Info-whelmed? Should You Declare RSS Bankruptcy?
Photo by Torchondo.
If you’re a web-working freelancer of any sort, you’re probably following umpteen RSS feeds in your favorite feed reader (Feed Demon, Google Reader, etc.), with your subscription list growing by the day. Are you overwhelmed by the number of RSS feed items in your feed reader that you haven’t read? Are you tired of the “same” items appearing over and over in your subscriptions, even though you’ve read them already? Is using an RSS feed reader becoming counterproductive, even with a structured folder system?
Maybe it’s time to declare RSS “feed reader bankruptcy” and find another way to monitor your niches.
That’s what I did maybe 8-9 months ago, though I’ve never said it publicly. In fact, I didn’t even admit it to myself until recently, fully intending to go back to my Feed Demon app. The massive quantities of unread items and the duplicates generated by some blogging platforms just overwhelmed me. Half my day was spent browsing through feed items I’d never have time to read or use in any way.
Freelancers tend to be generalists, which means they need to monitor multiple niches all the time. For some people, a good RSS reader is ideal. If you’re not ready to give up feed readers just yet, I recommend you read Chris Garrett’s excellent 21 Niche News and Feed Reading Productivity Tips.
However, if you are fed up with using an RSS reader, what do you do instead to stay on top of a specific niche?
Let’s have a quick look at how the average person keeps up with their favorite sites:
- Random visits to websites.
- Browser-bookmarked sites categorized into folders, then visited daily, systematically.
- Random monitoring via RSS readers.
- Organized RSS reader folders (daily, weekly, infrequent).
- A combination of the above.
- None of the above.
Over the past three years, I’ve transitioned from one method to another, using whatever was most convenient. At some point last year, I used a combination of 1-4. The result was spending 4-6 hours a day browsing. Ridiculous, right? Talk about getting carried away. At the core of this problem lies one thing: following too many sites at once. I have a great deal of respect for Robert Scoble. I don’t know how he follows so many RSS feeds (and Twitter streams). I was up over 1,000 and didn’t manage it. Life’s too short to be spent this way.
A Solution: Niche-focused Monitors
One solution to the problem is to get focused. The answer lies in “niche monitoring”, which I’ve written about at length at Performancing (how to build niche monitors, etc.). There are a number of options for niche monitoring:
1. Meme sites. Techmeme and Megite are great for monitoring the technology niche, and there are other niche versions (such as WeSmirch for celeb gossip) popping up. Megite even licenses their technology – albeit $15,000 (the last time I checked) might be a lot to spend.
2. P*purls-style sites. While Popurls is very useful to me day to day, it’s a little too general to be a “niche monitor”. However, you can use Ericulous’s P*purls Clone Theme for WordPress to build a focused niche monitor. (Note: It’s now called OneNews Theme, because of Popurl’s trademark.) I’ve built several for my own use, and these are what have mostly replaced my feed reader. While you are limited a specific set of sites, unlike with Techmeme, you can always add more “RSS blocks”.
3. Surchur. Surchur. Surchur is an interesting approach that combines a tag cloud and search engine with a p*purls-style interface. Click a keyword in the tag cloud, or enter a keyword into the search field, and you get links from the same types of sources, presented in a fashion similar to Popurls. Surchur goes beyond niche monitoring, right to focusing on a specific keyword.
4. Voting sites. Using the Popurls site gives you an overview of what’s going on at some of the popular social media and voting sites such as Digg, Reddit, etc., as well as a large list of popular sites in many niches. If you want a more focused look at a niche, keep tabs on the section “homes” of voting sites. For example, Digg’s Science “home” page.
5. River of News. The term River of News is normally applied to a feature of some feed readers to present a stream of headlines aggregated from multiple feeds. This isn’t just feed reader feature anymore. An example is Techmeme River.
I’ve also been experimenting with niche-focused “rivers” on web pages, using WordPress. An example is my RideSpottr for the auto niche. It’s by no means pretty, has no style, and needs a lot of features before it’s truly useful. Still, it’s a start, and it frees me from using a feed reader. (There’s also an annoying caching issue with WP’s RSS parser, which results in the occasional blank page. This also affects my p*purls-style niche monitors, which use Ericulous’ OneNews theme, mentioned above.)
7. Other Solutions.
If you need to aggregate multiple feeds, there are numerous browser-based “RSS feed mixing” services that you can try. I prefer to use Yahoo Pipes, which generates a custom feed mashup that can be used elsewhere. (Sometimes I’ll burn the Yahoo Pipes’ output RSS feed in Feedburner, though this could slow things down in a production environment.)
There’s also a custom dashboard project that I hope to turn into a free theme. It combines several of the options listed above — including timelines, P*purls, and news rivers — to present multiple views of a niche. So on any given day, you can use whatever seems handiest. It’s still a work in progress at this point, though I’m nearly at the coding stage. (It’s part of a series of “research” WP themes for freelancers that I’m developing for my own use, but I will very likely give them away.)
Why So Many Options?
All this seems more unfocused than using a single interface such as a feed reader, but I actually find my niche monitoring to be far more focused using the tools above. Everything is browser-based, and I can go “wide” or “narrow” as far as monitoring topics. Throw in all the story leads found on Twitter (depending on whom you’re following) and I have a lot of choices for how I’m going to monitor topics on any given day.
Life’s too short to waste the whole day browsing, which is a danger of over-subscribing via feed reader. I’ve eliminated feed readers from my toolkit, and the result is that I’ve cut my reading and browsing down to 1-2 hours/day. This leaves more time to write, and for the first time in three years, time to relax.