might know that while she may have invented the double-secret backstitch, it's just a variant of the single-secret backstitch, which everyone knows that a simple eight-year-old in training could do. Fortune telling 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 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 for giving you the reading context you want. You have visual and editorial control. You can determine the rate and order in which you read. In its simplest form, the feed reader levels the visual design playing field, but it also strips the extraneous elements from the experience.

Context is king, and I will come back to this idea because it is so fundamental to the whole idea of feed readers.

Efficiency

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

I am a slow reader (of words, not feeds). For many years I struggled with consuming large amounts of information, but just before I went to college I read a book that helped me by clarifying my goals as a reader. Unfortunately, I have been racking my brain and can't remember the name of the book, but the quote, that spoke to me went something like this:

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.

It just clicked. Knowing what I was looking for before I dove into it would help me. I realized that reading was a tool and not the goal. Reading efficiently is the goal.

Reading efficiently 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 too much time reading. The idea is that reading efficiently covers the whole spectrum of reading goals.

Efficiency is a 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 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 feel as if you are missing everything. After all, skimming is 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 of news. 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 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 three or four 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.

Flexibility

Juxtaposition is a technique that is used and mis-used daily by the media to great effect without anyone noticing. 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 it's 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 of all kinds is basic tenet of a feed readers because it helps us build a richer context.

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 held up 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.

Here is one way we could make readers are more flexibly. While the hygiene of RSS feeds is lacking 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.

Network Thinking

The Sopranos is a story about a man that happens to be set in the world of organized crime. The Wire is a story about a setting, Baltimore, that happens to include a story about some people. They just so happen to be there so we learn a little about their lives, but the the real story is that of the city. This distinction is what makes The Sopranos one of the biggest shows of the last 20 years, and it makes The Wire a show with a small but vocal crowd who think it may be the best TV show ever made. Oddly, this comparison also illustrates why feed readers aren't used by as many people as they could be.

These two shows are both critically acclaimed, but The Sopranos has objectively won more honors. I don't think this was because The Sopranos was objectively better, though. I think it comes down to context, the network of stories in a long drawn out series and how they are connected in their respective worlds.

In The Sopranos, the stories are all closely connected through Tony. Everything could be understood through his perspective. On the other hand, the narrative of The Wire is solely connected through the city.

The way in which The Wire is written could create a problem for a casual viewer. First, you would need to understand the premise. If slow-paced stories set in a rundown city isn't your cup of tea, it might require a lot of time before you start to see that each thread plays apart in a larger story about Baltimore.

The second problem is that a viewer needs to keep a running context of everything that has happened. The history of the show is sometimes the only way some stories mean anything.

The Sopranos is not a simple show, or any less deserving of its accolades, but it is easier to watch. I have read more than one blog post opining about why The Wire didn't get a single Emmy. I think the simplest reason might be that it was just a difficult show to watch, and therefore fewer people watched it, but what made it difficult also made it so rich and pleasing to those who did watch it.

Now, here is the pivot. Comparing The Sopranos to The Wire could be like comparing a straightforward news diet of the daily paper, a few focused news sites, and possible one or two blogs, to that of a feed reader. For discussion purposes, let's call the former a focused news diet, and the latter a diffuse news diet. The focused news diet is to The Sopranos as The Wire is to the diffuse news diet.

The focused news diet, like The Sopranos, has a strong central thread. Each website you visit there is a couple of editors who really put their stamp on things. They make sure that the site is dialed in basically the same way, day after day. If you read the same blogs everyday, even single-author blogs, you begin to understand how they tick. There isn't much that surprises you or is orthogonal to the focused news diet. Also, like The Sopranos, the focused news diet is easy to consume. You don't have to try very hard, and it becomes like a habit. Even if you wanted to consume more news, you couldn't really, because the daily habit of opening all those webpages would become cumbersome if you tried to add in any more sites. Just like The Sopranos, you come away with a strong point of view from a few select sources.

