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Weblog Entry

Information Aversion

February 02, 2005

Matt Haughey raises a valid issue about weblog content. I’ve been thinking along this line for a while: combined feeds annoy me.

A recent trend some folks have taken to is the splicing and pasting of various pieces of content into one main RSS feed for their entire site. Services like FeedBurner (or just plain old coding skill) seem to make it easy and practical, but there’s a side effect that isn’t being discussed: the impace on the reader.

Content from all over the place can show up in one feed: daily del.icio.us links, Flickr photos, sideblog items, and now and then, even the occasional post from the site owner. A few feeds pulled from my reader showcasing this convergence in action are those of Tom Coates, Leonard Lin, or even Matt himself. (Leonard has a few additional choices without the extra content, too.)

The problem I have is quite similar to what Matt describes: when new items show up in my newsreader from people I enjoy reading, I’m often mildly disappointed when it’s simply a new camera phone image, or a couple of sparsely-described links to stuff I’ve already seen.

I’ll go one further though, and say this about the practice: it’s really damaging the signal-to-noise ratio of content I otherwise love. I have enough feeds in my list (120 at the moment) that anything on there has to work pretty hard to stay that way, from a useful-content perspective. When 7 new items pop up, that’s 7 to manually flag as read, whether I end up reading it or not. Although NNW’s Cmd + K lets me do it in chunks, make me do that extra work of unflagging items I’m not interested in enough times over the course of a week, and it might be easier for me to simply unsubscribe.

The flip side of the coin is that throwing all these items into a single feed makes for a nice appearance of continual updating. From the site owner’s perspective, days may pass between new posts, but during that time an active log of interesting links is being maintained. It’s one way to continually keep readers engaged in your content over time, but a case might be made that it’s not necessary to do that anymore. This is RSS after all, I have a number of feeds that go silent for weeks at a time, but new content always gets read and I wouldn’t even think of deleting them from my list. I’d much prefer low volume and high signal, to frequent updates with content I don’t really care about. RSS is all about making it easy to follow high- and low-volume sites alike.

There’s always room for experimentation, but I think in this case it’s a good idea to think about the reader implications a little bit more. Give me a Flickr feed, give me a del.icio.us feed, give me a main post feed. Heck, give me a combined feed of all of it too; in some cases I and others will even prefer that, just don’t make that the only option if at all possible.


1
February 02, 02h

I went as far as offering a full RSS feed that includes all new content and then an RSS feed for each individual category. I also plan to increase that to include comment feeds. I also plan to offer e-mail subscription at each point, as well.

What I’d really like to do is offer a way to customize your feed such that you could select what categories you want to monitor (by e-mail or RSS). When I have time, anyways…

Put the power into the hands of the user!

2
February 02, 03h

I jump in line and agree with everyone here. Separate feeds are a good thing. I maintain a separate feeds for my main blog and my links, but perhaps I should even break out my main blog a bit in order to give those that wish to avoid my more personal stuff a way to do so. A couple semi-related comments:

* Doug, I think you’re right that Kottke started this. As you said, he maintains separate feeds. however, on his site, the two are combined. This works because of visual design. On Jason’s site, you can clearly delineate when he has something to say and when he just wants to drop a few links. Unfortunately, our RSS readers don’t give us this level of information design. Thus, it makes sense to separate the feeds.

* Please *do* provide feeds for links, though! A few of my favorite linkers don’t provide feeds for their links — only for their blogs. I’ll single out Cameron Moll as someone who did this, but has since added a feed. I like the link feeds, myself. Keep ‘em coming, but just keep ‘em separate so those who are uninterested can opt-out (or opt-in, rather).

* Not totally related, but kinda: does anyone else find it really annoying when feeds update with every comment added to a post? Again, some of my favorite feeds do this. I’m not sure if it’s a function of a CMS, or just related to the comment count appearing in the feed (sometimes in the entry title), but I find this a bit obnoxious, myself.

3
damion says:
February 02, 03h

I just went through this with the SecurityFocus feeds. It includes stuff from the BugTraq and Vulnerability db into one feed. On a hunch I tried and sure enough Thunderbird allows me to filter the feeds into seperate folders. With the SecurityFocus feed it’s simple since the origin is placed in the subject “BugTraq:” vs “Vulns:” however many other feeds don’t do anything similar. Scribbling.net now includes a little tag at the end of the subject on what type of post it is, but since she rolled her own blog I doubt we’ll see it in the major blog sw soon.

4
beto says:
February 02, 03h

I kept wondering how much time would pass before someone would talk about this. I still find those link pile feeds from del.icio.us disrupting and rather annoying, specially when coming from an otherwise prose-rich author.

While I can understand the desire of keeping a feed as current and active as possible, I’d rather have a good, readable feed updated every few weeks than a daily mishmash of link dumps, photos and God knows what else.

