Can’t be RSSed

I have been thinking a little bit about RSS recently (it’s the sort of exciting life I have). For whatever reason, I don’t seem to have as much spare time as I used to. Or at least, I don’t have as much time to read blogs as I once did. That’s what it feels like anyway.

I have had an up and down relationship with RSS. When I first started using it I thought it was a great way to just surf the web more quickly. No more visiting blogs to find that they hadn’t updated. No more visiting news sites to find that there is no news.

The problem is, once you have subscribed to more than a few dozen RSS feeds, it simply doesn’t work like that. I try to keep track of hundreds of blogs, plus a few other websites. So every day when I arrive home, or even when I wake up in the morning, I find myself trying to work my way through hundreds of articles, many of which probably won’t interest me all that much.

What was once a nifty way to keep track of several websites has become somewhat oppressive. The whole exercise of reading blogs has become a perverse game — how quickly can I get that ‘unread’ count down to zero?

Google Reader likes to psychologically beat you with a stick with not just one but several unread counts on prominent display. Worst of all, it stops telling you exactly what your unread count is once it’s gone above 100. This usually happens at least once a day, and if I’m particularly busy some individual feeds (particularly Boing Boing) have even gone over 100 by themselves!

The worst thing about this is that you just don’t know how far over 100 you are. It could be 110, or it could be 2,000. A truly daunting prospect — it’s scary just to start working through them all.

Now at weekends I “catch up” on the RSS feeds I was too busy to read during the week. But because there are so many I end up just scrolling through them all without paying much attention.

The situation has got even worse recently, as I now keep a separate folder of feeds of Scottish political blogs for roundup purposes. Going through every single one of these articles before Saturday evening is a top priority for me every week now. But sometimes I suspect that I probably would have found as many great blog posts if I had just spent some spare time surfing around during the week.

On the one hand, RSS is undoubtedly an indispensable tool. But sometimes I can’t help but wonder if RSS has affected the way I consume blogs for the worse. In the most perverse instances I visit a website and see an interesting article, but I think, “I’ll read that later in Google Reader.” Then, a few days later, I find myself scrolling past that very article without giving it much thought.

I’m thinking of limiting the number of RSS feeds I subscribe to. I have been hitting the unsubscribe button much more often for several months now. But I find myself subscribing to other blogs even more quickly.

Perhaps it would be best for me to go back to reading a lot of blogs the old fashioned way. Even putting aside the issues over tyrannical unread counts, old fashioned blog surfing is good fun. It’s great just to explore what’s out there, to click random links in blogrolls, to actually read the comments (and occasionally leave a comment myself!) and so on.

I’ve already reverted to reading news websites the old fashioned way. Often I would wake up and find about a hundred stories from BBC News and waiting to be read. I soon found that I had the skimming-and-not-reading problem, and it wasn’t long before I just unsubscribed from all of the news feeds.

It would probably be quite different if I, say, wanted to catch up with news on my mobile phone while I was on the train or something. RSS is perfect for that sort of thing, and it would also mean I wasn’t deluged so much when I finally arrived home. But for me personally, that is no good because I have a pretty bog standard hand-me-down phone that wouldn’t be up to the job.

You won’t find me ditching RSS altogether any time soon. I will continue to read most blogs via RSS, even if it is a bit overwhelming. But for me, RSS works best for websites that don’t update very often. There is no denying that if you subscribe to just a few blogs or just a few news sites, the whole thing becomes a bit overwhelming.

Here is what Robin Hamman thought:

There’s something about hitting the 200 unread posts per blog limit on bloglines that fills me with dread – and leads to bizarre incidents where I have to close my eyes and click on feeds randomly because I just can’t face missing all that content knowingly.

It’s the same with me and my scroll-skimming. When it gets to that sort of stage, I have to ask myself, “Is this really the best way to be going about this?”

I think it is best to remember some advice I read on another blog (unfortunately I have forgotten which one). The basic gist was, don’t be afraid of unsubscribing. After all, you probably won’t miss anything that good. If it really is that good, you will probably eventually hear about it anyway.

In other words, there’s nothing wrong with surfing the web the old fashioned way, sans-RSS. Neil McIntosh considered the issue recently in relation to the fact that not many people have actually taken to RSS, with an interesting discussion in the comments.


  1. I take the middle road between trying to read all the posts and unsubscribing all together. If one of my feeds has many unread articles and it’s not that important to me, I’ll just mark all as read. That way I can keep BBC News in my reader, but not have to skim 300 posts on monday morning.

  2. This sounds uncannily similar to what I’m experiencing- I now read practically everything (around 200 feeds) through Google Reader, and its dawned on me that I only really visit four websites these days: Google Reader, Facebook (I shouldn’t admit to this), Wikipedia and, er, my hit counter.

    The horrible thing is that whenever I visit Google Reader, I find myself unable to do _anything else_ until I’ve got the counter down to zero… and if I’m having a bad day, Google will no doubt find some new posts to read in a “completed” category whilst I’m reading through another.

    I dare say that I even get a degree of anxiety when having to visit OTHER WEBSITES that I’m not familiar with the layout of.

  3. Ping! Facebook, networks, feeds and friends

    Wot I said:

    I (still) prefer LJ for feeds, if I miss stuff because I’m away, I don’t feel like I’ve a massive backlog, and can just look at a much more filtered view, without having to mark all unread. I keep thinking of experimenting with some proper feedreading software, but I do everything else via web based services these days, seems a bit of a backwards step TBH.

    Yeah, I gave up on Google Reader, it’s ok, but, well, not great. Back to just LJ as an aggegator, and relying on people to link to good stuff, and checking main sites directly. Seems to work well enough.

  4. I am much the same. It’s fine all the time that I check the feeds (I use desktop application – Feedreader) daily but as soon as I let it slip the trouble starts. Your attention is grabbed by the 378 unread count and like Robin I start to indiscriminately mark things read without really reading them just to lower the unread count and make myself feel both better and more productive. RSS is incredibly useful but not in the way I thought it would be, far from a time saving device, I find myself reading more than I would have done before embarking on the RSS project, I still use my browser for many sites though, comment feeds in RSS are quite unreliable – or so I have found – and so I find that any sites where comments are likely to be of interest are better read in Firefox. So in effect I have the best of both worlds. And the worst.

    Really interesting post though and I’m glad to find that I’m not the only one who feels pressurised by their own RSS count!