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The power of the RSS reader

With the decreasing use of RSS readers over the last few years, which will probably be accelerated by Google Reader’s shutdown in July, many are bidding good riddance to a medium that they never used well.

RSS is easy to abuse. In 2011, I wrote Sane RSS usage:

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.

Yet that’s the most common complaint I hear about inbox-style RSS readers such as Google Reader, NetNewsWire, and Reeder: that people gave up on them because they were constantly filled with more unread items than they could handle.

If you’ve had that problem, you weren’t using inbox-style RSS readers properly. Abandoning the entire idea of the RSS-inbox model because of inbox overload is like boycotting an all-you-can-eat buffet forever because you once ate too much there.

As I said in that 2011 post:

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.

Building on that, you shouldn’t accumulate thousands of unread items, because you shouldn’t subscribe to feeds that would generate that kind of unread volume.

If a site posts many items each day and you barely read any of them, delete that feed. If you find yourself hitting “Mark all as read” more than a couple of times for any feed, delete that feed. You won’t miss anything important. If they ever post anything great, enough people will link to it from elsewhere that you’ll still see it.

The true power of the RSS inbox is keeping you informed of new posts that you probably won’t see linked elsewhere, or that you really don’t want to miss if you scroll past a few hours of your Twitter timeline.

If you can’t think of any sites you read that fit that description, you should consider broadening your horizons. (Sorry, I can’t think of a nicer way to put that.)

Some of my RSS subscriptions that my Twitter people usually don’t link to: The Brief, xkcd’s What If, Bare Feats, Dan’s Data (and his blog), ignore the code, Joel on Software, One Foot Tsunami, NSHipster, Programming in the 21st Century, Neglected Potential, Collin Donnell, Squashed, Coyote Tracks, Mueller Pizza Lab, Best of MetaFilter, The Worst Things For Sale.

Many are interesting. Many are for professional development. Some are just fun.

But none of them update frequently enough that I’d remember to check them regularly. (I imagine many of my RSS subscribers would put my site on their versions of this list.) If RSS readers go away, I won’t suddenly start visiting all of these sites — I’ll probably just forget about most of them.

It’s not enough to interleave their posts into a “river” or “stream” paradigm, where only the most recent N items are shown in one big, combined, reverse-chronological list (much like a Twitter timeline), because many of them would get buried in the noise of higher-volume feeds and people’s tweets. The fundamental flaw in the stream paradigm is that items from different feeds don’t have equal value: I don’t mind missing a random New York Times post, but I’ll regret missing the only Dan’s Data post this month because it was buried under everyone’s basketball tweets and nobody else I follow will link to it later.

Without RSS readers, the long tail would be cut off. The rich would get richer: only the big-name sites get regular readership without RSS, so the smaller sites would only get scraps of occasional Twitter links from the few people who remember to check them regularly, and that number would dwindle.

Granted, this problem is mostly concentrated in the tech world where RSS readers really took off. But the tech world is huge, and it’s the world we’re in.

In a world where RSS readers are “dead”, it would be much harder for new sites to develop and maintain an audience, and it would be much harder for readers and writers to follow a diverse pool of ideas and source material. Both sides would do themselves a great disservice by promoting, accelerating, or glorifying the death of RSS readers.

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