A Feed Taxonomy

I’ve heard it again and again over the last year: People with “RSS overload” complaining that their aggregator is swamping them with information. The same generality of RSS that has made it so ubiquitous has also exposed problems in any application trying to serve as a consumer for all RSS feeds. RSS/Atom can describe many types of content and accordingly we need more than one type of interface for consuming that content. Bloglines has excelled in the list-of-feeds sidebar approach, organized into a single level of folders. Feedlounge uses tags instead of folders. Dave Winer’s newsRiver and Google’s Reader take the focus away from the individual feeds and present the user instead with an aggregated stream of updates. Then there are the one-level-removed filtering systems like Tailrank which try to be a bit intelligent about what they show you. Each interface has its own strengths and there is room for another paradigm or two in there.

Here are the first few species I can separate out of the feed ecosystem:

  1. Temporary, throwaway feedsComment feeds come to mind. This is where the blogosphere ‘conversation’ needs a lot of work. If I make a comment on someone else’s blog I often want to keep track of replies and other comments. So I subscribe to the comment feed. But I don’t want to be notified of every comment from that blog forever. After a period during which I haven’t been interested in the comments for a while, my aggregator should stop displaying them to me. And I don’t want a list of all the comment feeds I’ve subscribed to previously, just the latest ones. I don’t know of any aggregator that monitors your attention like this yet.
  2. Potentially interesting feedsThese are almost like bookmarks (and better than bookmarks really). Often when I subscribe to a feed in Bloglines what I’m really doing is bookmarking. I’m saying “This person/group produces good stuff. I’m registering my interest.” But I bookmark way too many sites to actually read all their updates. I just want the best stuff. A list-of-feeds interface is no good here either. This is where something like Tailrank comes in. It tries to present you the latest interesting conversations going on in your selection of feeds and just beyond.

    What would be great is if del.icio.us auto-discovered the feeds from my bookmarks and had it’s own intelligent aggregator. Or if Tailrank could sync with my del.icio.us bookmarks and then auto-discover the feeds for itself (Kevin, this seems like a good way of making yourself an attractive acquisition for Yahoo). Or if, when I bookmark a page through a browser like Flock, it also submitted the associated feed to my Tailrank-style aggregator.

  3. Seldom updated, but important feedsHere I’m thinking, for example, of things like update feeds for software libraries I use or vanity searches. I don’t want a list of feeds here because I don’t need it. I just need to notified when any of these feeds contain a new item, and then I’m going to read it immediately.
  4. friend’s and must-see feedsWith these feeds, I want to at least glance at every item that comes through, maybe not immediately but eventually. These can be almost as important as personal email. List-of-feeds works alright here. My current personal project is addressing this latter species (and the interface is experimental, you might say).

It’s good to see that the Google Reader team plan to build several different interfaces on top of their feed reading back-end. I’d like to see them making it easy for users to subscribe to a feed in one of their interfaces and not the others, whether by tagging or whatever. The fact is that the feed-space is far from homogenous. There really is no “best” way to consume all the feeds that interest you.

3 Responses to “A Feed Taxonomy”

  1. Kai Says:

    you forgot http://rojo.com. I kind of like it a bit better than bloglines, as the browsing is a bit nicer (you do not accidently mark all posts from a certain side to be read and thus invisible 🙂
    Yet, most of them have the permanent cookie issue. It is not secure to use them on a public pc, as people can add and delete stuff from your personalized page, if you forgot to delete the cookie. Right Eurekaman? 🙂
    Nice post anyways.

  2. Phil Wilson Says:

    Good set of differentiators, and exactly how I think about them.

    It’s not only good for weighting the individual feeds and items but for emphasising relationships you may have with other authors, useful when it comes to generating and exploring a network based at least part on your subscriptions.

  3. Dave Cahill Says:

    Yeah, some kind of filtering would definitely be useful, those categories you suggest sound like they have potential. Keyword filtering/highlighting of some kind for regular news feeds and the like might also be useful.

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