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January 15, 2009

RSS Overload: Don't Complain, Do Something About It

By Mike Fruchter of MichaelFruchter.com (Twitter/FriendFeed)

There seems to be a trend lately of posts regarding RSS overload. A lot of people are complaining about being overwhelmed with their Google Reader, and some are even advising for you to stop using your RSS reader altogether. I say, hogwash. Do something about it and take back your Google Reader. Now is the time to reclaim it.

Some suggest to use Twitter and FriendFeed as the alternative. If your scope is limited to one or two particular subject matters, this may be fine. You can easily follow the relevant news sources by following them on Twitter and FriendFeed. The imaginary friend feature on FriendFeed was basically intended for this purpose.

The beauty of the imaginary friend feature is that you do not have to follow that person on FriendFeed. Chances are that person might not even be on FriendFeed, instead all you need is the blog's RSS feed and your set. You could follow that particular news maker/blog on Twitter, but you would be sorting through an already noisy feed of updates from the rest of the people you are following. Yes you could always set up a second Twitter account for just that reason, or you could directly go to that person's Twitter feed for the latest updates. That to me seems like too much work though, and is unnecessary.

Google Reader, for me, is the most effective power tool in my social media arsenal. Why? Simply because I don't have to visit hundreds of websites per day to get the information I seek. It's a competitive advantage when it is used right. Less time spent on numerous websites equals higher productivity. It enables me to work smarter not harder. I consume information at an increasingly high rate, maybe higher than some other people. To get the most of your Google Reader, it requires periodic maintenance. Just as your car requires an oil change every 3,000-5,000 miles, Google Reader is no different. That's the discovery aspect of it. Do I need to even go into the distribution aspect of it, sharing? Perhaps that's a topic for another post.

There is no need to feel overwhelmed by the unread count:

This is just an application. Why are we letting it get the best of us? We feel overwhelmed with the amount of bills we need to pay every month, or the amount of emails we may need to reply to in a timely manner. These things are overwhelming at times. An application that was built to discover and distribute information is a blessing, not our enemy. We see the unread count of 1,000+ items, and automatically anxiety kicks in. We feel like it's game over, we lost, and there is no turning back. The feed reader has won. Without going deep into the human psyche, there is a solution. The solution is called "hide unread counts", a feature that was recently integrated into the recent Google Reader overhaul.

Garbage in equals garbage out:

I'm subscribed to about 800 feeds in Google Reader. Without RSS, I would have never known the existence of these sites, or much less have the time to visit these sites on a daily basis. RSS has enabled me to broaden my horizons like no application has ever done before. Knowledge is power, RSS makes me smarter every single day. Do I really need to be subscribed to all of these feeds, of course not. Initially I would subscribe to every blog I visited that gave me some sort of value. I could easily trim my subscriptions down to 200-300 feeds and get the same value out of my Google Reader. A lot of these feeds are content clones, they simply regurgitate the same breaking news as the next site. At most I need a handful of these sites, primarily 2-3 is enough. I don't mind seeing another site's angle on the same story, and often they will contain more info that was missed or left out from the first site which is breaking the news. It's never a bad idea to get different perspectives on a story.

This is why I have begun to start going through my feeds and deleting the ones who are strictly content clones.

I'm an avid reader of both ReadWriteWeb and Mashable, but for the most part they are both content clones. I check RWW first, as it's a higher caliber of quality and writing, and, sure enough, the same regurgitated content appears on Mashable, and 50 other sites. I have since unsubscribed from Mashable and the other 50 content clones. Nothing personal, it just does not give me any value anymore. Remove the clutter from your Google Reader, there is no reason why you should not. I mention it's good to get different perspectives on a news item. It's often the lesser-known blogs who will give this to me, not the 100 pound gorillas who are competing for pageviews just to get a story published every five minutes. I want quality content, not headlines and 200-300 words of text that equates to a press release with some type of spin put on it.

Productive reading means organization:

Google Reader also allows you to set up folders. Take advantage of this. Create folders and set up a tiering system. Dumping all of your feeds into Google Reader without the use of folders, makes it clutter central. Set up folders for must reads, or folders based on topical interest. You could create a folder system for "daily”, “important”, and “other”. Only you know what will work and what will not work for you. This makes consuming RSS a breeze, and probably will give you a better Google Reader experience as well. If you must keep the clutter, put it into a folder, so that it is out of sight until you are ready for it.

Use what the power readers use, keyboard shortcuts:

This feature is a plus for productivity, especially for those of you with larger amounts of feed subscriptions. Save precious time by quickly exploring your reading list without moving your hand back and forth between your keyboard and mouse. The full list of Google Reader keyboard shortcuts is located here.

Keep a backup OPML file:

I use a site called Toluu just for this purpose. Toluu is a powerful feed discovery service, but it's also good tool for storing rss feeds. I keep my must read feeds only stored at Toluu. When I come across a feed that I must subscribe to, I input it into Toluu first, second comes Google Reader.

When all else fails, reclaim your Google Reader and start from scratch.

In order to do this, you need to have an OPML copy of your RSS feeds. If you already have a Toluu account you are ahead of the game. If not, sign up for their service and start inputting your must read feeds only. Remember to leave the garbage out, there is no need to start from scratch with the same garbage that overwhelmed your Google Reader in the first place. When you have your OPML file, head over to Google Reader and delete everything, so that you have a blank slate. Now you can import your OPML file into Google Reader, and presto you have just reclaimed your Google Reader. From this point on make sure you are using folders, tagging when necessary and most importantly cautious about what you add to Google Reader. Ask yourself is this feed really worth subscribing to, if so, add it to Toluu first, then into the appropriate folder in your Google Reader. Keeping a pristine and productive Google Reader is not easy, even a power Google Reader like myself needs to do a complete cleansing from time to time. I get to this point every 5-6 months or so. Since I have been using folders and organizing my Google Reader, I probably wont need to cleanse it as often, once a year should be suffice. It's all relevant to the amount of information you consume and digest. I tend to be on the excessive side.

If anyone would like an invite to try Toluu, please leave a note in the comments along with your email address, either Louis or myself would be glad to send you an invite.

Read more by Mike Fruchter at MichaelFruchter.com.