will meyer

Nerd of multiple disciplines. Father of boys. Employee of Spotify.

Scan, Consider, Research: A Post-RSS Web Reading Workflow that Doesn't Suck

Or How I learned to stop worrying about RSS and love the Twitter.

From the First World Problems Desk

I get most of my web content through Twitter, but had a full RSS setup going as well. Google Reader's imminent shutdown threw me into an existential panic. How would I stay on top of my highly-organized tree of RSS feeds? A few days' survey showed me just how many reading apps are out there right now, RSS and otherwise. It also gave me a chance to think about whether I still cared if I read every single post. Did I ever really empty my Google Reader inbox? Nope.

Three Modes of Reading

I think many of us consume content in three distinct modes.

Scan

We look for headlines, snippets, and small nuggets of content that help us keep up on major developments of the day. Real-world news items, tech developments, the latest time-wasting meme, and other random tidbits that we find worth a glance. Scanning is us keeping on top of our stream. We do it nearly continuously, on whatever device we are primarily engaged with at that point in the day. We glance sideways at our phones while in line for coffee, notifications pop up on our laptop screens all day, we skim our email while walking to the shower.

Consider

Sometimes, because we still appreciate long-form content, we actually read something for more than a few seconds. This is a more deliberate activity, done in distinct chunks of time. We read interesting thought pieces on a tablet before falling asleep, we procrastinate in our browsers while temporarily stuck on a problem we're working on, we time-shift content to times when we're ready to think.

Research

Because we're knowledge workers, we do need to do our homework. We scour the web for content relavant to our particular areas of interest. We save this content so we can keep track of it later. We're usually pretty anal about the system we use for doing this.

Coming to terms with these three modes has made it easier for me to get my head around my own content consumption patterns and then help me figure out a tools workflow that works for them.

My Workflow Approach

Here's a recipe, YMMV.

Make Twitter and Email your only sources

I ditched everything but Twitter and email. Almost anything I ever followed via RSS is on Twitter as well, often with more useful headline commentary. Everything else I was using RSS for, like keeping up with Google alerts, I can get via email. Twitter Lists, and the fact that you don't have to Follow people/brands/cyborgs to put them in a List, means you can get as segmented as you like.

Separate Scan vs Consider content with Labels, Lists, and time-shifts

First, separate Scan and Consier content at the source level. For Twitter, anything you want to make sure you can scan, Follow it. For email, let it come to your Inbox. You can then keep your Inbox and your main Twitter timeline open as often as you like, Growling at you all day if you want, and make sure you see what's going on.

For sources you know you don't really need to scan but will instead want to read when you have time (Consider), use Twitter Lists and auto-archiving GMail labels. Got some time, looking for something to read up on, that's when you browse those. This is akin to how many of us have used RSS feeds in the past.

To move items you've scanned into a consider mode, use a read-later service. The feed from that service you can then read right along with the rest of your consider content.

Tools-wise, I currently use HootSuite and Instapaper for all of this, on top of what I do in my mail client and in Twitter's interface itself (list management).

Use a bookmarking tool for Research

Forget the social aspects, use a bookmarking service to keep track of all that web-based content you think you might want later. I have tons of projects going on at all times, I have bookmarks in all of those areas, and many more.

I use Pinboard for this. I used to use Delicious, but, well, you know. I don't use Evernote, mostly because I think its inefficient for web links and overkill for notes. Don't stress about the tags as long as they make sense to you. (As an aside, Note and TODO management is a topic in and of itself that we'll talk about another time, short version is use Simplenote and a good fast client like Notational Velocity).

Make a schema for your Consider content

Make a structured schema when you organize your Twitter Lists (or even RSS folders) -- define your lists/folders/whatever and write a few words about what they mean. It may seem like overkill to start, but over time, as you build up lots of content and are constantly curating it, it helps to clarify the categories. This also makes it easier to avoid having sources in multiple categories, which makes managing read/unread state easier with clients that don't handle it very well (like most Twitter clients).

Get your tools hooked up

Get your apps and bookmarklets humming. Being able to easily time-shift content or save it for rsearch purposes right from your reader is key. I use Chrome and Android. On the desktop, I find the HootSuite Hootlet, Instapaper bookmarklet, Pinboard+, and Pinboard (which feels like the old/awesome Delicious Firefox sidebar) extensions work well. On Android, its Pindroid, Instapaper, and HootSuite.

Keep track of your shared links. Pinboard has a nice feature for this, where it can automatically tag any link you tweet into your bookmarks (using a non-customizeable-but-still-ok "from twitter" tag). It can do the same for Instapaper.

Some Examples

A few common use-case examples...

To keep up with what specific people I'm interested in are up to, I put them in a "peeps" Twitter List, and Follow those I'm really interested in.

To get the latest tech news headlines throughout the day, I follow a number of key sources and have Growls firing all day. If I see something I'm interested in reading later, I'll use Instapaper to save it. I have in a "technews-general" Twitter List for those times when I want something more to surf.

To give myself a good list of stuff to read in a few different personal-interest areas, I put a bunch of niche sources into various Twitter Lists but don't follow them. I use my reader to check in when I've got time and am interested in checking out some content (with a tablet in bed is a good example). I'll use HootSuite for this.

I get other non-Twitter longish-form content in my inbox, like LinkedIn digest emails, and have them labeled but left in my Inbox. I usually read them in the mornings.

In-Work

There are a couple of things I'm still not crazy about.

I want a magazine.

My feed-reading experience is still too much like reading a feed. I love Instapaper's "beautiful reading room", but I want that for my feeds, not just for content I send into it. I would use Flipboard if it had a desktop/web version, or Feedly if I could read Twitter lists with it (without maintaining RSS API URLs).

I want recommendations and personalization.

I'm keeping an eye on the social recommendations services, they're getting better all the time. I like Prismatic a lot for quality, if only I could get it in some sort of non-site-based channel. Flipboard, Zite, and others have decent options here as well, but I find them all too cumbersome still to include in my main workflow. I wish there were more players trying to provide the recommendations stream and not also the reader experience -- they are different things entirely and I'm not sure one app can really knock it out of the park on both.