Content from 2013-06

A feed reader for readers

posted on 2013-06-30

I didn’t think I missed RSS. In the bad old days I read between 200 and 600 feeds at a time, for some definition of reading. I was always behind, and in the end I defaulted. When I logged back in and saw that long left column and all the unread counts – none of it made any sense.

The news of Google Reader’s demise made me stop and remember. When I left RSS, I had good intentions. I packed the few that were always worth reading – every single post – and resolved to keep up by hand, the old-fashioned way, clicking one link at a time. But resolution was not enough. Nothing matches having everything in one column in one place.

Google Reader is dead. The throne is empty. This is a good time to ask what a feed reader could be. I saw a scramble to build replacements for Google Reader. I wondered: why not do something better?

So I sat down and started building one. I named it TBRSS (To Be Read + RSS). Names matter; they mark commitments. This one would be a feed reader for readers.

I knew I was never going back to feeds on the left, posts on the right, mark as read. What else?

Feed readers descend from email clients. A feed reader is one big inbox for the Internet. At some point, someone had the thought – strange to say – that the Internet would be so much better if only everything were more like email. First principle for a reformed RSS reader: it should look as little like an inbox as possible.

What else? Start with the obvious: RSS readers look like email clients. What should they look like? The answer is in the name. Readers are for reading; perhaps they should emphasize readability. A feed reader, being made of blogs, should look like a blog; and not just like a blog, but like blogs should look.

But wait. Why bother? RSS is dying. Let it die.

It is true, social media and social news have divided the inheritance of RSS. In some ways they have improved on it. But in making the division they left the most important parts out. The user of a feed reader is distinguished by intellectual curiosity. The last thing we want is to train another machine to provide more of the same. The last thing we want is another bubble.

How do social media and social news improve on feed readers?

The precise overlap between feed readers and social media depends on the reader and the medium; but social media never have mark-as-read.

This is important. It sends a different message. RSS readers have limited demands and high expectations. There are a finite number of posts to be read, but you are meant to read them all. Social media have limitless demands and low expectations. The scrolling is infinite, but also bottomless: the only fixed point is the top. The media that have something like an unread count use it to nag you about the new posts appearing at the top. The rest may not be accessible at all, except through scripted scrolling.

Social news is not a descendant of RSS, but a clear case of convergent evolution. They feed on the same ecosystem and fill the same niche. Both are made up of a mix of blogs and news; both provide for keeping up with events and ideas. But social news does not rely on chronological order.

Of course the headlines on a social news site are a function of time. There is a codified prejudice against old headlines that gradually weighs them down until they sink out of sight. But meanwhile the content on the front page, drawing from the new and the less new, orders them according to other principles.

The lesson of social media is negative: don’t have mark-as-read. The lesson of social news is positive: use other principles to supplement chronological order. And if my feed reader is going to organize my feeds, I want only one standard: I only want the substance. I want, at least, what remains after the filler and the noise are left out.

What is substance? There are some obvious correlates. A feed where the author posts infrequently, at length, and with a command of grammar and style, stands a good chance of being substantive.

This sounds like an obvious application for machine learning, but I wanted to see how far I could get with simple metrics, and the results have been better than I hoped.

(It’s suggestive that in the problem of extracting the main content from complex webpages, the most successful project, Boilerpipe, relies completely on “shallow text features.” And in clustering (content vs boilerplate) and ranking (substance vs filler) we are facing much the same problem.)

Given this success, what to do with it?

Watching software eat the world, I’ve thought about startups. Occasionally something makes sense to me: providing a service, for a fee. I like the idea of building something for myself, making it as useful as can, and charging other people to use it.

Not just for money (although for money), but because like-minded people, people who would want to use such a service, might have good ideas.

TBRSS is not intended to be the only feed reader. It is designed around one particular experience. I want to sit down, open the site, see what’s new, and read it: not to get it out of the way, but for all the reasons it is good to read in the first place. And then I want to close it, and feel neither the panicky sense of having missed something, nor the grim satisfaction of having made it to the end. I want to leave looking forward to what will show up next.

It is that experience that I intend to spend my time and effort perfecting. In the end, if you want something else, you should look elsewhere.

But, in the meantime, stay and try it. You don’t have to sign up first. You can upload an OPML file or start adding feeds right away, on a temporary account. And of course – if you like it – then sign up.

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Unless otherwise credited all material copyright by Paul M. Rodriguez