Web Applications

Reviving RSS

Google’s announcement of the end of Reader created all kinds of interesting consequences. It gave a sense of the scale the Google now prefers to operate at. As people migrated away from Reader they were literally bringing alternative services down with the volume of demand being created.

For me personally it made me think about RSS for the first time in quite a while, I have a Reader account and the accompanying Google app but in reality I only really looked at it when I was bored. Given all the excitement and information flying around about alternative products I thought I would have a look at what was on offer.

The two I seriously kicked the tires on were Skimr and NewsBlur, I also looked at feedly but as I am more mobile web than mobile apps I wasn’t that taken with the pitch. I was also swayed by a NewsBlur blog that pointed out that moving from freemium to freemium wasn’t exactly solving the problem whereas an open source subscription model was more likely to avoid history repeating itself. Skimr was an interesting experiment and for things like Reddit and Hacker News where there isn’t really any body to the posts it was as good as any other alternative. However I realised that for blogs and news sites I didn’t really want to read a summary, particularly as news sites frequently truncate the content in the RSS feed anyway.

NewsBlur seems heavy on the client-side and has put its hands up to scaling issues but initially it was clunky and slow. I dared not run it on any other browser than Chrome due to its pig-like hogging of the browser resources. However things have got better and the extremely rich interface has become more bearable although there are still fundamental annoyances like hijacking right-click. Initial features that I didn’t like very much, such as site previewing, are actually useful in practice and the product feels like it is going somewhere.

The most interesting thing about the exercise was actually re-engaging with RSS generally. I had been relying on things like skimming Twitter and Reddit to catch up on all the key issues, it works and it isn’t a bad strategy for dealing with information overload. However as I started to subscribe to blogs from friends or even on the basis of enjoying a piece recommended socially I started to enjoy that feeling of spontaneity, it turned out that my friends were posting more than I thought and that in some areas such as science posting rates are slow but the quality is high so subscribing was a sensible way of catching up on them.

Some sites also turned out to be doing a terrible job of presenting their content and RSS actually revealed more pieces that I was interested in, take Review31 whose feed is interesting and also very different to their front page (not intentionally I would imagine).

In terms of the value of  a newsfeed I realised that I should have implemented an RSS feeds (global and per user) for Wazoku’s Idea Spotlight product. At the time I was obsessed with the fact that as an app requiring authentication there wasn’t a good fit between the idea of a public feed of data and a closed private app. In retrospect I should have seen RSS as a robust way of capturing an activity feed and allowing a user to browse it. As a machine-parsable format it would have made it easy to generate catchup pages. It is kind of irrelevant whether the feed is public or not. It feels good to see this sudden rebirth of interest and activity in RSS and shows that often change is something we need rather than want.

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