Monday, February 27, 2006

Feed reader creators: There is so much left to do

I have a confession to make. Here I am smack in the middle of Web 2.0, a founder of a site that pumps out more RSS than you can shake a stick at, and I don't like feed readers. In fact, until about two weeks ago, I had never really used one, save a single desultory experiment back in 2005.


Yes, I have been quite embarassed about this affliction. I must admit, I have hidden it from my peers.

"Hi, I'm Ethan, and I type in URLs by hand."

I felt so bad that I finally caved in a few weeks ago and submitted to Bloglines. At least I could get an OPML file out of it, I thought... since Dave Winer assures me that will be useful soon, and Kevin Burton swears it will help me find all sorts of cool stuff on the web. I heard rumors at the last TechCrunch BBQ that it even attracts girls, but I've already found one of them.

But I couldn't stand it. Sure, it's all my reading in one place, and the atom feeds look sort of like their source blogs, but it's all kind of... attenuated. Like sucking Coca-Cola through a long straw, so the fizz is gone. All the formatting is replaced with grey-on-white arial. The fascinating sidebar tidbits and blogrolls and, yes, ads all disappear. And the urgent boldface of posts as yet unread, marching down the left sidebar like dutiful ants...

I thought I was alone.

And then... I found another! There in the endless grey arial sat a wizened little scrap of text, from AVC, blog home of none other than Fred Wilson, who, if he isn't the patron saint of Web 2.0, is, at a minimum, merry Mercury in its Pantheon. And what sayeth Fred?

"I Prefer Browsing To Reading Feeds"


Me too, Fred! In fact, this may be the most important post you've ever written. It's supportive of an inclusive and exploratory, rather than exclusive and reductionist, view of the web. While it calls out feed readers explicitly, it also criticizes by implication all the other exclusionary, reductivist drivers in this fascinating new media landscape -- our tendency to read the same old blogs; our algorithmic focus on the same old hubs and authorities; our analytical adherence to the same old scales and dimensions, and most particularly, our (and MY) fear that somehow, by being human, I was wrong.

A quote from Stephen Pinker's book (yes, an actual paper book!) The Blank Slate:
"The belief that human tastes are reversible cultural preferences has led social planners to write off people's enjoyment of ornament, natural light, and human scale, and forced millions of people to live in drab cement boxes."
I love blogs. I love the conversation, and the chase, and the delight of discovery. I love the humanity of user-created content, and I don't want to aggregate and attenuate that away in some misguided attempt at rational efficiency.

Is BuzzMachine the same without seeing that giant press picture at the top of the site before reading it every day? It reminds you, the reader, of the massive machine that is MSM. Like the three tones of NBC News at dinnertime; like Pavlov's dog; I salivate before dining daily with Jeff Jarvis.

Give me that ornament, and human scale, that connection with the writer and their carefully tweaked site, and at the same time make my life easier - and you'll have a dedicated customer. But until then...

...this new/old human-based web needs to remember us humans.

Feed reader creators: There is so much left to do.

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