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news and thoughts on and around the development of the iCite net
by Jay Fienberg

Why do you read sites via RSS?

posted: Jan 23, 2004 8:33:38 PM

I have been RSS feed reader free for almost two months now (see my Dr. Bloglove, or how I learned to stop using RSS and love the web), and have been reflecting on what I am missing since kicking the habit.

I thought it would be useful to make a list of what RSS reading is useful for, because I think it offers a number of desirable features, though with the (for me, at least) drawback that the features are tightly bundled both to each other and around the concept of a "news" structure.

Coincidentally: RSS for President, by Steve Gillmor (via Danny Ayers), +1 for Feed URI Scheme, by Don Park, and What do users want from RSS?, by Dave Winer (via Jon Udell).

So, these are features that I liked about RSS (1.0, 0.92, 2.0, Atom) reading:

Update notification. I miss knowing when a site I like to read has been updated. I like to read many sites not as RSS however, so I just need a link to the site. For now, I use my bookmarks: a lot of the sites I read are updated everyday anyway.

Notification aggregation. Notification is nice, but a pain when it you get too many notices. RSS readers (some more than others) aggregate the update notification into batches that let you deal with them, well, in batches. Maybe one of the most important features.

Headlines. Some sites I wouldn't normally visit, but would if a topic of interest were covered. Usually a headline will do. A site like Erik's Weblog usually features the kind of headlines I might look for, plus often has others I wouldn't see with RSS alone.

Summaries / abstracts. Sometimes a headline isn't enough, and a summary is very helpful. Summaries are also especially good for sites that I don't have time to read right now, but I want to get a gist of for future or other reference. Right now, I just skim the sites directly, plus get a lot of good summaries via sites like BoingBoing.

Short-term archiving. RSS files hold a list of 10-20 items, all of which you may not read at once. But, it is nice that those 10-20 items stick around while you work your way through them. Most RSS readers can track items further back than the current RSS file and some even archive items long-term.

Create your own site. By this I mean that you pull pieces of other sites into your reader which effectively becomes a new site of your own design. Potentially, that design can include structural / architectural elements (e.g., a file folder structure), navigation elements (e.g., links from headlines to summaries to sites), content elements (you decide what content is there), and visual layout elements (e.g., new style sheets). Of course, some RSS readers do not allow every or even much control over these levels of design.

Sites that use RSS to aggregate other sites (e.g., Technorati breaking news - hm, if not working, try the beta) are the best examples of this, and some feed readers also allow you a lot of control over your interface to the RSS. But, in both cases, the "news" structure carries over into the new site.

I think the "create your own site" + "summaries" combination is one a lot of people like. It basically allows you to read a lot of different sites in brief and in one place.

Originally, when I first started reading via RSS, I was really into full-content feeds, as I really liked reading a lot of sites in one place, i.e., under my own stripped down user interface. This is important: you strip out the parts you don't want to see, and so have less information to go through to get to what you do want to see.

However, if you are setup to strip things out all the time, two things happen: 1), you miss the things that you strip out, and 2) more things start getting stuffed (by the site publisher) into the part that people are looking at.

Anyway, I think it is useful to talk about these features as separate requirements, as I think each would be interesting to further develop in ways that aren't necessarily tied to each other or to the news structure.

Obviously, part of the success of RSS is that it does combine all these features. But, I think it is interesting to consider if there are ways these features could be developed more modularly, and still combined (including in useful new ways very different than today's RSS readers).

But, why do you read sites via RSS? What other features / reasons have I missed? What do you get / save / minimize / eliminate by using a feed reader? Comments and trackbacks invited!

permalink | comments {3} · trackbacks {1}

also available as: rss · rss2 · rdf · atom

Comments and Tracbacks

Comment by: James Paden ·
posted: Jan 24, 2004 6:59:33 PM

These are features that many of my users have requested for Bot A Blog - I hope to introduce specifically the following features in the next couple of weeks: notification aggregation, headings and summaries. The ability to be notified without reading in RSS is the advantage of Bot A Blog and similiar services. Another feature our users have requested is the ability for blog owners to easily see who's subscribed to their blog or reading their rss feed.

Comment by: Jay Fienberg ·
posted: Jan 24, 2004 11:12:05 PM

Thanks for your comment James. I will definitely check-out Bot a Blog.

Comment by: milbertus ·
posted: Feb 7, 2004 4:03:38 PM

The thing that I like about my aggregator is the ability to store downloaded items for as long as I like. I use NewsGator, which uses an Outlook PST file as its datastore. Since Outlook handles the storing of the feed items, I can control how long they should live via Outlook's AutoArchive. For the majority of my feeds, I keep the items around forever. This is important to me, as I read a lot of coding blogs, and if I ever run across a problem that I'm having with my current project, I can try and search through my feeds, and see if someone else has encountered (and potentitally fixed) the very thing that I'm having a problem with.

trackback from: the iCite net development blog
posted: Jan 30, 2004 10:41:16 PM
title: Public time: blogs / RSS most important contribution to the web

Recently, I have been reflecting a lot on RSS (see my Why do you read sites via RSS? post), and I believe, at its core, RSS is an event data model. That is, RSS, more than anything, tracks events in time.

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