ShellyBlog Shelly Brisbin's life consists of several long tails. She writes about them here.

March 15, 2013

The Three Cs of Reading the News

Filed under: General Store,New Media and Tech,Politics and Public Affairs — Tags: , , , — Shelly Brisbin @ 7:10 AM

When Google announced this week that it would be shutting down Reader, I took it as another indignity to be borne. I’ve seen services I like shut down, sold, and screwed up beyond recognition. And that’s just the Google stuff! Reader occupies a default tab in my Web browser. I check it first thing in the morning, and return to it all day. I have created something over 20 folders to sort my reading matter, which includes mainstream news sites, friends’ blogs, niche tech content, and long-tail feeds about things you do not care about at all. In short, RSS generally, and Reader specifically, are foundational to the way I live and work online.

I came late to Reader late. Back when I was running Blogger & Podcaster magazine, I had to keep up with what people like Robert Scoble said. And he was all about Reader and a complex web of shared lists and links. In those days, I was a happy NetNewswire user, not needing to sync my feeds to a mobile device or a second computer. So I ignored Scoble, partly because I found his righteousness about the whole thing aggravating, and partly because I wasn’t fussed about sharing what I was reading.

I changed the way I interacted with RSS about the time I got an iPhone. Or was it when a few friends of mine started sharing news items via Reader? I don’t recall exactly, but at some point I went all in with Reader, syncing to the desktop RSS reader, and eventually making that permanent browser tab and all those folders for News, Politics, Podcasting, Longform Writing, Fluff (I Can Haz Cheezburger?), and so on. For a long time, I devoted this here site to a link blog of items I was sharing with friends. It wasn’t the most original content in the world, but I thought my choices were interesting, and the ability to share in this way gave me a means of commenting on the world in a way that was completely in my control, and fun.

Well, the Goog killed off the Share feature just in time to put a lot of its social eggs in the Google+ basket. Being unwieldy, and not a place many of my former Share buddies spent time, Google+ (which does have a tab in my browser), never became a place I cared much about. And like a lot of people, I got more and more things to read from the social networks. But these have never replaced RSS for me. The Three Cs that explain why I prefer RSS to other methods of information-gathering.

  • Completeness: Twitter sits on my desktop as I work during the day. I read it and Facebook (probably too much) when I’m at the computer, but hours sometimes go by when I don’t see Twitter. There’s the phone, of course, but I’m not glued to it. Because of the sheer volume of stuff available (I follow 500+ people, talking about topics ranging from cocktails to iOS; accessibility to Austin food), there’s no chance of scrolling back to catch up on what I’ve missed when I’m not plugged into TweetDeck. Unlike a good RSS reader, Twitter is an asynchonous fire hose, even with lists. I could follow fewer people, but if I have better ways of gathering and storing information until I’m able to consume it, why should I? Twitter’s function is not to tell me everything I need to know about the world, but to offer a running commentary, while I’m available to consume it. Twitter works best if you think of it as a party line, or a live TV channel.
  • Customization: I do love my Google Reader folders, and they serve me well. Far better than Twitter lists, they allow me to concentrate on, or ignore a topic, based on what’s going on in my world. If I’m following an election campaign closely, the blogs about classic film can wait awhile. Ditto the stories about podcasting, when I’m hip-deep in a book about accessibility. If I need a break, the Music folder awaits. If I want to substitute someone else’s curation for my own, I can subscribe to Slate writer John Dickerson’s set of public RSS feeds. He’s subscribed to some right-wing sites, and though I don’t want to wade through that stuff every day, I do sometimes take a quick look, mark everything I don’t have time for as read, and move on to the pictures of cats.
  • Context: This one qualifies as a pet peeve. A couple of weeks ago, I went to San Diego for a conference. I used Twitter primarily to keep track of goings on within a quarter-mile radius. I needed to find people and learn about events. Politics and cocktails, for once, were not on my radar. When I got home, I re-activated the Twitter fire hose. The people covering politics were all on about “the Woodward thing.” I had no idea what they were talking about, and no one provided context. Could I have Googled it up? Sure, but why? Political sites whose RSS feeds I have stored under that tab would explain it in complete sentences the next time I checked. And frankly, I was put off by the assumption implicit in the Twitter shorthand that everyone was completely up-to-date with whatever temporal kerfuffle was blowing through the political world, even if it was a story that wouldn’t matter, 12 hours after it trended. This happens a lot, and not just when I travel. A story hits at 9 AM, and by noon, Twitter has stopped telling you what the story is, and proceeded to analyze it, hashtag it, shorthand it, and make fun of it. You have to be mighty curious to work up enough interest to find out what the holy heck is going on.

I realize that the thing I am attached to is not Google Reader: it’s RSS, and the ability to organize a large group of feeds so that I can consume them on multiple devices, maintaining update status, and controlling the ability to subscribe and unsubscribe as I like. A few other services exist (Google Reader pointed me to a Lifehacker article about them), and I think we have yet to know what the full RSS landscape will be, post-Reader. For my part, I’ve been pondering the feasibility of maintaining my own synced RSS feed file on a server I control. There’s still research to be done on both the server and client sides of that equation. I have til July, apparently.

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