There’s an interesting backstory to why I’m so interested in the fate of Google Reader, RSS in general, RSS vs. Twitter and the evolution of tools for collecting, organizing, and reading news. In the various pieces that I’ve read about this issue in the past week (all of them excellent) none has touched on the issues that concern me.
Google Reader is two things:
1. A cloud-based RSS feed aggregator that allows client applications to subscribe to its output (plumbing)
2. A web-based RSS feed reader (an appliance)
What I care about preserving is the way I read news and I care less about who handles the plumbing involved in keeping my various news reading applications in sync with one another. I haven’t interacted directly with Google Reader in years, preferring to interact with a client application: Reeder (more on this below).
Because I use Reeder (an “appliance”) on my Mac, iPhone, and iPad to to connect to my Google Reader account, I’m only interested in keeping Google Reader alive because at this point it’s the only synchronization service that Reeder uses. I care about Reeder, my reading tool. I’m hoping that the folks behind Reeder decide to use iCloud or DropBox or their own cloud-based service to synchronize accounts, this would be a relatively painless transition. My guess is this will happen. I’m not worried, Reeder is an extremely popular application on all three platforms.
But for me there’s another much more important aspect of this than these relatively technical details: the process of reading the news itself.
I’m slow and distractible
I’m an extremely slow reader. I can read and I can understand what I’m reading, but my comprehension is fragile, I lose decent comprehension with any kind of distraction. Yes, I’m definitely a card carrying member of the ADD club.
It’s also important to note that I do not skim when I read, or, if I do, I pick up very little. If I want to understand what I’m reading I have to take my time.
As web sites have gotten more encumbered with crap besides the main content, my ability to read things on those web sites has been hampered. Flashing ads, brightly colored backgrounds and text, popups, crawls, and all the rest of the stuff that makes up many news sites makes it much more difficult for someone like me to scan headlines, zero in on what I want, and then read deeply. Even a clean magazine or newspaper layout is less useful to me than a simple list where everything in the list is the same weight and typeface and I’m simply scanning down differentiating content, not colors, images, or some other attribute that has nothing to do with that content. For me, separating the content that I want from the container that I don’t want is important and over the years there have been various ways to do this.
The early days
For me, the most significant technology for doing this has been RSS and applications for aggregating and reading one’s collection of RSS news feeds. But these RSS news readers do more than just organize disparate feeds into a list. They also make it easier to know what I’ve read and what I haven’t without having to scan a magazine/newspaper layout looking for new things (remember, I’m a slow and distractible scanner). For a reader like me, this technology may be the most significant access tool I have and I spend more time in my RSS “appliance” than I do in any other single application on my Mac, iPhone, or iPad.
I started using RSS as a tool to track things with an early version of NetNewsWire before it had any syncing/cloud capabilities and before Google Reader existed. There were far fewer feeds to subscribe to in those early days and many of us didn’t get hooked on this way of aggregating and reading news until a few years later. This was long before there were iPhones and iPads and most folks were using desktop or laptop computers and had little reason to sync unless it was to another computer they used.
Still, during this time the list-based format that NetNewsWire presented news in with ways to organize feeds into folders was a definite fit with my needs as a fragile reader with a big appetite for information on a wide variety of topics and I started spending more time in NetNewsWire than almost any other application on my computer.
When NetNewWire started using NewsGator for cloud-based syncing I had no use for it and didn’t use it. No doubt it was a forward thinking thing for Brent Simmons (the author of NetNewsWire) to do given what came later. I had already moved from desktop/laptop to just a laptop as my sole computer so I had nothing to sync to.
But, what NetNewsWire did was hook me on a way to pull a lot of different sources into one place to read. It was revolutionary really, and it fit both my reading style and my need to feed disparate interests.
The other thing NetNewsWire did was allow me to time-shift reading news and this time-shifting, for a slow reader like me was and remains crucial.
RSS in the cloud with Google Reader
My friend Steve Splonskowski had turned me onto NetNewsWire and after he moved over to Google Reader he told me about it. At that point I wasn’t all that clear about the current and future usefulness of having my collection of RSS feeds (or anything else) in the cloud but I moved over to Google Reader (using it with Safari on a PowerBook) and there were aspects of it that were great compared with the then older and in some ways stodgier NetNewsWire.
So to be clear, initially I was using Google Reader as both the container for my news feeds and as an appliance for reading them. However, I never stopped looking for and trying desktop clients that connected to my Google Reader account like the updated NetNewsWire and Newsfire. I kept looking because while initially reading directly on Google Reader was novel, there were limits to the kinds of controls Google could build into a web-based tool, and, over the years Google’s web tool designs have gotten clumsier, at least for me.
I didn’t fully get the power of having things in the cloud until I got an iPhone as another device to get mail and RSS feeds on. Having moved over to Google Reader put me in a much better place to embrace the growing collection Google Reader iOS client applications running on the iPhone and I tried many before settling on Reeder.
Reeder is one of many “appliances” to Google Reader’s “plumbing.” It’s an application that presents one’s collection of news feeds in a (arguably) cleaner and simpler form than using Google Reader (as an appliance) via a web browser. Reeder came out first for the iPhone, then then the Mac, then the iPad and I have it running on all three.
What makes Reeder work for me?
1. Very clean and spare user interface: it has the right balance between information and tools, favoring information and allowing the tools to fall into the background.
