Alex Payne is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.

since 2001, has served as his online home.

Fever and the Future of Feed Readers

Time was, every self-respecting geek lived and died by his feed reader (or aggregator, if you prefer). Just several years ago, the number of subscriptions in your RSS-chomping tool of choice made for bragging rights. “200? Oh, I can get through 500 feeds a day.” More subscriptions meant you were more in the know. Really good lists of subscriptions were traded amongst friends, but cautiously, just as one might hold back a recommendation to a superb but little-known restaurant.

At the time, the only real debate was around the best way to present all this information. Some preferred a river of news, others preferred their content categorized and neatly filed, like sections in a newspaper. But everyone was in agreement: having all this fresh content collected for you in one place was a boon. It was a change in mindset, and it seeded the demand for what is now being called the Real-Time Web. (Incidentally, the Real-Time Web is next year’s Web 2.0. If you’d like to appear cool and aloof, start disdaining the expression now).

Today, at least in the web-tech echo chamber, feed reading is quickly falling out of fashion. Too many sites producing too many feeds of dubious quality means information overload, and a creeping sense of obligation to keep up with a torrent of questionably relevant content. Some have gone back to checking a handful of bookmarked sites, as we did in the early days of the web. Others rely on social aggregation sites like Reddit, Digg, and Hacker News to show them what’s worth reading. Both strategies are highly manual and, to me, distressingly unoptimized.

Abdicating Aggregation

Another camp all but eschews the idea of trying to keep up with feeds. Chris Wanstrath, co-founder of the superb social coding site GitHub, is one of the more visible advocates of this approach, saying in a tech conference keynote last year:

“Stop using Google Reader or NetNewsWire or whatever the kids are using these days. It’s not worth your time. [L]et other people do the filtering for you. Use your time for other things.”

This statement initially rings true. We’re in the age of social networking, after all. I’ve told social sites about my friends, and my friends are always talking about things, so just show me what my friends are talking about and I’ll always be in the loop, right? Then I can focus on my own interests and projects. Sounds great.

The problem with abdicating your content consumption to other people, though, is other people. Perhaps it’s overestimating my ability to find interesting things to read, but I don’t trust my friends and the Internet at large to educate and entertain me. In the venn diagram of my interests and my friends’, there may be 80% overlap, but most of the content that I’m going to find deeply engaging is probably in the leftover 20% at the margins.

There’s also a sort of collective danger to the strategy of exclusively consuming information through social osmosis: if everyone does it, who’s going to find the interesting stuff? Who takes the reigns as the editors, the arbiters of taste? Going back to a post I wrote in 2003, who will be our cool shit aggregators?

If everyone took Wanstrath’s advice, nobody would do any filtering and nobody would consume anything. Realistically, we’re in no danger of that, but we’re also not seeing a radical improvement in the way we consume information on the web. Surely someone’s investigating another strategy?

Blending Subscriptions with Social Data

Google Reader is, as evidence of the slowly dying field of feed reading, pretty much the only regularly-updated, widely-used aggregator left on the web. Bloglines has been gasping for air for over a year, and NewsGator is positioning itself towards the enterprise, presumably trying to scrape some money out of the generally unprofitable business of aggregation.

Reader has been something of a playground for Google, and one of the products for which the behemoth has been most responsive to public feedback. When Reader launched, its interface was nigh-unusable. It was updated, improved, and gradually became the only feed reader worth using — and not just on the web, something it pains me to say as the owner of licenses for multiple desktop aggregators that eventually had their price driven down to free, and have since seen little attention from their developers.

Today, Google seems hellbent on cramming its otherwise clean and speedy products with cumbersome, poorly conceived social features. Presumably they see social networks as a threat to their valuable side business of, uh, completely free products, and this is their ham-fisted response. In Reader’s case, the user response has been one of confusion and derision.

Seeing content filtered through my social lens seems like the marriage of traditional feed reading to Wanstrath’s more osmotic approach. Reader’s implementation doesn’t prove this to be a happy union. The tool is now cluttered with smilie faces indicating content that my friends liked, only Google has fairly incomplete view of who my friends are because they’ve yet to create a social experience that encourages me to share that information. Reader’s myriad competing ways to share, vote on, annotate, and remember items further detract from its former appeal.

