Robert Scoble famously posted about ditching Google Reader for Twitter a bit more than a year ago, and ever since I’ve been baffled at people moving to Twitter or Facebook to read their news. Business Insider even said a few months ago that Twitter has killed RSS readers. I’ve always been wondering how Twitter would be any better than RSS… that is, until I’ve actually tried it.
Now I’m just thinking those people are crazy out of their minds.
First, let’s put Scoble aside. This guy is clearly not your average user, he’s really out there. I mean, his performance concerns with Google Reader are completely legitimate, but he must be the only guy on earth that actually follows more than 20,000 people… and still uses the term “friends” to define them, by the way. And I’m not even talking about the feasibility of keeping up with that much information — after all, if he’s clever, he’s using tools to consume it all and make the trending subjects bubble up to the surface, or maybe he does it the other way around by searching for topics he’s interesting in right now instead of reading the timeline in a linear fashion. But average people (or, well, at least me) are following real friends (either their blogs, or the links/videos/pictures they share), a few websites pertaining to their interests that may not be related to web technology (knitting? cat breeding?), and other things that can’t be processed by some “trending” tool.
Anyway, I used Twitter instead of Google Reader for a couple months, and here’s what I found.
You know how it goes: you’re an internet hipster with blogs and Twitter feeds and all that kind of new age stuff, but only other internet hipsters read them. Your friends (at least the ones that are not internet hipsters) only stick to Facebook. So how can you bring your stuff to them?
At first, it seems easy: Facebook can pull “stories” from various websites and services. Go to your profile, and under the status update box, click “Options” and then “Settings”. You get the following interface:
That’s cool for most people. You bring in your Flickr photos, and your blog articles, and maybe a few other things… but what happens if you’ve got more than one blog? The “Blog/RSS” site can be only chosen once. Also, notice how you can choose Google Reader as a story source. Sure, this works, but the way your shared items appear on your wall is not optimal: they appear as “secondary activities”, presented like your comments or likes, sometimes merging several ones together which adds extra clicks to get to the actual article (e.g: “Ludovic shared 2 new items on Google Reader”, with only a link to your shared items page, which means you don’t know which 2 items were shared, as they may not be the last 2 ones if there have been other, newer ones since then). At least it was like that a few months ago (maybe they fixed it in the meantime, you tell me). That’s not proper spamming, so let’s do it the power user way.
A few years ago, Yahoo launched Yahoo! Pipes, a website that lets you build feed mashups. I decided to use that to aggregate all my stuff and post it on my Facebook wall.
It’s pretty simple, at first. You just go to the Yahoo! Pipes website, log-in, click “Create a pipe”, and add one source node for each site you want to pull data from. You’ll most probably use “Fetch Feed” nodes with the direct URL to your blogs and shared items RSS or Atom feeds, but you can also use some “Fetch Site Feed” nodes, too (they will find the actual feed URLs like any feed reader would do). Now pick the “Union” node from the “Operators” category, and plug all your sources into it. Plug the “Union” output into the “Pipe Output” node that should have been created by default for you. Voilà, you have an aggregated feed that you can import on your wall on Facebook!
Or do you?
One problem you’ll notice right away is that all the items from the first feed are displayed, and then all the items from the second feed, and so on… The “Union” node only built a, well, union of those feeds. You need to re-order them by date so that all the items from all the sources are correctly mixed together. For this, add a “Sort” node, as shown above, that will sort items by “item.pubDate”.
There. Fixed? Nope… not yet.
Now you have a user experience problem. All those items appear as “notes” on your Facebook wall, with their contents directly readable. If you’re pulling feeds from your own websites and feeds from elsewhere at the same time (e.g. your Google Reader’s shared items feed), it becomes difficult for your friends to figure out which stuff was written by you, and which stuff is just cool shit you found on the web and wanted to share. You need to create a differentiator, like for example prepend “Shared on Google Reader:” in front of each of your shared items’ titles.
I’m still evaluating different options but at the moment I’m using something a bit less user-friendly, although definitely more friendly to the websites from which I share stuff from: I completely replace the contents of the item with a link to the actual article on its original website. This means that people can’t read the item right there (they need to click on the link), but it also means the people who posted the cool shit in the first place get a visitor that will potentially start clicking around on links and ads if he linked whatever I shared.
For this I created a different pipe, although I could have hard-coded it in the first one.
This pipe basically gets my Google Reader shared items feed and processes it in a loop: for each item, I replace the contents with a link whose text is just the title of the item. Inject this new pipe into the first one (you can reference a pipe inside another pipe) and, at last, you’re done!
The only problem I’ve had so far is that, after adding my aggregated feed to Facebook for the first time, the mobile version of the website did something funky. Instead of weaving all those notes into my friends’ timelines, moving the older items behind the more recent updates from other people and applications, it put everything it could at the top. So basically, I really spammed all my friends with dozens and dozens of items that were several weeks or even several months old. This bug didn’t affect the normal website, neither did it affect the iPhone application, as far as I could tell, so I only got a couple complaints. And hopefully they fixed the bug since then.
That’s pretty much it. You can find the 2 pipes I showed here and here.
There’s been a lot of improvement in communications in the past few years, from better services to brand new ones, but I still feel like contact management is lagging behind. I mean, isn’t it important to be able to find how to contact somebody in the first place?
Here are a few things I think could be better.
I see a lot of articles on the internet these days about ways to trim down your RSS subscriptions, how to manage your time to read through all your items, etc. My opinion on this is the complete opposite.
I say: subscribe to many RSS feeds. Leave most of them unread. Or set them as read after merely glancing at the article titles.
Most RSS feeds have crappy articles (insert a snappy joke about this one here) or, at least, articles not relevant to you. Most of the RSS feeds you're subscribed to will only have a small fraction of posts that are of any use to you. It's the case even with great sites like LifeHacker or DownloadSquad. It may be because you subscribed to the whole feed, instead of a tag-specific feed, or it maybe just because that's the way things are.
When you read a newspaper, you leave articles unread all the time. You skim through a page and only read the articles that look interesting. There are some pages you know you're not interested in at all, like the astrology and crosswords page, the obituary page, the sports page, the economy page, whatever. These items are effectively kept unread. It doesn't matter. You can just skim through your feed items and read the ones that look interesting, given their title or author. Leave the other ones unread.
What if you miss something interesting or important? Well, get over it. You're missing lots of interesting or important things all the time anyway. In this day and age, you've got to trust your judgement in filtering out information, and you've got to believe that if something is interesting or important enough, it will resurface in several other feeds you're also subscribed to. Hence the need to subscribe to many feeds.
What about the fact that, with technology, we should really have something that's better than the way we used to read newspapers? Well you have a better way already. First, you don't have to go outside to get the newspaper. Second, you don't have to pay for it (well, the price is bundled with your internet access). Third, you could be reading more targeted stuff by filtering your feeds with keywords and search queries. Yahoo Pipes and other similar services can help you with that if that's your thing, and you know you won't be interested in stuff that you don't know you're interested in yet (which is an interesting paradox). But at the end of the day, you still need to filter out some stuff.
This whole thing is really about being okay with leaving lots of unread stuff. Recently, there's been some hype about the "zen mailbox", where people tell you that it's okay to delete email or not reply to it. This is the same philosophy, applied to RSS feeds.
Be zen. Unless you live in New York.