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 Scotsman.com 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.
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.