Managing Feeds

October 30, 2009

Today I logged into Google Reader and saw that I had 230 unread items. This is not unusual, nor it is particularly difficult to get through. However, that is what’s in my “inbox” between when I checked it last night and when I woke up this morning. I’m not sure how many items I get in a typical work day. It’s probably over 1,000 because I follow 90 RSS feeds.

Sure many of these feeds are pretty much dead where the author hasn’t posted something in months like my friend Dan hasn’t had a post since March. But others make up for them with many posts per day like Boing Boing and TechCrunch.

The question is “How do you manage all this data?” Right now, I manage it by having all my feeds broken up into category folders so I can go in and read the high value categories first and if I have time go through the more interesting ones. The second thing is I don’t actually go through all the items, rather I just scan the titles, read the ones that catch my eye then hit “Mark All As Read”. The problem with this is I’m constantly feeling like I’m missing important stuff. I’m sure I’m missing stuff when I scan over the 110 items in the “Technology and Geek Culture” folder. Other times, once I go through the big folders I’ll just open up “All Items” and glance at the rest pulled together.

A metric that I’d like to use, but currently have no easy way to generate is the comparison between volume and quality. If there is a feed where I get three posts a year it doesn’t really matter if it’s high or average quality. If I get 400 messages a day from a feed then I’d better be getting some real value from it. The question is, how do I determine if a feed is of a high enough value to me to keep it around? There are some very interesting feeds that I’ve unsubscribed from in the past because the volume to quality ratio was way out of whack, like the feed from “Hacker News”.

One metric I could use is the number of starred pages I have from that feed. However that doesn’t paint the whole picture because of how I use starred pages. I typically star pages if I want to come back to it later. For instance, if I’m going through my feeds from my iPhone (very important for keeping my unread numbers in check) and I see something interesting that is not going to be pleasant to view on an iPhone (links to video, really long articles, etc) then I’ll just star it so I can get back to it when I’m at a computer.

I could create my own reader or at least some sort of feed filter. I could thumbs up or down items that I’ve read and keep track of all the metrics I want. However this would probably take more time then I’m willing to put in to the task.

What I’m leaning towards is abandoning my rigorous categorization of feeds on topic. Perhaps I should try to start grouping them on other criteria. Maybe they could be “Low Volume”, “High Value” and “Low Value” with a few special groups like “Friends & Family” thrown in for good measure. That way I won’t miss the once in a while posts in the “Low Volume” category and I can ignore the “Low Value” feeds most of the time, or at least not look at them as closely as the feeds in “High Value”.

UPDATE: I’ve just reordered and cleaned out my feed reader. I now have 4 folders, the three I mentioned above and an additional “Humor” folder for a couple random comic strips. I also reduced my feed count from 90 to 58. Let’s see how this works.


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Written by Andrew Shell, a web developer from Madison, WI.