I haven’t seriously opened Google Reader in months. That might be because I’m in law school and have limited time to read besides for courses. I don’t think this is true, though, because I still frequent Twitter, Techmeme, Google News, NYTimes, Facebook.… yeah, I have plenty of time for other stuff. It might be because I have 144 subscriptions, leading my unread count to reach the dreaded “1000+” in a matter of days. But shouldn’t Reader’s “sort by magic” help with that?
I think the real reason that I recoil from RSS these days is because of organization. Let’s do a little history lesson, and then I’ll make a proposal for something better.
At a basic level, you browse RSS by feed. You click on a feed, read the content you want, “mark as read” the rest, move to the next feed repeat. The first organizational improvement that RSS readers made was categories and tags. You could throw feeds into higher-level categories — for example, “copyright law” was one I made — and then you could save a little time by browsing through the entire category instead of feed-by-feed.
For a long time, that was about it. Then, about a year ago, Google introduced “sort by magic.” This allowed you to sort all posts, or posts within a feed or category, based on a personalized algorithm that takes into account what you read, what you “like,” what you share with others, etc. Pretty smart, and really helpful. I can now read as far as my interest takes me. When I get bored, I can pretty safely assume that I won’t like anything further down, so I don’t feel as guilty about hitting “mark as read” on the rest.
But obviously it’s not enough, because I still get a gut feeling that my time is spent better on all those other sources I mentioned — particularly Twitter and Techmeme — than in Reader. Why is that? One reason might be currency. With Twitter I know what’s happening and what people are talking about now. I can watch conversation between people in real time, and I can participate in the conversations if I want.
But I think it’s really the organizational problem. That’s why I think the combination of Google Reader personalization and Techmeme organization would be an epic win. To be clear, I know that Techmeme’s curation and organization is part algorithm, part human. But I know that if Google puts its mind to it and incorporated Techmeme’s organizational principals, something really useful would result.
So the idea is this. Currently, Reader’s “magic” sort requires you to either have all the stories sorted by magic, or by feed, or by category. Let’s say I have that “copyright law” category open on magic sort. Let’s say I have 20 subscriptions in that category. There’s really only a certain amount of real news that happens about copyright every day. So of those 20 blogs, at least half are going to cover a given story. I don’t need to have what is essentially the same story appear 20 discrete times in that list of posts. I need all those stories to be bundled together.
Now, you might argue that this means I should just cut down on my copyright law subscriptions. Maybe. But sometimes one blog has a really unique twist, or has an update that another blog doesn’t, or it was the one to break the story. I want that post to be present and visible, like the sub-stories in Techmeme’s clusters.
Google is actually about 90% of the way to having this fantasy product in place. Google Blog Search does post clusters on its homepage, and has broad categories for filtering on the side (“Politics,” “Sports,” “Movies”…). But I can’t create custom categories, like “copyright law.” On the other hand, Google News lets me create custom categories, and it pulls story clusters together based on them. But that’s the problem: it’s news stories. I want blog posts from niche sites like Techdirt to have just as much cred as the New York Times.
In the end, I don’t want to subscribe to blogs. I want to subscribe to a theme or category, and have the algorithm decide on a story-by-story base which blogs to include in a cluster, which one to put up top, and which “twist” or “update” stories need to be featured as indented stories within the cluster. One obvious problem is that users are probably not very good at finding the right keywords to define a category in order to get the type of news they’re seeking. Having some sort of autofill (much like Google News does now when you create a custom topic) will be key in balancing long-tail interests with a sort of “funneling” towards an optimal experience.
Eventually, it would be great for tweets on the same topic to be represented in the cluster, with insightful commentary on the story at hand. I can even imagine this looking like the “throw-out” quotes you see in big print in a print magazine or newspaper. It helps frame the conversation.
The time has truly come for news to come to us, not for us to have to go to the news.