Keeping separate feeds sounds like the best option - after all, not everyone is going to be equally interested in your writing, your pictures and your link piles. Sounds logic.

5
February 02, 04h

Dave, I just wanted to mention that I was kind of surprised to see my name in the pull quote with the word “annoying”. I know you’re saying that about combined feeds in reference to my post, but I don’t think I worded my post that strongly.

I get surprised and kind of let down when I read friends sites with links instead of posts but I wouldn’t go as far as saying they are annoying. It’s still good to read something from them, just not as good as a full text post.

I might be splitting hairs here though.

6
February 02, 05h

Separate feeds are definitely a good thing. I like them so much that I’ve been thinking about adding category-based feeds to my linklog (and eventually to my weblog). With a little PHP and some caching, it wouldn’t be technically difficult. The main thing holding me back is that I wonder how many people would actually want to restrict their subscription to only certain categories. Personally, I love the inbox feature of del.icio.us where I can decide which tags to include links from, but how many other people like that much customization?

How soon until personalized RSS feeds become de rigueur? And how far do we take the separation of content?

7
Dave S. says:
February 02, 06h

Sorry Matt, I didn’t mean to misquote you. I’ve re-worded the lead-in, hopefully that separates my words from yours a little better.

8
lalitree says:
February 02, 08h

“When 7 new items pop up, that’s 7 to manually flag as read”

That’s why I’ve never found an RSS reader I like better than NetNewsWire: when I scan through the new items in each feed, the “mark all as read” button is right there next to the “next unread” button, which makes this easy.

Personally I don’t mind del.icio.us links in a feed, I actually rather like the once-daily link roundup some people do. If something similar could be done with Flickr photos (one entry in the feed per day containing all of that day’s photos), that’d be pretty slick, I think.

9
February 02, 09h

I don’t know why this is such a big deal. Why not provide a full site feed for those who want it, along with the individual sections. That’s what I do on my site, and I haven’t had any complaints.

10
February 02, 10h

Excellent article, and some good comments, too. I’ve been wrestling with similar problems and your article inspired me to write on requirements for tag awareness in RSS readers:

http://www.hybernaut.com/bdv/tag-aware-rss-reader.html

11
February 02, 11h

Indeed. I contemplated joining up some of my feeds myself, to make subscribing convenient.

I quickly changed my mind when I discovered that I actually only subscribed to two of my own feeds, and would hate to have my inbox littered with stuff I didn’t need.

12
February 02, 11h

Lucky for me that the upcoming revision of meyerweb will in fact provide a collection of separate feeds, instead of munging them all together. Right now I have two: Thoughts From Eric and Distractions. Within a week or so, I’ll have eight. (Admittedly, six of them are various ways of slicing up Thoughts From Eric.)

13
Dave S. says:
February 02, 11h

Eric — I’d love to see your Redesign Watch combined with your Distractions feed. Platelets, maybe not so much. And I’d most likely be inclined to subscribe to your main articles feed separately.

Having the option to select what I want out of your four main home page items definitely appeals.

14
Ethan says:
February 02, 11h

Amen to that, sir. While it’s slightly unrelated, I’ve been backing off my newsreader quite a bit lately in favor of good ol’ blo.gs. I’ve found myself removing favorite sites from my blogroll simply because they tend to ping each time they’ve a new link—-while it’s not a huge deal to click through and scan for updates, I like to at least *pretend* I’m a busy man.

15
February 02, 12h

Ok Dave, especially for you my site now has a feed that contains only my main posts ;-) Maybe others will be interested in that as well.

16
February 02, 12h

I used to use SharpReader for my RSS feeds, but decided I wanted something not MS based (less likely to crash on me or muck up my memory). I went to using Sage (plugin for FireFox). Now, one of my initial complaints was that it didn’t auto-refresh to check for updates. I have to manually push a button.

“NO!” my mind cried out, “I want my content dynamic and up-to-date.”

“Just a second, mind,”, said my conscience, “you get distracted so many times a day that the other RSS feeder was actually reducing your work to shambles.”

“True, but I wants it…. I wants it”

“No, you don’t, only want it when you have time… All you have to do is press the little refresh button in Sage when you’re on a break from your real work and you’ll get served up-to-date info without having to deal with constant distractions.”

“Yes… yes… oh, lookie, a post from Dave Shea…. must responds to it.”

“Yes, you must.”

I’m feeling better now. :)

17
February 02, 12h

A second amen from me. I really don’t like the combined feeds. I got all over PhotoMatt’s case when he started doing it — though it seems his site has changed more into a link blog with tiny bits of commentary, than the full blog it used to be.

I think it’s one thing to combine full posts and links on the site, it’s another to do them in a single RSS feed. Combine them on the site, fine. But take advantage of MT or WordPress, or whatever CMS you’re using, and publish one feed for each major type of content you provide.

