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August 22, 2008

Shallow Reader

I don't like to read feeds in Google Reader or in any other feed reader. After subscribing to sites that seem interesting, Google Reader makes them boring and uniform. All the subscriptions lose their identity and become random bits. There's also the pressure of having to read the new posts and clean the "inbox" which makes you skip interesting posts or just skim them.

"Skim = To read or glance through (a book, for example) quickly or superficially." (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.)

When you open Google Reader and there are 400 new posts, each article becomes a mission from a hopeless game created by yourself. You want to be free again, so you pretend to read some of the articles or just their titles, without a context and without seeing the full picture. "Mark all as read" is your only ally, but you don't want to admit that you need it.

"Subscription - Contractual agreement between a seller and a buyer to provide the buyer with a service or product to be delivered (served) over a period of time specified in the contract at a total price that is dependent upon the duration of the service." (Dictionary of Marketing Terms. Barron's Educational Series, Inc, 2000.)

Feed readers seemed a good alternative to newsletters because you gain access to more content without having to reveal your identity, you can always unsubscribe and it's easier to share the content. But newsletters were less frequent and had a personal touch.

"Shallow - Lacking physical depth; having little spatial extension downward or inward from an outer surface or backward or outward from a center." (WordNet)

Reading becomes a mechanical task that needs to be completed, instead of a rewarding intellectual activity. You no longer pay attention to details because you're anxious to "read" everything.

"Read - To examine and grasp the meaning of (written or printed characters, words, or sentences)." (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004)


  1. Found this article interesting, thank you. Although, after seeing Lifehacker's redesign, I'm glad I only view their stories in Google Reader... :)

  2. I think you're taking the wrong approach.

    1) Only subscribe to feeds you care about. If a feed that you have isn't interesting, unsubscribe.
    2) Don't subscribe to sites like Digg, Facebook, etc., where you'll get 400 items in a day.
    3) Use filtering services like Yahoo Pipes or AideRSS.
    4) If reading is a chore for you, don't force yourself to do it. It's not the tool's fault that you're using it to do something you don't want to.

  3. I've migrated my 372 subscriptions gradually to GgReader from Sage, but way back when I migrated to Sage from bookmarks, I think I felt the same way.

    Now when I visit the actual sites, their noisy designs seem alienating, and I feel no sense of loss.

    I keep the navigation pane open on the left, and sort my subscriptions into folders that make it easy to catch up gradually when I fall behind-- I just zipped thru a few thousand old posts in a few days.

  4. I don't agree mostly. Before a feed reader, I wasted time clicking on blookmarks, going to regular sites, seeing that material was not updated, etc.

    With Google Reader, it all comes to me. I have my feeds categorised - some categories are more trashable than others, so after a vacation, I'll catch up through the important category, and trash the rest. And occasionally, I trim out underperforming feeds.

    I do tend to agree that when there are a lot of items to get through, it can be a bit of a race to the finish. In those case, I tend to just read what's important and skip the rest. After a while, I figure out that "the rest" are actually not a priority for me, so I dump those feeds.

    Maybe you just have different needs. I'm not sure why you singled out Google Reader though - what you say is generic to any reader.

  5. Well, interesting article, Ionut. I also read currently about 350* posts/day (according to Google Reader trends) and I spend a lot of my "free" time using this Google tool.
    But I never fear of skipping interesting posts, because I read ALL posts I get in Google Reader, entirely (except spams of Google Video/Youtube). I agree it requires a lot of time, and sometimes you get the same news without new information in many blogs. But that's how mass media works, right? ;)
    The problem is when you have reached the end Google Reader items, others are already there, waiting you to read them. It's like a never ending book; you open it and you can say 'good bye' to freedom...

    BTW, you're using a GreaseMonkey extension to colorize items by source, so your items aren't so uniform after all. :)

    (*) Holidays = less posts :)

  6. I agree with the post, but what was it's meaning? To stop using Google Reader(or any reader at all)? This blog should promote Google's services, right?

  7. Mostly disagree on this one....if you don't like the conformity, you can use the next in reader bookmarklet (see Settings>>Goodies in GR).

    I also use feed labels to indicate the level of importance to me....check-regularly I generally don't want to miss, and wipeable are news, etc. sites that I don't care too much about, but can be useful for headline views of multiple sites.

  8. Bingo, Ryan (re: no.4)! Though I felt the same way as Ionut, I stopped blaming the Reader itself and just use it as a tool. When you need it and when you want it. What was the post's meaning, Svilen? That was what I also was wondering, really...

  9. I think shallow posts are the real problem, although from the graphic in this post I did notice that there is a "list" view which I had not previously noted.

