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Outsourcing my Feed Reading: Info Consumption with the network

Some years back, I wrote a “Page Two” observing that Hunter S. Thompson had been the major literary influence on many letter-writers and would-be [Austin] Chronicle contributors who submitted long, drug-fueled rants of run-on sentences stacked on each other as though that is the way Thompson wrote. Really, the only things most of these writers missed was his brilliant sense of style, writing skill, wit, intelligence, and inspiration. Louis Black, see also Bruce Sterling’s SXSW 2007 keynote.

As most folks in my line of work, I’m always thinking about my information consumption patterns. Over my online life, I’ve read BBSes, USEnet, hunted text files in Gopher and WAIS, read the web, then blogs, then RSS, podcasts, video casts, email, IM…if there’s a digital way of representing “content,” I’ve tried to eat it.

That “eating” is a continual process of re-fining and re-learning the best way to go about finding the best things to read and then converting them into my own content.

The general problem is this: the allure of just “surfing” around is strong, be it in an RSS reader (where you make your own waves to surf) the “raw web,” your email inbox, IRC, IM, or any combination of those. Some may say that the problem is that there’s too much information. Instead, I think I just get charmed by the allure of surfing instead of working at consuming that content…with tools and systems that make it possible.

A vital part of existing in this information sea is producing what I call “original content.” This is content that isn’t just a brain-storm bounce off something else. While original content can be kicked off by other content — all you English and Philosophy majors out there know this is how knowledge works across time — the point is that there are new ideas and perspectives, if only judgments in original content.

As Bruce Sterling said in some podcast, it’s easy and fun to sit around and “be a genius.” Actually producing something is the hard part.

Consume, Talk, Judge, Produce, GOTO “Consume”

This weekend, while Kim was slaving away for Freedom, I fiddled around with the below diagram:


I went a little nuts there, but the key thing I started with was that top box, and it’s the topic for the rest of the below.

Reading Feeds

I’ve wanted to re-do the way I “read feeds.” Currently, I just have a pile of groups/folders with RSS feeds in them. I’ve got one for RedMonk stuff, one for my stuff, one for systems management, one for RedMonk customers, one for general code monkeyerier, one for news, etc. You can see a flattened list of my subscriptions over on my page.

Over the past 3 weeks I’ve sort of been ignoring the feeds on a daily basis. About once a week, I’ll go in a whack through a bunch of them. I went from 7,000+ unread the 3,000+ (still!) this past Sunday.

To me, this system is broken. I haven’t properly narrowed down and prioritized the feeds. The problem is, most feeds are of inconsistent priority. RedMonk feeds and my own are always top priority because they’re part of “me,” but other ones come and go in importance. I’ve been abusive towards all my friends feeds the most: you’d think I’d read those all the time, but I read them the least.

Now, let me clarify something: the system is broken for my need, my professional need. That need is to find the smartest, coolest, most helpful posts and pointers for what’s going in the world of software and hi-tech in general. Then, as the diagram above shows, be part of the input for me producing content in the form of blog posts, conversations, or anything else.

It’s not at all broken for me just wanted to have fun: I could spend all day just reading through all those feeds if all I wanted to do was entertain myself. But, my needs are in addition to entertainment. (And I’ve got all that damn travel and meeting planning to do as well ;>)

So, I got to thinking: what’s a new approach? network

My current theory, which I’ve yet to put into practice, is to find the top 10% feeds (screw that 80/20 hogwash! if the creationist wanted to piss off the Goddless, secular humanists, they outta ask how everything can so conveniently be split into 80/20…surely a Divine Intelligence must be behind such slashery) and just subscribe to those. Then, I’ll subscribe to my network which I’ve been slowly gardening over the past year or so.

The network isn’t the wonderful for: thing I’ve mentioned before. Instead, it’s a way of:

  1. declaring, yet again, who your “friends” are in some web app (, and, more importantly
  2. aggregating all the bookmarks from said friends.

I used to read my network in addition to all my feeds. But, as I got up to 20, 30, 50, now 72 people in my network, it was too much. In fact, it often gets up the 1,000’s of items before I whack at it.

The thing is, all those bookmarks in my network are often awesome. My theory of why is this:

  1. People I “friend” in are often interested in several of the same things I am.
  2. If someone goes to the trouble to bookmark something in, it’s probably quite good. Otherwise, why bother?

Now, it’s not a sure perfect system: there’re duplicates, and I don’t always care about some of the links. But, combined with the terse descriptions/commentary (hints of Twitter 140 character limits to updates here, eh? Eh?) I often find more usefulness and happiness in the network than my pile of feeds.