If memory serves me correctly, it was Kottke who first started combining posts and links inline on his site — but thoughout, he’s maintained separate feeds, and it works well this way.

18
February 02, 12h

I guess, more to the point than my previous post, was that having multiple feeds allows for me to be selective with my break time.. for example, I may have time to quickly glance through a list of links in one of the “mezzoblue dailies”, but not enough time to read a page long post. Thus, I can group up my feeds into “quick-reads” and “better be on lunch”. A single mass feed doesn’t give me a choice.

19
ramanan says:
February 02, 12h

I wrote about this too a few months back (http://funkaoshi.com/blog/stupid-ass-feedburner); I find the inclusion of flickr photos particularly annoying. Most of the time your photos are only going to be interesting to people you’re friends with. The photos Tom Coates puts up in particular are thoroughly boring to me, but I’m sure his friends enjoy them. Since Flikr has RSS feeds, why not let people subscribe to your site’s feed and your flickr feed. I blame feedburner. God damn feedburner.

20
Dave S. says:
February 02, 12h

“I may have time to quickly glance through a list of links in one of the “mezzoblue dailies”, but not enough time to read a page long post”

Right, I like this idea too. I’d be more inclined to subscribe to multiple feeds for each source of a site (sideblog, main articles, etc.) than a combined feed that effectively has the same content I want. I’m pretty strong on grouping stuff, and certain groups are more valuable to me than others.

21
February 03, 04h

Interesting points.

I’m a little confused though.

At present I provide a single feed for my content… that’s links *and* main logs.

When I make a “longer” log posting I go to Pingomatic and let folk who read my feed know that I’ve made a new “longer” post. Isn’t this the only time someone is alerted to my posting activity via their feed-readers?

I don’t read feeds at all, which may explain my confusion.

Some feedback could be useful.

22
February 03, 06h

One way to combat this is to provide a simple filtering mechanism that enables clients to display different slices of a feed dynamically.

The RSS Traits module is one approach:

http://www.basement.org/modules/traits/

23
Brian says:
February 03, 08h

This has been getting to me lately as well. I have plenty of feeds to read daily, so it’s tough to sift through the junk to get to the interesting stuff.

Personally, I have separate feeds for my main weblog posts, links, photos, and other random stuff. Subscribe to what you want and ignore what you want. I love when popular sites like this one do the same thing.

In Bloglines I have a folder specifically for other people’s links. I want to know what you and Airbag and Cameron and Shaun and Dan etc are reading, but I want it separate from everything else.

24
Simon Cox says:
February 08, 07h

I used to have feeds for each of my subject categories but dropped them last year as they were not being used - maybe it was just my content. Very easy to set up if you are using Moveable Type as your back end BTW.

Likewise I never published any interesting links in the past because I didn’t want them appearing as main content on my home page. So I set up a second Blog just for quick links. I pull this information into my main blog as a side panel and, more interestingly when you go to an article the sideblog data shown is relative to the category you are in - hopefully useful. Using this method I don’t publish irrelevant links in my RSS feed.

Now that I have read all these views I may well go back to publishing feeds for each category - after I have tidied them up a bit!

25
Mike D. says:
February 09, 05h

The most compelling reason to use WordPress right now, in my opinion, is that it solves this problem pretty much right out of the box. If a publisher has 6 categories and you are only interested in two of them, you can subscribe to a URL like this:

feed.php?categories=design,code

… and WordPress automatically spits out a feed containing only entries from those two categories. So as a publisher, all I need to do is have a standard “subscribe” link which leads to the general purpose feed and then a widget listing my categories with checkboxes next to them accompanied by a “generate custom feed” button and I’m golden.

Anybody want to write an MT plug-in to do this? Anybody already written one?

26
February 10, 03h

Drupal does individual feeds for categories or any combination of categories that you want.

For example, if all you care about is Kitsilano and Food on Urban Vancouver then subscribe to:
http://www.urbanvancouver.com/taxonomy/feed/or/3,15

More info on the syndication page at:
http://www.urbanvancouver.com/syndication

27
February 10, 12h

Yeah, even though I haven’t really got familiar with the RSS reader yet, I can imagine how you feel.

Personally, if I was to settle down and find out how I should make RSS feeds, or rather, what RSS feeds I wanted to make, I think I would make one for every single thing. Nothing mixed up. Because I think that if you mix it up, somebody is going to think like you and Matt, and someone will maybe unsubscribe. But if you had one RSS feed for every thing that would need one, the reader could pick precisely the thing that he wanted, and if he was tired of seeing, let’s say the newest Flickr photos all the time, he could just unsubscribe the Flickr feed, and still get the other news.

I know it would take some time to add all the feeds if he/she wanted all of them, but it would never take that long time I guess, and when it’s done, it’s done.