Now compare that to the diffuse diet, the feed reading diet. The feed reading diet could easily include over 100 different news feeds that could be a mixture of professional, pro-am, and amateur alike. It could go further still and include feeds from aggregators that collect sources from all over the place. In this diet, there is no way any one editor will overpower another. You end up being your own editor. You must build a context for yourself. Like The Wire, this becomes the reward, understanding how stories relate to one another. Understand the underlying allegiances each site has to one another. By building that context yourself, each story means more and gets placed in a larger web of interest.

While The Sopranos will live on as a great show, it feels as if The Wire is beginning to ripen. The Wire will be a show that people discover slowly for a long time, and it's possible more people will end up enjoying it long after it aired. David Simon said this himself recently at an interview in San Francisco: "I have a knack for making shows that people watch only after they have been on TV."

Likewise, I think feed readers are an idea whose time is coming. We haven't seen the best days of feed readers, and if we aren't careful, we might not. But if there is a saving grace, it's that people who use feed readers use them heavily and don't want to lose them.

The Tools

The Feed Reader

The feed reader is thread that binds together the whole reading process. It allows you to efficiently and flexibly deal with massive amounts of information. It helps you organize feeds into a context of your choosing, and it helps you set the pace, place, and time in which you read.

Feed readers don't have one definition. Everyone sees and uses them differently, but I do think there is a set of core features that a feed readers should have, and there are a number of features feed readers have not yet developed that would be helpful.

Sync

Until information can travel faster then the speed of light, we will have to deal with breaks in connectivity. That is the number one reason why a user should always be able download all unread posts to a device. Past just being in sync, it helps a reader efficiently process information wherever they happen to be.

Discovery

Feeds have a natural rate of decay, or entropy. You as a reader need to slowly find new things to subscribe to, or you will find that over time you will have less and less to read. Purely by reading, you are going to discover new ideas, people, and feeds, but most feed readers currently make it incredibly difficult to subscribe to these new finds.

Offline Reading

To efficiently process information, you need different processes for sorting and reading. A feed reader is a great tool at quickly looking at many posts, but it's not the best tool for reading longer pieces. For that reason, you should use some form of offline reader.

Triage

The key to high-throughput reading. By putting feeds in folders and assigning them a priority level, you can make sure that you read what is most important to you on any given day.

The Cycle

What you are building here is a periodic cycle, one that lets you sort through the information that washes up on the beaches of your feed reader. In that cycle is a meta-cycle that I think moves people from being purely consumers into micro publishers, or, dare I say, "curators."

Sharing/Social/Curation

Curator is probably not the right word, but it puts us in the right ballpark. Reading for yourself is great, but in some sense putting in all this work demands to be shared with the world. Not only because others might find it interesting, but because it is helpful to let others help us understand what it is we are learning from our feeds.

Sync

Sync could simply be explained as the process of making everything the same in multiple places. In terms of a feed 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.

Maintaining context is another reason to make sure that all unread stories are downloaded. 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 back end would make it possible to do any kind of sync. Also, when considering the flexibility needed in 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.

Discovery

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 underserved 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; Social Media, 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.

Offline Reader

If you don't read many feeds, you might be able to just use a feed reader to process all your incoming posts, but you might be missing a more efficient way. While reading and sorting feeds are different processes, I think there is another just as important process that takes place outside the main loop of the feed reader. That is the offline reading process.

While reading a bunch of posts, you will inevitably come across a few that require more then a passing glance. You might be able to read it in one setting, but you might want to dedicate time to reading it and processing it. At this point, it is usually a good idea to have an offline reading tool.

Something like Pocket allows you to create a unified, ordered list of articles to read when you have time. I find myself sorting and quickly browsing feeds throughout the day and then, in the evening, going through my Pocket queue. I reserve this queue for posts that I know will be interesting or contain something I know I will have to concentrate on with laser focus.

In this way, you can queue longer items, and it can be a place you can always return to when you have time. I have at times had a list of articles that I knew could take a number of months to read, but it was comforting to know they were in a list I could work my way through when I had time.

