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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