I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

Sane RSS usage

Jacqui Cheng at Ars Technica wrote an article on why RSS is bad for you:

The first time I went without RSS in August, I simply went around to three or so of what I consider to be the best sites to get the latest news from. I combined that with my usual e-mail communications … and my regular scans of Twitter in order to figure out what was going on during the day. It was stress-free, and I never felt like I was missing anything—I knew that if something truly important or controversial blew up, I’d hear about it instantly via Twitter and our loyal readers.

The next day when I loaded up my feeds, there were literally thousands of items piled up from the day before. … And when I ended up sifting through them all, I realized that I hadn’t missed a single story doing things the “old fashioned” way—rather, by following all these feeds, I was instead seeing hundreds of iterations on the same handful of stories. And I was wasting time going through them all day long.

RSS is a great tool that’s very easy to misuse. And if you’re subscribing to any feeds that post more than about 10 items per day, you’re probably misusing it. I don’t mean that you’re using it in a way it wasn’t intended — rather, you’re using it in a way that’s not good for you.1

You should be able to go on a disconnected vacation for three days, come back, and be able to skim most of your RSS-item titles reasonably without just giving up and marking all as read. You shouldn’t come back to hundreds or thousands of unread articles.

What Jacqui did in RSS’ absence is always helpful: letting other people filter popular news sites for you. This is critical to sane RSS usage so you don’t need to subscribe to the frontpage feeds of high-volume blogs (Engadget, Lifehacker), aggregators (Reddit, Hacker News), or general news sites (The New York Times, CNN). If you like those sites, either browse them “manually” without RSS whenever you feel like it, or just wait for people to link to it from Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, or Google’s social network of the year. And let this role inform your following decisions on these networks.

But if that’s the only way you get your news, you’ll only ever see the most popular articles. If you’re trying to get away from the “echo chamber”, that’s going to make your problem worse.

RSS is best for following a large number of infrequently updated sites: sites that you’d never remember to check every day because they only post occasionally, and that your social-network friends won’t reliably find or link to.

I currently subscribe to 100 feeds. This morning, I woke up to 6 unread items: one each from 6 of my feeds. Granted, it’s a Sunday on a holiday weekend, so this is a pretty low-activity day. On high-activity days, I usually wake up to about 25 items.

I don’t use an RSS app on the desktop anymore: I just use the Google Reader site. I can check it whenever I want, but nothing’s in my Dock collecting red badges to distract me every few minutes.2

This setup works well. I can follow tons of low-traffic sites and keep my reading list more diverse than if I relied only on social links, but other people ensure that I never miss anything great on the high-volume sites.

  1. Abuse is probably a more accurate term, then, but it sounds ridiculous to call such a trivial, first-world problem “RSS abuse”. ↩︎

  2. I use Reeder on iPhone and iPad with the same usage pattern: no alerts, but it’s there when I want to check it. ↩︎