RSS is a Tool for Living in the Long Tail

Over a year ago, I talked about my information diet and Google Reader was a central part of it. Today, Google has announced that Reader is being shut down. I thought this would be a good opportunity to discuss some of the big changes I’ve made to how I make use of RSS, and to my information diet more generally.

These days I don’t read any big sites at all in my RSS reader; instead I use it to keep up with lower-volume, interesting long tail content.

Drowning at the Head of the Tail

This time last year, something like 300 “items”—blog posts or comics—were going through my Google Reader account each day. And that was after already cutting back a fair amount, after reading Clay Johnson’s book.

This is exactly why RSS reading has never really taken off the way that a lot of other sexy web 2.0 things from the same era did—the people who tried it would subscribe to their favorite websites, see “100+ items unread”, get stressed out about it, and never return.

I always just thought those people were wimps. I was perfectly happy living in a perpetual stream of content; I could glance over most of it and pick out the ones that looked interesting. I was aggressive about marking whole folders as read if I didn’t feel like dealing with it. It worked for me.

After reading Johnson’s book, however, I started to rethink the matter. What was I really gaining by staying on top of everything that was posted by sites like The Verge, Gizmodo, and Boing Boing? Any big story blows up on social media. They put out dozens and dozens of posts a day, most of which I don’t even remember glancing over. I could just as easily check these sites once a day, or every so often, and there’ll be plenty for me to choose from then. Meanwhile, they crowd out the low-quantity feeds that constitute the overwhelming majority of my subscriptions.

So I eventually unsubscribed from all the professional, high-quantity posting sites.

What surprised me was how much of a relief I found it. After defending this approach and saying I could handle it, it felt absolutely awesome to give it up. Some days I don’t even bother to check The Verge. It’s been a pretty big validation of Clay Johnson’s argument.

I don’t use Google Reader anymore—I’ve been using NewsBlur for a few months now—so I don’t know exactly how many items are passing through my account on a daily basis anymore. But it is an order of magnitude fewer than it was a year ago.

RSS Readers Were Made for the Long Tail

Imagine all the time lost going to sites when they haven’t updated. This was the original argument for RSS readers, one that I’ve made throughout my usage of them. With RSS readers, that time is not wasted. You only interact with a site when it has updated.

It’s precisely that argument that demonstrates why it’s so pointless to subscribe to a site like The Verge. You know that The Verge will be updated every day. Even during the slow days of the weekend they’ll update two or three times at least. During peak gadget release season, in the middle of the week, they will sometimes post over 70 times in a single day. If you want to read new posts from The Verge, you can go there. There will be new ones.

Right now I would say that the upper end of posting for the feeds I follow is 10 posts a day, if that. The greatest value comes from the feeds that post once a day, or less than once a day, or even less than once a month. There are feeds I’ve subscribed to that have gone dark for years and then suddenly started up again. It costs me nothing to continue subscribing, and if they start up again it becomes a wonderful surprise.

I currently follow dozens of webcomics. The post rate for these varies from 5 times a week, to 3 times a week, to once a week, to once a month, to whenever the hell the artist feels like updating. There is no way I could keep up with the amount of webcomics I do without RSS. It would become unmanageable.

Despite the fact that Google has abandoned the playing field, I think that RSS readers are a phenomenal way to explore the gems that exist out there on the open web. The stuff that is more personal; the stuff that people are doing because they love doing it.

The head of the tail is basically inescapable; why not work a little harder at mining the long tail?

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Adam Gurri

Adam Gurri works in digital advertising and writes for pleasure on his spare time. His present research focuses on the ethics of business and work, from the perspective of virtue and human flourishing.