Analysis (Services and Self)

Koan Bremner's view on life as a database and data warehouse professional / addict and non-genetic woman

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Surfing, not drowning

I'm a tinkerer; I like to fiddle, tweak, tune, experiment, hypothesise, investigate, analyse, adapt, revert, swear, celebrate... not least in terms of my computer and software configuration. Sometimes I think I should leave well alone; but, really, where's the fun in *that*? ;-) Anyway, while my news reading habits don't approach the scale of people like Robert Scoble, I have a diverse enough range of interests that I subscribe to over a hundred RSS feeds at this time. I've come to the conclusion that I can manage this volume of data flow, but that I wasn't getting all from it that I could. So, in the spirit of those terms I listed in the first sentence, I've been studying how others manage their news reading, how I currently approach mine, and considering how to modify my approach (if or where appropriate). I think I've hit on an optimal approach (for me, for now) so I thought I'd share it here, in case anyone else might benefit (or care to suggest even more improvements). I'm not claiming any ownership of these ideas; I've doubtless synthesised them from things I've read both recently and in the past.

First, some background. Online or browser-based services don't work for me; I want to be able to read news when I'm not connected to the internet. Now, that's less frequently these days, but it *does* happen, so I prefer to cater for that eventuality. Second, I'm not averse to spending money on software (and I won't use illegitimate software), but I'd prefer to rule out free alternatives first! So after a brief flirtation with intraVnews, which ran as an add-in to Microsoft Outlook (the email application I use for work, and the scheduling / contact management application I use for everything) I decided I wanted to try a standalone application. James suggested RSS Bandit, which I tried, and have used the release version v1.2.0.117 for the last six months or so, without any real issues. I read the announcements of a new beta version, and while the new features sounded interesting, I didn't want to screw up my current set-up, so I resolved to wait a month or so (for other people to find any catastrophic issues) before giving it a whirl. Which I have now done; and I'm really, really impressed! :-) So, that's the application on which I'm basing this discussion. (As a matter of interest, I do have Thunderbird installed, which I use for reading one of my Gmail accounts offline, and although I know it provides some RSS aggregation features, I've never tried them; as yet, I haven't felt the need to move away from RSS Bandit.)

Until recently, I had my feeds nicely categorised by subject area. Which is fine; all of the feeds under "Podcasts" were patently about podcasts, "News and Sport" (well, I'm sure you can work that one out!), "Music", "Technology" and so forth. All well and good; but it wasn't working for me. I would start catching up on unread items and either get side-tracked, or come across an obviously important post which required concentration to get the most out of, or feel frustrated as the unread articles count ticked up because of some particularly active feeds that I subscribe to, ... classic case of "drowning in data, but starved of knowledge". So, I realised that the issue was the categorisation I used. Frankly, I didn't need to know what subject area a feed fell under, I needed to know:

* How important is this to me (do I want to read every post, or am I happy to miss some)?

* How urgent is this to me (do I want to read new posts as soon as possible after my aggregator finds them, or am I happy just to read them eventually)?

* Do I need to be online to get the most from this feed (is it a full feed or summary only, does the poster have a habit of linking frequently to external sites so that if I read the feed while offline I'll be missing out)?

* For how long might I want to be able to search back for the contents of the post, after I've read it (what should the retention period be)?

* How much attention will I have to give to this feed (is it, for example, highly technical, so that I will need to concentrate exclusively on it, or highly artistic, so that I will want to savour it)?

* Will I want to read unread articles from this feed in isolation from other unread articles, or am I happy to read them in a chronological "river of news"?

There are probably other dimensions by which I might choose to categorise the feeds I read, but basically, that covers the ones that seem to matter to me, right now. Based on the above, I've come up with the following categories, which I'll describe in terms of how I'll use them, *and* how I've set up RSS Bandit to support my use of them. (I'm sure that most decent news aggregators will offer most or all of the features I'm referring to here).

