Stop the fire hose: Primary sources

November 1, 2009

This dog doesn't know how to prune his RSS feeds.You have a desire to read a lot of RSS feeds. You also have a desire to have your brain not explode. Balancing these two ideals can be tricky. Thankfully, there is one rule to manage your subscriptions that helps immensely: use primary sources.

Primary sources are feeds of people who write about things they’re learning. They are not link aggregators, and they are not multi-author news sites. Primary sources don’t need to post 20 times a day to generate ad revenue, and they don’t repeat themselves endlessly. Take a hard look at your Google Reader’s “Frequently updated” Trends list, and know thy enemy ((It’s worth noting that your enemy is not the quantity of feeds you’re subscribed to. RSS is great at handling very infrequently updating announcement-style feeds, and sometimes these are the best sources of timely information.)).

Breaking up with multi-author blogs can be hard: it took me a long time to give up on Boing Boing. When I did, though, my RSS signal to noise ratio got much better. If you can’t stand abandoning a high-volume blog, take a look at what posts you care about. Chances are, there’s an author feed or section feed that will help your sanity.

Ditching aggregators can be even harder. Reddit and Hacker News send you to lots of interesting sites. As you subscribe to the best of those sites, however, the quality of the aggregator links goes down compared to the primary sources. Meanwhile, the aggregators only offer fire hose style RSS feeds rather than a “best 5 per day” option. Filter them or ditch them.

Of course, there are other ways. You could stash annoying feeds in folders based on how worth reading they are. You could switch aggregator sites every year, trying to keep ahead of the noise and inanity. You could just dismiss managing your incoming information as impossible or too time consuming. All these are symptoms of obsessing about missing something. Always consider what you’re seeing but not having the bandwidth to absorb.

© Allen Pike. See also Twitter and Steamclock.