2. Large, easy-to-read headlines on each item with date and attribution in a lighter typeface so that it’s not distracting. This may seem trivial but it’s not. The designer, Silvio Rizzi, not only has a clean, minimalist aesthetic, but he has a good feeling for how to design with type to make reading easier.
3. Easy navigation tools that all have keyboard equivalents so that using Reeder on the Mac feels very much like using Reeder on the iPhone and/or iPad. I can move through hundreds of stories quickly without taking my eyes off the headlines.
4. A simple “services” bar that allows easily adding articles to Instapaper, posting on Twitter, emailing and more.
5. Not all RSS output is the full post but when it is, I tend to read it on Reeder because RSS strips out most of the extra information and Reeder presents text in a consistent typeface. Also, reading a site through a newsreader like Reeder allows you to just read content, not be distracted by sidebars with ads and indexes and flashing dingleberries and such.
6. Reeder caches Google Reader output so I can read things without being connected, then once I am connected update my Google Reader cloud collection automatically with what I’ve read, what I’ve saved, etc.
Since Google announced they’re discontinuing Google Reader many friends and many web sites commenting on this have recommended a number of alternatives.
The most common recommendation has been Flipboard which is a magazine-like app that runs on iOS and Android (but not on the Mac) and pulls together Flickr, Twitter, Google Reader and other content in a book/magazine-like format. Flipboard is beautiful and well designed and for what it is, it’s also minimalistic. The problem with Flipboard for me is that it’s a magazine format and I’m looking at a lot of information at one time, like I might on a web site. This looks great aesthetically but I find myself distracted by too much information on my screen at any one time.
Any other feed aggregator that looks like a magazine is not something I’m interested in, although I understand why others are. I’m just not that kind of reader.
For my fragile reading style, a list where everything is presented in the same weight and only the content changes seems to work best if I want to actually understand what I’m reading and move through a lot of information relatively quickly.
These days, with Twitter and Facebook feeds moving by in real time, I’m convinced that many people, even decent readers, skim so lightly and so quickly they don’t stop long enough to think (enough) about what they’re reading. For me, reading comes hard enough so that if I’m going to do it, it better be worthwhile and lead to understanding. So, I protect my slow approach because it leads to better understanding.
Now that you know how I read most of my news, let me go further.
Choosing reading environments
Most people (reading this) don’t choose their reading environments. If you email them a link to an article they’ll follow the link and read the article on the site it’s published on. I do that too at times but if I find the site too busy and the article is good enough to warrant some attention, I’ll hit a single button my my browser’s toolbar: Read Later. That button is something that comes with an Instapaper account.
Instapaper is a cloud-based service that allows you to collect things that you’d like to read later or on another device. Like Google Reader, Instapaper is three things:
1. A cloud-based container for web content that I send to it that I want to read later.
2. A web site for reading that content (on a computer).
3. iOS apps for iPhone and iPad for reading the content of one’s Instapaper account.
And, there’s a Macintosh client that can tap into one’s Instapaper account as well: ReadKit.
So, why would I want to send an article to Instapaper and open it up in ReadKit on my Mac or in the Instapaper app on my iPad or iPhone?
Instapaper provides a distraction-free, clean environment to read longer articles in. It feels much like reading a book with Apple’s iBooks app which is an incredible way to read a book. There’s plenty of control but it’s only there if you need it. What you’re looking at is the content you’re reading and you’re not distracted by web content like sidebars, flashing icons, or advertising.
I realize to many the process that I’m describing sounds cumbersome but in fact, it’s not. Here’s how it works.
I’m scanning my RSS feeds in Reeder and find an article I want to read that’s not pushed out in its entirety so I can’t read it end to end in Reeder.
I click through to the web site that’s holding the article, be it The New York Times, The New Yorker, Slate, Huffington Post, whatever.
If I find the web site too distracting, or, its type too small to read, I hit the Read Later button on my browser’s toolbar.
This puts the article (even multiple page articles) into Instapaper.
If I’m on my Mac I open up ReadKit, it automatically pulls new things in from Instapaper and there’s the article, beautifully typeset and much easier to read. And, Instapaper will hold that article forever so there’s no rush in reading it. In this way, Instapaper is a DVR for web content, it allows time shifting just like a DVR does for television content but it also allows for a distraction-free, well typeset reading experience which is what I’m after.
If I want to read the article on my iPad on a plane I simply run the Instapaper app and it will automatically update and pull in the new information from the Instapaper cloud. And, the iPad will cache the article(s) so even when I’m not connected on the plane, I have all of my information with me.
The Instapaper app as well as the ReadKit app on the Mac give me typographic control, margin control, and more, so I can set things up in any way I like to make readability easier for me.
The entire process: finding the article I want in Reeder, checking it out on the web (Safari), deciding to save it for “reading later” with Instapaper and opening it up with Instapaper on my iPad or iPhone or ReadKit on the Mac takes less than 15 seconds. If the internet is running slow at that moment it might take as long as 30 seconds but never much more. I not only do this every day with much of what I want to read carefully, I do it multiple times a day. It’s part of my reading process and it works (for me).
No doubt these tools will evolve and there will be great solutions to the “problem” that the coming demise of Google Reader has brought about. But, tools are a means to an end and in this case, the end is reading and understanding the news.
For most people reading comes easily enough so that they don’t feel compelled to change the way the information they’re reading is presented. I envy those people. Over many years of struggling with reading I’ve learned that I can read and I can understand if I take my time and can get some control over the way the information is presented to me. This collection of tools and processes is my current way of taking that control.