What an RSS Purge Taught Me About How I Consume Information

By Deane Barker

I’m making a very concerted attempt lately to cut down on the RSS feeds I consume. Earlier this year, it had reached neurotic levels – Google Reader was like a heroin addiction. Because of this, longer-form media was getting squeezed out – I was reading less books, which bothered me. My life had become a series of updates.

So, I went on an RSS purge. In doing this I made some important distinctions between volume, signal-vs-noise ratio (SVN), value, and depth.

First, some definitions –

  • Volume is the raw number of posts per…month, let’s say. A low traffic blog might have one or two. A high traffic blog might have 200 or more (5-6 a day). Some really high traffic blogs had 20 posts a day, even.

  • Signal vs. Noise is the ratio of stuff that interests me compared to the amount of stuff that doesn’t. Some blogs have a non-stop stream of stuff that I star in Google Reader because I really want to know more. Some blogs have a non-stop stream of stuff I just don’t care about.

  • Value is the subjective value of the content to my life as a whole. While I think lolcats are very funny, they’re also pretty trivial and they add virtual nothing to my life in the big picture. Conversely, there are many blogs with content that I toss around in my head for days and that has a very real impact on my life and career.

  • Depth is highly related to value – it refers to what level the content requires analysis. One thing the lolcats have in their favor is that they’re the cotton candy of blog posts – they’re gone in an instant and require very little thought or follow-up. I never blog about lolcats. I might Skype a link over to Joe, but that’s about it. So is depth good or bad? It’s tough to say. Low-depth means easy to process, but this usually also means lower value. High-depth means more commitment to analyze the content, but also (presumably) more value.

So, with this in mind, I came to some conclusions –

Low volume blogs were easy to evaluate – low volume, low-SVN and low-value got thrown away. I had a lot of those. They just accumulate, and since they’re so low volume, you don’t think about them much. Now, understand that low-volume almost automatically means higher SVN (less noise, after all). Still, a lot of them had little value or depth, so I tossed them.

Also out were the blogs with such low volume – maybe one post every couple months – that I could barely remember what they were about and had to struggle redefine the context of what I was reading every time. If every time you post something I have struggle to remember who you are, it’s tough to be interesting.

On the other side were low-volume and high-value blogs (looking at you, Seth Gottlieb). These obviously stayed. This is really the winning combination: low volume, high SVN, and high value – that’s a recipe for a good blog. I have some blogs where I kind of dread new posts because I know they’ll have such high value and high depth that I’ll get sucked into them. This is a good problem to have.

So, low volume blogs were easy. The high volume blogs get more complicated –

Blogs that were high-traffic and low SVN were easy kills. MetaFilter, for instance. I like MetaFilter and I’ve subscribed to it ever since I first started using RSS, but the number of posts I was interested in versus the total volume made this a no-brainer. Every day there’s probably one meaningful post for me, out of 50-60 total, and that post is usually of fairly meaningless value in the big picture. Interesting, sure, but trivia usually.

However, let’s consider CMSWire. It’s the same as MetaFilter in terms of traffic and SVN – lots of posts, but relatively few that I’m interested in. This is nothing against CMSWire, it’s just that it covers a really broad spectrum of the industry, and I just do WCMS work, so there’s a lot that doesn’t apply to me. But, in this case, the value is high – this is my industry, and that one out of 30 that interests me is usually pretty important. So, CMSWire stayed.

Low depth became a positive in a lot of cases. Consider Bring a Trailer, which is a neat blog about cool cars found for sale around the internet. It’s high traffic and medium SVN – I’m interested in maybe half the posts. Value is middle-of-the-road – I’m a car guy so I like it, but it doesn’t really contribute to my life in any meaningful way. But the saving grace of Bring a Trailer is a lack of depth – I can review a post in 10 seconds, enjoy it, then – poof! — it’s gone, out of my head. Posts are nice and superficial, not requiring much thought, nor much follow-up. So, it stayed for now.

This brings us, then, to the really problematic ones, and the ones that caused me the most pain to get rid of: high-volume, high-SVN, and high-value. These are blogs that push a lot of traffic, and most of it is really good.

A couple come to mind: The Atlantic Cities and Stowe Boyd. Both were tough calls, but I had to drop both because they were consuming too much time.

The Atlantic Cities was high traffic, for sure. SVN ratio was high too – I was interested in a pretty high ratio of posts. Value was high, not for professional reasons but because I find urban planning really interesting. Finally , depth was high strictly because most of their posts are long. They’re really full articles, not just links and excerpts, so I would usually star them to read them later, which meant there was follow-up involved.

Stowe Boyd was similar. High traffic, high SVN, and high value for professional reasons – Stowe finds a lot of great information about web culture. Depth was also high, but for different reasons than The Atlantic Cities. Stowe’s posts were short – mainly links to things he found – but I’d always follow the link and the content behind the link would be sticky enough to suck me in.

These two blogs forced me to confront a sad fact – sometimes, less is more. Too much good content can be intimidating and stressful. That sounds ridiculous, but it’s true – both The Atlantic Cities and Stowe Boyd suffered from the fact that they were both so good and had so much volume. With both of them, I just felt like I couldn’t keep up, and – worse – not keeping up would cause me to miss a lot and I would feel bad about this fact.

What I found is that I about star these posts in Google Reader, or put them in Instapaper to read later. And then I wouldn’t get to them. They would stack up. It got to the point where Saturday mornings become “RSS catch up” time. I would spend up to five hours reading saved posts. While this sounds awesome, it took on the tone of compulsion – I just had to clear the queue, and I wasn’t really giving them as much thought or analysis as I wanted to, or as they needed to really absorb them.

So, paradoxically perhaps, I abandoned both of them. This sounds a little absurd, I know, but I suspect there’s a much larger point here about the fear of missing out – you can’t feel bad about missing something you don’t know about. Knowing I wasn’t getting to all this great content caused background stress.

When it comes to blog volume, you have to take your depth into account, though I don’t have any hard and fast guidelines around this. If you’re just tossing out links, then you can afford to post more. If you’re writing feature-length articles, then you post less.

(The problem is, as Stowe proved, depth and value are intertwined. Even just tossing out links is problematic if the consumer is riveted by your subject matter. Interest creates depth. The same link, sent to two different people, will be consumed at different depths, depending on their interest level. There’s probably a long discussion about personalization lurking in here somewhere…)

And, finally, this brings us to the most important question of all: did I keep lolcats? Sadly, no, I didn’t. Traffic was too high. While SVN was high – they’re mostly all genuinely funny – and depth was low, I just couldn’t quite figure out what value lolcats was bringing to my life, so I deleted it from my reader.

May Ceiling Cat have mercy on my soul.

This is item #105 in a sequence of 356 items.

You can use your left/right arrow keys to navigate