The offline queue is an important part in the entire cycle, and I wouldn't try and tackle the onslaught of information without it.

Triage

We have talked about context, efficiency, flexibility, sync, discovery, and offline reading. Here is where they all work together. This is the most important part of the process, and it uses all the tools in one simple execution.

Information is created constantly, and if you choose to tame it you must be ready to handle it. You can't read everything, but if you sort your information sources, you can make sure that you read the most important things to you. This is the first step in a process that lets you sort all the information your care about.

It's a triage process. While you do this process, you shouldn't really be worried about reading long articles. The idea is that you are sorting the incoming stream, skipping crap with a vengeance, and saving things you want to look at for later.

I use 1 - 10 scale for determining whats important to me.

1 is a folder I call my Canon. These are sites I want to make sure I read every day. I want to read everything in there. The good thing about this folder is that it grows the slowest. The nature of quality content is that it's hard to produce, and few people can produce it. I can usually get through this folder in 20 minutes or so.

From there, it's personal preference. I have a trade folder where I keep all the feeds that concern my profession. I have a folder where I put cultural items (movies, music, literature). I have a folder dedicated to links driven by various link aggregators (pinboard.in, del.icio.us). I have a couple of folders where I place very high volume, low signal feeds. I go through these when I have time, and usually only browse titles.

The point isn't how you should group feeds, it's that you should group them. By putting them into folders, you free yourself from having to deal with the full stream all the time. Managing the torrents of information is as much about preventing them from reaching you as it is learning how you direct the flow of information.

Finally, using this system day in and day out is part of the ritual. Just as people used to read the newspaper, we need to read our feeds.

The Cycle

The Modern Hegelian Dialectic

Building a reading system is a one way to a thoughtful pursuit of information. It changes your perception of the written world. I sometimes think of this like the Hegelian Dialectic: thesis, antithesis, synthesis, but instead, in this modern world, we end up with something slightly different: discovery, consumption, processing, review, internalizing.

First you are purely a reader consuming bits of information. We all start here, and many stay here, but once you progress past the starting place there is no where else to go but into the cycle.

The first step after discovery and consumption is the processing phase. You might just have too much to deal with in one sitting, or you may want to segregate your piles into similar topics. Once you begin to apply order to the chaos you are forced to think about why you organize the way you do.

The act of applying order forces you to the next step, review. At this point you are building context as you read, you are segregating content into topics, and you might even be developing a keeper pile. Putting something in the keeper pile is an incredibly strong signal. This thing is so good I want to keep them around for future reference. Not everyone chooses to share what goes into that pile, but usually, if it means something to you, there is a good chance it means something to another.

Sharing what you have found makes sense for some people. Not everyone chooses to do this, even if you don't you are thinking critically about what you read and this will invariably lead to internalizing.

What we read has to be linked together into a network of knowledge. For some this means writing it down even if there is no plan to publish, but just like with a keeper pile, writing things down is usually a good sign that someone else might find it useful.

Then the cycle repeats it's self.

The C Word

I was finding choice links by following people who were good at finding them before I even knew what curation was. Often the reason I had great stuff to read was because someone dug up a good link. One of my favorites is Jason Kottke. He spent almost a decade, unpaid, learning how to find good stuff online. He found the crap that everyone was going to be talking about. For many, this is where the process stopped; at reading. Good stuff from Kottke, and you were done, but I wanted more. I wanted to know where he got his stuff. I wanted to be on the other side of his filter. This is when you start to wade through the crap.

Sure, "curation" is a word that has come under scrutiny lately, but I think Frank Chimero has a good explanation of how we use the word in "Sorting a Mass":

"I think the thing that separates the two is intent, not in the size of the pool of stuff or in the presence of an audience, but rather in the implied purpose of the gathering of content. To me, collecting is usually about propagation-the collection grows in quantity and diversity. Curating seems to be about illumination, and having that set of selected items, no matter the size, come to a point." - Chimero

Sharing links is exactly curating, but words are conveniently flexible. So, I recognize the debate, but a smattering of curation isn't bad.

