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Tuesday, November 01, 2005
Attention, Aggregation, Customization
In his post The Looming Attention Crisis Fred Wilson notes that he's already past his saturation point for RSS feeds, among other things. [And I haven't said this in a while, but you should really go read the original post now.] Quite a few other people have been talking about this as well, but since he's effectively my boss at a couple of removes, I pick his post. Go figure.

Anyway, the RSS saturation question is one I've been thinking about quite a bit recently. My little experiment with the Searchfox RSS reader crystallized a couple of things for me, but the real reason this started getting mindspace was that I've noticed that I consume feeds very differently than I did a year or two ago, and that the change happened via slow evolution rather than a clear decision on my part.

Back in the day...I subscribed to a bunch of feeds. I maintained a folder structure to keep those feeds in logical, topical groupings: Tech, Work Stuff, Funny, New York Stuff, Writing Related...probably a round dozen categories in all. The system worked, for the most part; the biggest difficulty was that I'm a compulsive taxonomist, and the question whether a given feed had the characteristics of, say, a "Tech" feed rather than a "Work Stuff" feed was one that could eat up a lot of time. Every time I saw that little bold number indicating that I had unread items, I went and read those items, frequently saying to myself "this is so cool! I'd never have time to check all of these sites for updates! Woo-hoo!"

In this brave new world...I have something like 300 feed subscriptions, and just three folders: Daily, NewSubs, and Keepers. The feeds in daily (about 40) are the ones that I normally read individually...I'll at least look at every item in a feed. Some of these are pre-aggregated already (my del.icio.us inbox, tech.memeorandum, and so on). NewSubs tends to be 15-20 feeds, and is the first stop for any new feeds that I add. After a little while I either delete the feed (very common), add it to daily (much less common), or drop it into keepers (also pretty common).

Keepers is where it gets interesting: it's bulk input for the multitude of keyword watches that I have set up in FeedDemon (best RSS reader ever, etc., etc.), and a place to scan though periodically; I don't read everything and don't worry about it. These feeds have stuff that's interesting to me, but I just trust that the good stuff will bubble up to me.

This is also where Searchfox got interesting (and, I believe, where FeedDemon is going). For those who've missed it, Searchfox scores and sorts feed items based upon your reading/clicking behavior: things that are "like" items you show interest in get scored higher and therefore appear at the top of your list of unread items. While there's work to do on the intelligence of the scoring, it's pretty solid already -- and this approach works perfectly for my keepers folder. 250+ feeds get torn into their component elements and ranked based on what I'm likely to find interesting. Perfect. (Though as a side note I do have concerns about the feedback loop created by this sort of personalization if it's based entirely off of my own behavior and doesn't mix in some data from others who seem to be "like" me, as well, but that's a whole different story.)

So what's the point here? Well, that over time my approach to consuming feeds has shifted to treating them as raw material, rather than finished products. I don't feel obligated to give each feed the attention it deserves, nor do I worry about what gems I might be overlooking. While I do still read my daily feed group in a high-friction way, much as I go through my email inbox, the rest of it (the overwhelming majority) gets a low friction approach. ["Low friction" as a concept that applies to process and interface design is also something that's been much on my mind recently, more on that anon.]

If I set things up right (and have the right tools to work with), then increasing the size of the input set doesn't necessarily mean a corresponding increase in demands on my attention: I'm consuming the aggregate product, not the individual feeds.
You nailed it. You are still an early adopter and certainly ahead of the mass market. However, we agree that the winner in this space will present users the best information possible without demanding extra attention from them.
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