4 min read

My Problems with Online Reading

There was too much noise. Even with the relatively small number of feeds to which I was subscribed, almost none of it was interesting to me. I realized that, for some reason I couldn’t quite recall, I felt obligated to stay abreast of new developments in technology and such.

– Brett Kelly, Reading Intentionally: Why I Quit Reading RSS

When I left for Las Vegas, I knew I would be going without one component that has been with me for years: reading online.

The cost for the wifi at the hotel I was staying at was around $20 a day, which I wasn’t willing to pay because I wasn’t 100% certain that the connection would be reliable enough to use. The data plan my cellphone carrier has for travel in the United States is even worse: $1 per 1 Mb. The combination of the two high costs forced me to be offline and to change my reading habits from RSS feeds, Twitter, iPad apps, shared links in Facebook to a few magazines and eBooks on the iPad.

When I returned home and logged into Google Reader for the first time in four days, it was a bit overwhelming. The number of unread items was well over 1,000. The number didn’t drop significantly even though I was hitting “Mark All as Read” as quickly as I could. Eventually, I marked everything as read and went to the websites I really wanted to learn about.

Being faced with that problem made me think deeper about the issue. Like Brett, I felt a certain obligation to follow several authors, regardless of whether the content was 100% interesting or relevent to what I was doing at the time. But the real problem was why I started following sites with RSS feeds to begin with.

Before I discovered RSS feeds, I did what everyone else presumably did: bookmark favourite sites, store them within folders in the browser or Delicious-like services. What drove me to use RSS feeds was the not only the ease at which I could follow a site, but also that it was a form of clean reading – no ads, no share buttons everywhere, didn’t need see the comment feeds underneath, and no temptation to click thru the blog rolls that were common on the side.

Compared to when I first came across RSS feeds in 2003 or 2004, site design has become better and worse at the same time. The proliferation of Google Ads and sidebar ads has grown exponentially, but the number of simpler sites is also on the rise. Applications like Instapaper have improved the readability of the web, as have WordPress themes like Basic from Themify or a CMS like Kirby. I have a suspicion that as the web continues to become more mobile, designers will strip down websites so they function properly on mobile devices.

With these ideas dancing around in my head, I came across Jeffery Zeldman’s site and his manifesto for web design. He had recently did a redesign of the site that is a bit dramatic, but it works better than most of the other sites I have seen. As he explains:

This redesign is a response to ebooks, to web type, to mobile, and to wonderful applications like Instapaper and Readability that address the problem of most websites’ pointlessly cluttered interfaces and content-hostile text layouts by actually removing the designer from the equation. (That’s not all these apps do, but it’s one benefit of using them, and it indicates how pathetic much of our web design is when our visitors increasingly turn to third party applications simply to read our sites’ content. It also suggests that those who don’t design for readers might soon not be designing for anyone.)

– Jeffery Zeldman, Web Design Manifesto 2012

The full manifesto is a must read for anyone interested in design, or creating for your own site.

Knowing that I tend to follow too many blogs, and I would rather follow the clean sites, is their solution that cuts down on the number of blogs while providing meaningful content?

Thankfully, there are some options available that will satisfy my hunger for knowledge without being too overwhelming.

Read and Trust is a network of about 20 quality authors, some you may have read in the past: Matt Gemmell, Marco Arment, David Sparks, David Chartier, Shawn Blanc, and so forth. There’s a simple download link for their RSS feeds, or a list on Twitter to follow. I’m giving it a few weeks to decide how many of the authors I should follow or whether it is better to follow on Twitter.

SVBTLE is another network of authors, but most are from the startup world. People involved with Justin.tv, Twitter, Zynga, The Verge, Kickstarter, Mashable. I’m finding it’s a good site to pop in once in a while to do some reading, but you can follow the individual blogs.

The Feature is a collection of the most popular articles saved to Instapaper, or there is Longform which is another great source for stories.

5by5 is a podcasting network, which I have written about previously, but has such a variety of topics covered on their shows that I can easily listen to a few a week and be satiated with knowledge.

70 decibels is another podcasting network that I have only started to explore. Some of the topics are similar to 5by5’s shows, but most are quite different.

There are three great iPad apps that I use, as well:

I think the combination of using the iPad apps, listening to more comprehensive podcasts and cutting down on the number of sites I read will provide me with a lot more free time to create, rather than consume.

Our reading habits have definitely changed with the dawn of RSS readers, Twitter, smartphone apps, etc. I thought this episode of Write for Your Life summed up my thoughts about the topic better than I could. Have a listen to “How We Read Now – Write for Your Life

I hope people can suggest other great podcast networks to explore or blog networks to consider.

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