To RSS hell and back

Really simple syndication (RSS) can get unsimple in a hurry. When you first discover RSS, it may feel as though you’ve been bestowed a gift from the cyber gods. RSS initially feels like a vessel that can take you from ignorance to the information promised land.

One day, however, you may look up to see that Charon is piloting your RSS ferry.

3 landmarks along the path to RSS hell

  1. Discovery. Wow, RSS is awesome! I’m going to subscribe to every page with an RSS icon, starting with the high-volume blogs and major news sites. Where has this been my whole life?!?!
  2. Delusion. Yikes, this is getting a little out of hand. I can’t figure out what to read first. I need to devise a sophisticated tagging taxonomy so that I can see my new content by category. Okay, sweet. These 49 tags will definitely help. Back in business!
  3. Hell. Tags aren’t working! I’m spending way too much time on this. I’m reading RSS all day. And if I miss a few days, my RSS reader explodes, and I’m in jail. And so many duplicates! Apple just surpassed Microsoft in market share 17 times in 12 different feeds. I can’t remember the last time I ate, slept. I feel gross. I have a kid?

Like any other tool on your belt, RSS should ideally be more of a blessing than a curse. If on average I hit my thumb 8 times out of 10 with my hammer, I’d probably look for a new way to drive nails.

But don’t worry. RSS can be very useful; it just takes a bit of focus and maturity to keep it in its place.

Tagged: blessing, curse

When it comes to tagging systems, the sky is the limit. That’s a huge part of the problem. Tags are simply medicine – they can help, but only if taken in the right quantities. Overdosing can be more harmful than not treating the problem at all.

I have a theory that we tend to abuse tags for the same reason we overuse any other digital “object.” It’s because there is absolutely no (ostensible) physical or financial incremental cost incurred when using them.

In the non-digital world (known to some as “IRL”), we tag objects too. They usually have sticky stuff on them (price tags, name tags, etc.). But using IRL tags requires physically doing something, often paying for something, and quantities are limited. Keyword: limited. Natural limits keep things in check offline.

When you are not IRL, limits only come from one place: you.

Being practically efficient with RSS

There are so many different tagging approaches you can take. And what works for one person may not work for another.

Me? I find that a tagging system that ranks frequency over content helps me use RSS the most efficiently. Knowing which feeds I can blow off when I’m busy really helps keep me focused – and it helps ensure that I get to see the stuff I most likely want to see.

The three main tags I use are:

  • shovel
  • favorites
  • research

Tag: shovel

Merlin Mann is the first person I heard coin the term “shovel blog.” I won’t call any out by name, but you know who they are: the blogs that pump out 30+ posts a day like it’s their job. Okay, it is their job, and that’s why they do it.

I only follow a handful of shovel blogs. Regardless of their genre, I tag them as “shovel.”

I find that my time is best used if I don’t check shovel blogs more than twice throughout the day. It’s better to just let my shovel tag accumulate unread items and then scan headlines at the end of the day.

In this way, I impose a limit on how often shovel blogs can invade my realm of focus. The shovel tag is like a reminder that my time is limited, and I can only read so much of them. The update frequency outweighs the genre’s importance.

Shovel is also the first place that I declare RSS bankruptcy if I need to. I’ve made peace with the fact that I will miss a lot of what lands in shovel. I am NOT going to try to read it all. But every now and then I do see an interesting headline, and for that, it’s worth my time to do quick scans.

Tag: favorites

Sites must satisfy two criteria to get tagged as a favorite.

  1. They mustn’t update more than twice a day on average.
  2. They must be interesting to me.

I enjoy going into my favorites the most. I know that I will find really interesting articles typically written by single-person blogs. With few exceptions, my favorites tend to be less newsy and more “thought” oriented.

Tag: research

I’m always researching something. It’s just what my DNA told my brain to tell my fingers to do on a regular basis. I use Google Alerts to carry out some of my web-based research. Google Alerts are basically saved Google searches that run constantly.

I have mine set up so that when they find pages matching the search, they put the pages into an RSS feed. All of my Google Alert RSS feeds are tagged “research.”

Research also tends to be a high-volume tag, and I certainly don’t attempt to read everything that goes in there. Rather, when I want to “check my nets,” I can quickly scan for useful content, then purge.

Other tags

I have a handful of other tags that I use for feeds that don’t quite make the “favorites” cut but aren’t high-volume either. These get reviewed on a less routine basis.

The moral of this RSS story

If you find that my RSS strategy is useful for your own purposes, that’s fantastic. But the main message I’m trying to get across is this:

It’s well worth spending some time thinking about your RSS habits. Develop an organization scheme that promotes efficiency by minimizing the time you spend in your RSS reader.

If you’re the kind of person that feels like they need to see and read it all, please tread carefully with RSS. You may end up wasting a lot of time there. Remember that people existed long before RSS, and we got by fine.

RSS is just a tool.

Even if you only catch one or two interesting articles a day, you’re more informed than you were without RSS. You don’t have to read it all.

If you’ve been to RSS hell and made it out to tell the story, share it in the comments.

[RSS icon by barrymieny]