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.