Whatever you call it just do more of it. Deliberate sharing with a comment, not just a plain link or a 'Like,' is a strong signal. The fact that someone took the time package it, even slightly, can't be downplayed. That act is super important, especially in this newfangled world of online reading.

If you take the time to sort posts, sharing them for a reason is a natural extensions of that process. So, do all the other stuff, but if you ever get that urge to share, do it.

Now, I do want to recognize another kink in the curator dilemma. Curators steal content. I know it's probably not the best way to put it. It's always nicer to think that they just point people to the right place, or they frame content in a new light, but at the end of the day, curators don't create anything that could be considered a primary source. While it's not evil or harmful, it leads us to the biggest problem with curation and content in general in the coming future: who's going to create the content?

Luckily a great way to create content, is to be inspired by great content. Curators, if they are doing their job, are shoveling through the crap daily to help us find the best bits. The next natural step is to make your own crap for curators to shovel through.

Whatever you do, if you find something, interesting let other people know about it. Don't worry about what the act is called, just share.

Information Overload

Don't feel guilty about not reading the millions of pieces of information that pile up on your door everyday. Just don't. Half the battle in this modern era of information overload is learning how to not care about all the information. We call them feeds, or streams for a reason: they never end. Your only goal should be to build a better net. It's not to worry about unread counts or friend requests, or virtual corn fields.

Take your net, dip it into the stream, and see what comes out.

Conclusion

Advice for Developers

I mainly speak from the position of a user. That is why I am writing this. I wanted to create a framework for understand the tools we use, and I wanted to see if that framework could help us understand what's missing.

I don't think every feed reader needs to have every feature, but we do need to start thinking about the entire scope of this ecosystem or we are going to loose sight of what matters: the user.

We need to be thinking about using the best tools. Not just the best tools that a few individuals can make, but the best tools that can possibly be made. That might mean teaming up.

Here is an example screenshot of 5 different feed readers:

Google Reader Google Reader

Newsblur Newsblur

Feedbin.me Feedbin.me

Yoleo Reader Yoleo Reader

The Old Reader The Old Reader

They are built on different infrastructures, languages, design aesthetics, passions, quirks, and people. The all have different teams who are working hard on something that is hopefully dear to their hearts. But, these aren't different products. They are different interfaces.

Either there needs to be more differentiation, or everyone should work together to solve there common problems. Everyone is expending energy to solve the same problem because there is no off-the-shelf solution.

The Need for a Platform

David Pogue wrote a piece recently about Google Reader trying to explaining the situation in plain English. I think his piece exemplifies the current market while completely missing point.

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

"Google Reader is what's called, somewhat geekily, a newsreader, or painfully geekily, an RSS aggregator." - source

He is exemplifying 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

This proves a key point: There is no one way that people read. That means 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 survive as a Google product, 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 upon which others can experiment.

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 five or six 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 - unless you think about it like this: Someone needs to go for the platform play. I know I am biased, but hear me out.

If feed 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 back end operations.

This all leads me to believe that these silos shouldn't be silos. If you are making an feed 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 back end 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 back end. 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 back end. 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 Weiner 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.

Money

Call this the ominous foreshadowing, but it's important to talk about even at the end of this rant about reading.

CPM rates have nowhere to go but down. Most people have be trained to not pay for feed readers. There continue to be free feed readers even though no one can show that there is any way to make money from a free feed reader. Effectively, the content that we read and the tools we use to read it are in a place where there is very little money to go around if at all.

No matter how big the market is now, if we can't figure out how to pay publishers and tool makers, there won't be an ecosystem left to defend.

I don't have an answer for this. All I can say is that there is incredible value in publishing. There has to be a way for tool makers to work with publishers in some manner to sustain that value and even fund it.

If we don't figure out how to pay for it, it's just going to disappear.

Acknowledgement

I'd like to thank a bunch of people for helping me with Feeding Our Reading Habits.