I’ve given up on Reader, but I’m not ready to give up on feed reading just yet. I wanted to try one more experiment.

Enter Fever

Fever is a feed reader designed and built by Shaun Inman, the developer behind the popular Mint web traffic analytics product. Like Mint, Fever is $30 (USD) and runs on your server — a ballsy proposition in an age of free software running in the proverbial “cloud”. It is unapologetically for power users.

Fever’s proposition is straightforward: supply it with the feeds you always want to read, and supplement those with feeds that you only want to read the juicy bits of. Fever will then show you a sort of personal Techmeme or Google News, pulling together stories that reference common URLs. Fever’s precise formula for this isn’t discussed on the product’s relatively curt homepage. Take it or leave it.

I forked over my money, spun up a virtual server, and have been using Fever for several days now. Installation was as straightforward and slick as you could hope for given that Fever is a self-hosted web application. Special features aside, it handles the basics well — imagine Google Reader before all the social bloat and with a far more attractive design. Fever’s design is not perfect, but it’s easy on the eyes and pleasant to use. Put another way, Fever doesn’t make it harder to read feeds much as you always have.

The $30 question, though: does Fever really float the best, most relevant content to the top in a personalized way? Can it dig through all the noise on the web and show you what you need/want to know at a glance? The free answer: sort of.

For starters, it’s easy to pollute your corpus of “signal” feeds, which Fever calls sparks. Fever needs sparks that contain a lot of links. If you put “top” feeds from Digg, Reddit, and the like into Fever, you’ll basically just end up with your own dim, mostly irrelevant slice of the web. Fever really needs folks like Waxy, Laughing Squid, and Trivium to keep churning out link blogs full of references to good content. Without those sort of quality, URL-rich feeds, your Fever’s view of what’s hot is going to be lukewarm.

For this reason, Fever is just fine for floating good techie content to the top, but poor for most any other subject. I’d love it if Fever could find me good posts from the set of minimal techno or cocktail blogs I subscribe to, but link blogs - and, indeed, linking outside one’s own site - just aren’t as prevalent in those communities. Fever did similarly poorly given a number of sparks for top world news; a paucity of URLs means Fever can’t replace Google News for figuring out what’s on the front pages of the world’s newspapers.

It’s disappointing that I can’t depend on Fever to be a one-stop shop for my daily information intake. With my current heavily-curated collection of subscriptions, I can rely on Fever to be a sort of no-bullshit Techmeme, but little more. For the topics of world news, music, art, culture, humor, food, and drink, I still need to read a number of feeds entry-by-entry.

Given Fever’s initial cost, plus the ongoing cost of hosting a server on which to run it, I can’t imagine that it’s a tool that will last long in my tool belt. I already regret the time I spent setting it up and tuning my feeds, and I can’t really justify keeping it around for the sole purpose of being a less-encumbered Google Reader.

The Future of Feed Readers

I’m not sure what the solution is here. Feed readers as we’ve known them are dying, but it’s as yet unclear what will take their place. Filtering feeds for relevance algorithmically seems all but fruitless; filtering through the social graph is only a slight improvement, but misses the rare content that may only strike a chord with a small audience.

If there’s one thing I’m convinced of at the end of this exploration, it’s that there’s more work to be done, and more businesses to emerge in this field. Social networks alone aren’t focused enough tools to bubble up and share quality content. My hope is that a surplus open data of the sort we’re trying hard to share at Twitter will help spawn a new generation of tools to manage the flood of content. I don’t think it’s a problem that Twitter, or any other pipeline for information, can solve on its own.

With all that said, perhaps the right approach really is to abdicate one’s consumption of content to whatever you’re passively exposed to, and to occupy your mind with other things. The act of creation is almost always self-affirming, and the act of consumption so rarely is.

Two Unfinished Ideas About The Future

The Tapir Book