Sunday, 26 July 2009

RSS - “Really Sh*t Substance”

Apologies for the language in the subject – I was struggling to come up with the right word beginning with “S” to express how I felt! To clear up any worries, no – I am not turning into a hip-and-trendy Rails developer (More swearing)…

Cleaning the RSS House

So, thanks to my biphasic sleep experiment I have finally managed to get down to “RSS Zero” – no unread or starred items. When I started this I had 2000+ unread items and over 8 months backlog of starred items “for later reading” – yeah, the “later” was very late!

This has been a really interesting task on several levels:

  • I was reading a lot of content alongside other content (as opposed to the odd post here and there).
  • I could benchmark where I am at without the “help” of the RSS content. By this I mean, “all those items I never read, did they make a difference?
  • I allowed me to go over and over the reading process – and got me thinking about making it slicker.

Content vs. Content

This was an interesting revelation, I found myself rapidly starting to notice massive differences in the quality of blogs when reading them all together in chunks (I have been dedicating one Pomodoro a day to RSS).

I found there are very few blogs actually posting original “here are my thoughts” content. However, there seem to be shedloads of blogs posting things that annoy me. Here’s my “pet peevs”:

Link “Digests”

There are several blogs that like to post “link digests”. Simply a post containing a bunch of links to other posts/articles. Now, some people may find this useful, obviously I do not, here is why:

  • 99% of the time I am already subscribed to the original authors content.
  • It’s hard to skim-read.
  • Linking without a reason why you are linking makes me have to go in to the article to then realise it is not actually interesting to me. Thanks for wasting even more of my time.

So, all of these people are now unsubscribed from my Google Reader.

I am all for linking to useful articles, but there are better mediums for it/ways of spreading the content:

Using Shared Items on Google Reader (or similar)

This feed mechanism gets me to the content much quicker and allows me to decide.

Posting on Twitter

But do this judiciously since it can hack people off. So “why do it?” you ask – because you are less likely to share crap. 

Post your own thoughts on it

“I read this and it rocked because..”. This also has the benefit of demonstrating you have a brain rather than just the ability to spam people :)

As you can see, I went through a phase of doing it myself. I tried to offer links along with why I am linking them. I later dropped this since I had little feedback and it came with a relatively high maintenance cost but at least I tried to add my own spin.

Regurgitation

This is basically taking someone else’s content and either just reposting it (seen a lot of blatant/borderline plagiarism) or just saying “I read this, it said …”.

This is boring. You are adding nothing to the content. Would you buy a newspaper that said nothing? Just because it is free download RSS, it doesn’t means peoples time is free to waste.

Don’t get me wrong, a lot of the posts on my blog are inspired from what I have read elsewhere. Hell, that is the fundamental basis for most learning. But I always try to take the content, think about it, then post my thoughts. This:

  • Helps you learn more.
  • Shows that you have the ability to think.
  • Provides extra knowledge.
  • Engages other people because it gets them thinking.

For me, the last point is the kicker. This is really the main reason why people want to read the damn RSS feed in the first place right?

Asking Questions, But Not Providing Answers

Lots and lots of posts had lots of “what if’s” but never actually got to providing answers. Now I am not talking about asking for help, that is posed very differently. I am talking about “general discussion” posts that are posed like they contain subject matter but have zero substance. I view this as a real problem because:

Search Engines Will Find You

… and what are people going to be searching for? Answers. You have just added more time wasted on their problem and increased their level of frustration. Google SearchWiki (bad name, great feature*) was a godsend for this. How many times have you gone looking for answers and found lots of unhelpful blog posts? Too many.

I have a several posts here (such as this one) that have pulled in so many visitors because I made a clear point of solving the problem and sharing the knowledge. Note that in the example post:

  • I make it clear in the subject what the problem is and that I solved it.
  • All error messages etc. are in plain text rather than screen grabs. Don’t be lazy, search engines will thank you ;)
  • I outline in clear steps that actions taken to fix the issue.
  • I prove the fix.

Now, this may be easier for hard problems such as an error message. But you can apply the same to thoughts on other posts. Go over what the post made you think, and post your thoughts.

* Bing Dev Team – Are you reading? ;)

The Reader Always Loses

It’s only at the end of the post does the reader realise you have been of zero use. Sad trombone. This is really, really, really bad.

Did I “Need” the RSS?

I had thousands of posts/articles starred for later reading. 99% of these were things I needed to learn at the time of starring. What was really interesting looking at the 8 month timeline is that all the historic stuff I ended up learning anyway.

For me, this really reinforces all of the above. If a blog feed is so uninteresting and unhelpful, people will get what they need elsewhere.

The Reading Process

I never, ever want to go back to having a backlog like that again. To help, I have:

  • Unsubscribed from tons of feeds to “cut the fat”.
  • Added a rolling ToDo to check out my Google Reader Trends to ensure I am not keeping boring feeds in my subscriptions (most RSS software will have similar).
  • Stopped using stars/tags since the process is out-of-band from my main GTD process and instead streamlined getting items from Google Reader to Remember The Milk.

In Summation

Yeah, this post was more of a rant, but I really want my blog to be of use to people and if thinking about what I think makes other blogs bad helps that, then so be it. I really wanted to share my thoughts here to see what others think.

How do you think this blog holds up against the above?

As always, comments very welcome and very listened to. Thanks a lot :)

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