Other Sources

Now, there are other info sources:

  • Twitter – you know this one is good for high value links and even original content. In fact, Anne reminded me of this topic this morning via Twitter.
  • Pulling – RSS heads are used to having information delivered to them. It’s time to repeat the cycle and go back to searching for items. I do this quite frequently now because I more often know what I want to read about rather than looking to stumble upon something. For example, ColdFusion. Google Blog Search, Google News, and Technorati are good here. Search feeds are a sort of gray area; I’ve had happy success with search feeds with-in the context of my subscribed feeds.
  • Aggregators – sites like Techmeme, reddit, and The Mighty Digg. I like looking at these when I’m bored, but their news is always a little more entertainment to me than “work reading.” Nothing wrong there at all! I look at Techmeme pretty frequently. But, I find that the items I’m interested in those streams show up in my network…so why duplicate the effort except when I want some entertainment?
  • IRC and IM – I actually get a lot of good links and original content in IRC and IM. I’m thankful for all the people who take the trouble to IM with me or spend time chatting in #redmonk and #drunkandretired. I’m sure SecondLife could be like this, but sorely need that light weight, wire-frame only TronMode: at the moment I’m just interested in the conversation, not the visuals…and my crotchety old PowerBook can’t quite take full rendering along with everything else I run.

Getting Started

Ironically, I feel the need to read through all my current feeds to get started with reading less feeds. Somehow I’ve gotta find those 10% of feeds that I must read.

A large part of my job is keeping up with things, so I’m of course hesitant to screw around with The System I currently have, broken or no. It’s sort of a person shackles of success problem. But, hey, you know what I would advice someone else: dude, just do it…why assume you current system is any better?

Allow me to ask you, though, dear readers, what do you think? Do you use the network? Something else other than straight up feed reading (even prioritized into “must read,” “maybe,” “dead to me” groups)?

Disclaimer: Adobe is a client, but I don’t only search around for info about their stuff.

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Categories: Blogs, Collaborative, Ideas, RSS, Social Software, The Analyst Life.

Comment Feed

7 Responses

  1. I have a highly accurate, scientific system that flawlessly idendtifies just what I need to read. one day I'll implement it…

    Until then, I borrowed a book from how I organize emails. I used to get tons of non-spam emails. Many were to me, many more where ccing me or sent to a list of which I was a member. I created two rules… one that put the CCs in a CC folder, another that put the list emails in a lists folder. Everything in my inbox was thus something where I was on the To: line.

    For feeds I divide things into two buckets – Read Daily and Everything Else. Google Reader shows me a river of news if I click on the Daily folder or I can open that folder and click on a given feed.

    Everything Else contains things I like but don't care if I miss for a few days.

    Now, how I find things to subscribe to… well that's easy I… uh, hang on, the phone's ringing. I'll be right back… really!

    rick gregoryApril 17, 2007 @ 12:50 pm
  2. Sounds like a pretty good plan. But what's the best way to find people's usernames? Serendipity?

  3. My information stream consists of:
    – Google Reader with:
    – 'direct rss feeds'
    – linkblog feeds
    – Google Reader shared item subscriptions from friends
    – Filtered and combined feeds through Yahoo Pipes
    – subscriptions, both users / tags

    That combination is pretty close to what you are describing, and I guess with well targeted subscriptions and some fine tuning in Yahoo Pipes things can get even better

    Google Reader really makes this work. My subscriptions are tagged by subject, one or two tags per feed so I have a clear folder structure. Actually, Google Reader in combination with the Macbook trackpad. Without 2 finger scroll, this would not work as well.

    The folder structure makes it easy to go back to something too, though Google could improve this by making read items searchable.

    This way I read between 2 and 300 items per day from about 100 feeds. Not too crazy, but the information is varied and usually quite interesting.

    The crown to Google Reader is starring and sharing. I use the star feature to gather articles that I want to get back to later, but have no time for when I just want to get through half a days worth of new rss items.

    Yahoo Pipes is something I haven't heard you talking about yet. I only use it for one part of my info stream, and there, it's all I was ever looking for. Example, I like reading auto news sites, was subscribed to Autoblog for a while. However, at the astronomical pace at which those guys write articles things quickly became overwhelming. I have always wanted to just filter out the items that talked about my car brand..

    Autoblog's feed categories did that part of the way, but then yahoo Pipes came along. Now I have Pipes aggregate 3 car new sites, filter them for my interests and give me just those items in one feed. Brilliant!

  4. Cote – I see where your Twitter comment came from now!

    Any way I can help 'structure' my input better?

  5. rick: yeah, I consider the two folder approach frequently myself. It's alluring for sure.

    Obie: I find people to add by: (a.) I meet someone and hunt down their, or, more likely, (b.) find their blog and then hunt for their account. In truth, I'm one of those "Google Stalker" people: if I encounter someone interesting, I hunt down all of their URLs.

    Niels: I keep getting the feeling I'll have to start using Google Reader sometime soon, as much as I've liked the transition from web to desktop aggregator since last Fall. Yahoo! Pipes would be good to. I can see how it'd be nice for stripping out crap in feeds (decorations, etc.) to enable river of news.

    Ric: which Twitter comment do you men? I think your input is structured well, unless I'm forgetting something I said otherwise 😉

  6. Cote – your comment re using Yahoo Pipes … Did you see my suggestion re jaiku?

    As for my input, I guess I was saying I'm prepared to be a 'beta tester' if you have any new ideas …

Continuing the Discussion

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