Rethinking RSS

My relationship with RSS, while not exactly turbulent, has remained fairly amorphous over the last few years. In the Google Reader era, I used RSS occasionally to keep up with a handful of sites using Google’s now-defunct service, an iOS app called Feedler, and then, later, Feedler Pro — you could say I was moving on up in the world. Following Reader’s demise, however, I had to change things up a bit as I simultaneously lost my primary tool for participating in this medium and became much more enthusiastic about it. Unable to find any suitable web-based alternatives capable of syncing across multiple platforms though, I opted for the somewhat cumbersome route whereby I pointed my latest iOS RSS client, Reeder, directly at the RSS feeds I wished to track with. In other words, rather than signing in with a Google Reader account, I pasted the feed URLs directly into Reeder and let the app take care of the back-end work previously fulfilled by Google. Although this had the benefit of cutting out my reliance on middlemen, it came with one major downside: no sync whatsoever. Thus, unless I wanted to scroll through the same list of feeds multiple times for each device — and I did not — I could subscribe to and read these feeds on one device only.

Unsurprisingly, I chose my iPhone, and for more than a year my setup stayed the same: Reeder checked forty-two individual feeds every time I refreshed the client, and all was well in my world. Recently, however, I have begun thinking seriously about my workflow as the desire to expand the number of sites and writers I subscribe to has increased. With only so many hours in the day though, I had three options: stop following someone for every new writer I decided to follow, give up the desire to expand my sphere of influence, or become more efficient. I chose the third option, which meant decreasing the costs incurred when discovering new content as well as the signal to noise ratio. Previously, I had done just that on Twitter using Tweetbot’s excellent Mute Filters.

Faced with similar problems of wanting to follow more people than I had time for on Twitter, as well as a high signal to noise ratio, I used some of the suggestions Jamie Ryan made in his article Using mute filters to make Twitter better to do just that: make Twitter better. By cutting down on some of the unnecessary accounts I followed there and applying liberal mute filters for everything else I found undesirable, I vastly improved this experience. With success there, then, I decided to take a similar approach with RSS using Feed Wrangler’s Smart Streams.

Today, I have Feed Wrangler as my back-end syncing engine, keeping all my clients in sync. Notice I say “clients”, because I now have more than one: whereas previously I consumed RSS exclusively on my iPhone, I now have Reeder on my Mac and my iPad as well. This makes for a much more enjoyable reading experience, to say the last, and a much convenient one as well. More importantly though, thanks to Feed Wrangler’s Smart Streams, I was able to cut down on the abhorrent “20 things we learned from X movie” listicles, and incorporate high-volume sites known for putting great content out, like The Atlantic, in a very unobtrusive way. This transition has not only affected the way I discover new and interesting work, though, but may even branch out and alter the way I consume that work later on as well.

Whereas I used to save everything to Instapaper prior to reading it, recently I have found my use of its core feature — an aesthetically-pleasing reading environment — increasingly less useful. Rather than reading everything post-Instapaper sanitization, I have come to use it as a generic repository for everything until I re-open the pages on their respective sites. This shift has not only affected my collection mechanism, then, but may go so far as to fundamentally change the way I consume prose in the future as well. One step at a time, though; for now, let’s stick to consumption.