1) Continuous - these are feeds that I'll want to read as soon as they contain new articles, and will want to refer back to for as long as possible; they represent the key focus of my online interests at this moment;

2) Multidimensional - all the feeds relevant to my blog and podcasts (not for vanity reasons... well, not *entirely* for vanity reasons!... but so that I can identify as quickly as possible if something has gone wrong with a post, e.g. a podcast is missing an enclosure tag);

3) Frequent - I'll want to check these at least a couple of times a day;

4) Frequent (Online Only) - similar to Frequent, but these are likely to need me to be online when I read them;

5) Daily - feeds I'd like to be current with, by the end of the working day;

6) Regular - feeds I want to keep on top of, but not become a slave to;

7) In-Depth - feeds I know that I will need peace, quiet and concentration to fully enjoy;

8) Occasional - feeds that may spark new ideas or connections; typically I'll want to read these when I've got time on my hands *and* am feeling at my most creative and connected (which is, sadly, not all the time);

9) Skim - these are feeds that I'll quickly scan, if I've got the time and inclination, but not beat myself up over if I miss items.

Something I picked up from one of the IT Conversations shows I downloaded was "the posts you don't read are not important; it's what you do with the posts that you *do* read that's important" (doubtless not an exact quotation, and sadly I can't remember exactly which show or speaker it was to give them credit, but the point is, in my opinion, a good one). The categories above seem to maximise the chances that I can do just that. Basically, I'll want to keep on top of 1) and 2) throughout the day. 3) and 4) I'll want to keep on top of by lunchtime and by close of play, although 4) is dependent upon having an online connection. 5) I want to be clear by the end of the day. If I can do that, then I'll have likely seen all of the things that I wanted to see, each day, and had the chance to give them sufficient attention to make the appropriate choice about what (if anything) to do in response to each post.

6) and 7) I'd like to keep on top of by the end of the weekend. So if necessary, I'll make some quiet time to get the most out of them, especially 7). 8) is dependent on my being in a receptive frame of mind; 9) is dependent on me having *any* time and energy to spare! ;-)

In terms of managing my current subscriptions, I've categorised all of my feeds to fit them *at this moment in time*. I expect any individual feed to move around between those categories, as my immediate interests and priorities change, but by and large, once I've subscribed to a feed, I stay subscribed to it, even if it ends up in 9). About the only time I unsubscribe from a feed is when it is discontinued, i.e. continually returns errors.

As for manging new subscriptions, well, by default, new feeds I encounter go in 6), unless it's obvious from the beginning that they belong in 7), 8) or 9). Typically I won't move feeds into 1), 3), 4) or 5) until I'm familiar with both the poster's style *and* the relevance of the feed to my immediate professional and personal activities.

For those who are still here, this is how I've configured RSS Bandit to support me in managing these categories. For each category, I will list:

* Update frequency (I believe it's wrong to access an RSS feed more than once an hour; for some feeds, once a day would be more than sufficient, but one minor criticism I have of RSS Bandit is that the longest refresh period is just 2 hours);

* Retention period;

* Desktop alert (i.e. do I want some visual notification if items arrive in that feed).

1) Continual - 60 minutes; unlimited; yes;

2) Multidimensional - 60 minutes; unlimited (so I can quickly refer to them by URL or context in subsequent posts); yes (so I know if something's gone awry with a post);

3) Frequent - 60 minutes; 21 days; no;

4) Frequent (Online) - 60 minutes; 21 days; no;

5) Daily - 120 minutes; 21 days; no;

6) Regular - 120 minutes; 21 days; no;

7) In-Depth - 120 minutes; unlimited; no;

8) Occasional - 120 minutes; unlimited; no;

9) Skim - 120 minutes; 21 days; no;

One last point; the one tiny issue I identified in the above was, what happens if I encounter a post in a feed other than 8) or 9), but which I want to save to read under the same conditions *as* 8) or 9). Answer: is your friend! If you haven't taken at a look at, I urge you to do so. I'll probably write about how I'm using it (and planning to use it) in a future post.

Update - one last point is on the subject of full vs. summary feeds. If the feed is summary only, then it's likely that if it ends up in 9), skimming it may not repay the effort. In that case, I'll probably unsubscribe from the feed. Feed publishers, take heed! ;-)

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  • At 8:10 pm, Blogger Karan said…

    Have you tried Optimal Desktop? You can download a copy from

    Optimal Desktop offers a tabbed matrix system, so you can easily group your hundred feeds, manage them separately and view ewach in a different window.


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