How to Internet: Staying Current

For the unini­ti­ated, phrases like “Subscribe to this Blo­g”, “RSS feed”, and “Feed Read­er” are just so much noise. So here’s a very short explan­a­tion: you use a “feed read­er” to “sub­scribe” to a blog using its “RSS feed”. Make sense?

To use a slightly more ana­log story, you can think of this whole thing as a way to build a news­pa­per of your choos­ing. (That’s the feed read­er.) You build this news­pa­per by choos­ing indi­vidu­al report­ers who your like (RSS feeds), and then their con­tent is auto­mat­ic­ally added to your news­pa­per every time they pro­duce it. This can be, as you might guess, a much bet­ter way to know what hap­pen­ing at the sites you care about than manu­ally try­ing to check them at an inter­val you care about.

It’s prob­ably true, though I have no data on this, that RSS feeds are known to about 20% of inter­net users. And that among those 20%, about 80% use and enjoy them. That oth­er 20% doesn’t like them for a vari­ety of reas­ons and so uses some­thing else.

In most cases, “some­thing else” means some type of book­marks sys­tem. The most com­mon form of this is a flat set of book­marks that you pick through and vis­it as it strikes your fancy. A slightly improved ver­sion of this is a simple folder set where you reg­u­larly open the con­tents of your folders into tabs. This can be fur­ther enhanced by break­ing down said folders into the approx­im­ate fre­quency you want to vis­it the site, and then open­ing them on roughly this sched­ule.

The whole book­marks option is not use­less or totally fool­ish, but giv­en the choice I don’t under­stand why any­one would choose it. RSS feeds are a clearly bet­ter solu­tion as they make it pos­sible for you to nev­er miss any­thing, make it easy to save things to revis­it at a bet­ter time, and can be made massively flex­ible and mobile in a way that web­sites rarely are.

There were once oth­er not­able RSS read­ers, but today if you’re doing it you’re almost cer­tainly util­iz­ing Google Read­er in some way. If you refuse, there are oth­er solu­tions that exist: many email cli­ent have RSS read­ers built-in, most browsers let you set up RSS folders, and some stan­dalone non-Google using cli­ents exist. But because they’re so obscure and rarely used, I’m not going to explain them to you.

Google Read­er is the best option for in-browser RSS brows­ing, and it’s an even bet­ter option if you like out-of-browser RSS brows­ing (because so many cli­ents for smart­phones, tab­lets, and the desktop use it for syn­chron­iz­a­tion). Bey­ond the fact that you’ll want a Google Read­er account, there’s not much advice about tech­no­logy to give. If you find the browser ver­sion inad­equate you can find one of many cli­ents for your desktop, iPad, or Android phone. Any spe­cif­ic recom­mend­a­tions I may have about soft­ware are too plat­form spe­cif­ic for me to feel they’ll be valu­able to share.

But as someone who’s been using RSS feeds for about sev­en years, I have a recom­mend­a­tion about man­aging all that stuff that you’ll now find so easy to col­lect. All feeds can be under­stood as belong­ing to one of two cat­egor­ies: Noise—content that you like brows­ing but rarely care to pay care­ful atten­tion to; for me this is things like The Awl, Giz­modo, and Boing Boing—and Signal—stuff you’ll be quite sad to miss items from; for me, things like I recom­men­ded yes­ter­day. This is the basic type of folder sys­tem I recom­mend set­ting up in Google Read­er.

A lot of people choose to only have Sig­nal in their feed read­er, and I do think that’s a val­id way to deal with the very real danger for gath­er­ing an over­whelm­ing volume of stuff that feeds cre­ate. But over the last couple years I’ve built a sys­tem that I think I pre­serves much of the serendip­ity that makes the inter­net such a magic­al place but removes much of the too-much-stuff feel­ing that fre­quently goes along with it. My Sig­nal & Noise sys­tem also works great for read­ing on the go.

Regard­less of your feed volume, I think you want to stick to less than 100 new items com­ing in as “Sig­nal” each day. This is the stuff that you most want to read, so keep it to a volume that you can really give care­ful atten­tion. Sig­nal is also the stuff you’ll cut last when you’re low on time to check these things, and you don’t really want it at so high a volume you have to cut it too.

Noise is your fail safe. When it all gets to feel like too much volume, you can mark all that Noise as read and feel little con­cern because you know you rarely find light­ning in there. But to my mind, you can eas­ily go through more than 1000 “Noise” items a day and you won’t feel much pain. (Though if you do have that much volume, I recom­mend you actu­ally have mul­tiple “Noise” folders, divided by top­ic area.) The time you spend on your Noise should come out about equal to what you spend on Sig­nal.

That’s because you can eas­ily “read” your Noise by rel­at­ively quickly glan­cing past the head­lines and click­ing just the 20 or so that strike your interest. Sort­ing your Sig­nal should inher­ently be harder, as it’s got a rather large pro­por­tion of things that you like, want to read care­fully, and maybe even spend a week think­ing about.

A final note on this sys­tem: because of the amount of stuff I churn daily and the per­cent­age of time that I do it without an inter­net con­nec­tion (anoth­er advant­age RSS has over web­sites) I per­son­ally find it use­ful to have an inter­me­di­ate folder. A “Noisy Sig­nal” folder of feeds that have between 1 in 5 to 1 in 20 items that I really care to see closely. That allows me to more eas­ily keep the inter­est­ing stuff I don’t have time to closely exam­ine while on the go togeth­er, for future exam­in­a­tion beside my Sig­nal folder. Wheth­er or not that’s a valu­able idea for you I’ll not spec­u­late.

To wrap up, RSS feeds are your friend if you have an interest in fol­low­ing more web­sites than you can check manu­ally at sane inter­vals. They can over­whelm if you jump in too deep, or without enough pre­par­a­tion. But using the Sig­nal & Noise sys­tem, I see more than most people could even fathom on a daily basis, but it takes just a frac­tion of my time and energy. And any such advant­age you can get, I recom­mend using.

3 thoughts on “How to Internet: Staying Current

  1. Carl Morris

    Nice tips.

    I’m cut­ting down.

    I long for one fea­ture – I wish I could set Noise feeds to flow past and not accu­mu­late. It’s fine for Sig­nal to have an ‘inbox’ num­ber. I some­times opt for the Twit­ter feed if it’s Noise, stuff like Boing Boing – exactly. Prob­ably not a per­fect solu­tion though as I can’t export an OPML.

    What would make this blog post funny would be if you gave us all your feeds in an OPML file.

  2. David Hayes Post author

    All you do is ask, all I do is give: My OPML file today (zipped, if you prefer). I make no claims of its per­fec­tions or value, but feel free to take a look at it.

    I do like the flow­ing Noise idea, but I wouldn’t use it. And it’s a little dif­fer­ent than what you’re talk­ing about, but Shaun Inman’s Fever uses an inter­est­ing and dif­fer­ent way of deal­ing with Noise.

  3. Kimberly Harwood

    I have to say I’ve been res­ist­ing using an RSS read­er for a long time, not because I’m fun­da­ment­ally against it, rather, because I’m lazy. How­ever, I’m going to use this art­icle as my impetus to do it and set it up in a way that’s actu­ally use­ful rather than just mov­ing the prob­lem into a dif­fer­ent envir­on­ment. Thanks for the tips.

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