[tweetmeme] When you decide you want to read online, where do you usually start? Do you open a browser and go straight to one of your favorite sites, or do you go to an app or a social platform? For a while my default starting place was Twitter, but I’m making a conscious effort to kill that habit and get back into reading the way I used to…in my RSS reader. I know what you’re thinking….how very 2005. Here’s how a few weeks of dedicating myself completely to my RSS reader has changed my perspective and opened my eyes to how great RSS still is.
Before the holidays it had been at least a year since I’d opened an RSS reader. I couldn’t tell you exactly why that is. I used to live in Google reader. It was part of my morning routine. Coffee and RSS was my winning combo. And then came Twitter. God bless it.
The rationalization for ditching an RSS reader for Twitter is pretty simple….why spend the time to keep an organized list of feeds when you can just drink from the firehose whenever you want? There’s been a lot of talk lately about whether RSS is dead or not, and it’s for that very reason. Most people nowadays chose Twitter as their feed reader equivalent of choice because is simple-stupid and requires no maintenance. Click the follow button, make a few lists and just let it run. Beautiful. Yesterday’s news disappears, nothing builds up and you’re always up to date. There’s no emotional commitment. You never have to deal with decisions like what to do with “200 unread posts”, or do maintenance tasks like “marking items as read” and “organize categories”. Hassle-free, guilt free, real time. Win, win, win, right? Not quite.
Here’s the thing – even though I read more than I used to now that I use Twitter, it’s changing how I read, and not in a good way. It’s just too easy to get swept away on random tangents and filtering is becoming a chore. I’ve started to realize not only that adding more filters to cope with the volume isn’t working, but that going to the social sphere first for my news is actually the core of the problem. Here’s why…
Organizing RSS feeds by source and category promotes better horizontal awareness across sources
After I had taken the time to get my reader back in order (took about an hour), I made this observation almost immediately. Scanning headlines across categories of blogs and news sources on a single page in a way that was meaningful to me was much more valuable than scanning Twitter lists and people’s streams. Titles appear just once (instead of multiple times on Twitter), and spotting popular memes quickly becomes far easier.
Pulling feeds into one meaningfully-organized site leads to more focused reading and improved clarity of thought
Using real-time social sources as your primary reader turns you into an impulsive scanner. Unfortunately, it’s hard to spot the damage being done until it’s too late. Honest heavy Twitter users will all admit to a 15-30 second “tick” when reading on-screen becomes boring for no good reason. It’s an impulse I can only describe as a sudden intense urge to “go somewhere else and read something new”, even when what you’re enjoying reading something smart that requires 5-10 minutes of focused attention to fully appreciate. It’s like a timer goes off in your brain that overrides your concentration and starts nagging the part of you that’s enjoying the content to quit in the name of seeking the chemical high of discovering and sharing something new. Over the last month of using my RSS reader, that impulse is disappearing and I feel much more in control of my attention. I spend much more time with a fewer set of feeds. I read to the end of articles two or three times as much as I used to.
Some might argue that scanning is how you read the web effectively, but I disagree. If there’s one thing that this simple experiment has taught me, it’s that effective reading isn’t just about increasing your awareness of lots of topics and news, it’s about training yourself to synthesize, analyze and think deeply. And you can only do that if you set up the right conditions for yourself, and limit distractions.
No ads and similar formatting help your reading habit
I won’t harp on this because I think it’s obvious. Fewer distractions and similar text and formatting help get you into the same mental zone every time you sit down to read. It’s a lot easier to build a habit of reading 5 articles in a row from 5 different blogs every morning that all look the same in one window than to do the same thing hopping from site to site. Content switching is the devil.
Reading fewer blogs more consistently helps you develop a more meaningful relationship with authors
I’ve just talked about the power of focus on attention and thought, but there’s an important compound benefit to spending more time consistently reading from your favorite sources….you get to know your favorite writers more deeply. Blogging isn’t dead, people. Attention is dead. That’s why blogging feels so lonely! Remember when blogging WAS social media? We used to get to know other bloggers MUCH more intimately because you were spending up to 5-10 minutes every post with other people at a time, and actually engaging in conversation with them instead of just “checking in” with a RT. What a revelation! I think we need to get back to that and I think RSS is the right vehicle to do it.
In any case, the long story short is that there’s a lot more meaning in the way we did things back in 2005. I think we can learn a lot from our former selves. I think RSS and blogging are far from dead, we just need to recognize when new tech isn’t doing us any favors and consciously teach ourselves better habits, even if we have to dust off an older technology to do it best.
Final Notes On RSS Readers:
For those wondering. Over the period of the month I did this experiment, I tried several RSS readers to see if the reader made a difference. It does. I settled on Feedly as my reader of choice. It’s easier to organize feeds than Google Reader and has better sharing functionality when you’re mid-read, and it surfaces “other blogs you might like” the way that GetGlue suggests other books, movies and music (etc) based on your subscriptions, which I’ve found extremely useful. It also is great at surfacing the most popular content from the feeds you’ve subscribed to, which is great. Just sayin’.