  10. Ironically, this post wasn't worth reading, as it has no suggested solutions nor tips in it. When I read it in Google Reader, I assumed there was more meat to the article which the rss feed had truncated, so I clicked to go see the original article -- and wasted even MORE time.

    It's not the Reader, nor the reader. It's the writer. You fail.

  11. Disagree completely, most of these sites are so cluttered and visually confusing, it is a pleasure to actually read. I don't need my books to have pictures anymore. I also do not need 100 ads blinking, flashing and moving. I still go to sites that are clean but google reader is a joy to use.

  12. Hey where did you get COLOR!?

  13. It's safe to say that I, and many other readers, would never have seen this post EXCEPT for our RSS reading habits.

    After all, who "surfs" the Internet these days..? There is no reason too.

    It might be easy for a publisher to become a little blinded and think that their posts are more important and deserve extra attention. But the truth be told, we readers are busy. If a RSS post is good enough, it will get our attention and we'll navigate to the actual web page.

  14. I'm not a blogger myself, so I don't need to be updated about everything related to Google or Linux, etc. iGoogle works fine for me. :)

  15. the sad part is seeing myself pressing "n" (the hotkey for next feed in reader) to see the next comment

  16. I have more feeds than I can keep up with, but I don't see how NOT using a feed reader would help. I certainly wouldn't be able to keep up with all those sites by visiting the sites themselves.

    I have my own "A" list of sites I want to make sure I get to every day. Then I have everything else arranged into groups like "Politics", "Tech Blogs", etc. As I am particularly interested in what Google is up to I also have a special group for all Google related sites and I pretty much get to all of those all the time.

    Here is what I do when I get WAY behind, which I think happens to everyone:

    I select "All Items" and have the items sorted by most recent entries first.

    Then read for as much time as I have so that I'm sure to at least get the "new" stuff from all over the place.

    I may do that for multiple sessions, but at some point just to get the numbers down, after reading everything for the past few hours or so, I'll "mark all as read".

    For articles I'm interested in I usually DO click through to the original web site so that they get the hit, and of course for articles that I want to comment on I have to do this anyway.

    It is too bad that the average web site allowed itself to get so cluttered with graphics, animations, and background scripts doing god-knows what to you, but it is those abusive sites that drove many of us to feed readers and I doubt we will be coming back any time soon.

    But rejoice, there are still many clueless users who will sit for five minutes waiting for a site to load to the point where the scroll bar works and they can actually read an article. No doubt while waiting they are just becoming hypnotized by the spinning ad (a while back I even had to take such a monstrosity off of my blog as it was driving me crazy every time I loaded the site to check it).

    Ultimately, those who advertise without abusing the concept will be the winners (providing they also have interesting content of course). I think Google is already proving that this strategy works. Now we have to just wait for the other 90 percent of the web to figure it out.

  17. Um... thanks for sharing?

    Completely disagree. For one, I never put them in list form. Always oldest to newest in display form. Better Google Reader from Lifehacker lets me toggle between the feed and the post on the site without ever leaving reader. (I'm still inside Reader doing this post.)

    Two, I've mastered the keyboard in Google Reader so I can fly through stuff quickly.

    Three, I make use of folders and renaming to put them in priority. That way, when I only have a little time, I'm going to only scan stuff like Engadget, Lifehacker, Uncluttered, Cheezburger/Hotdog, Ctrl+Alt+Del and of course Google Operating System.

    When I have more time, Godin, Sernovitz, Cringley, Scoble, Zakaria, PixDaus, WhattheDuck, Geek and Poke, Photoshop Disasters and hundreds of others.

    And where there isn't a feed available, I use Page2RSS to get a feed notification when something on the page changes.

    And then I also pull in Tweets, new items that are arriving in Remember the Milk (automatically passed there by GMail), all organized and waiting for me.

    Google Reader allows me to keep up-to-date (within days) of many more points of information/interest than I could possibly ever keep up with otherwise. Many of which have their share of stuff not so relevant. Skimming rules.

    Google Reader allows me to be more informed and entertained and still feel productive (as I see that count tick down).

  18. I think a practical way to counter this is to use multiple Reader accounts with separate feed subscriptions. Say an on-the-go/mobile subscription list, an at work subscription list, and an leisure time subscription list. What would be very nice is if Reader supported "roles" so that the instead of multiple accounts you could have multiple roles so that some feed subscriptions could be present in multiple roles and be marked as read after reading them just once.

    Another way to look at this situation, is that it highlights the benefits of smart client side filtering of feed content. If Reader supported rules that you could craft/train to only show you high value (to you) items and/or time shift the display based on criteria such as role/location/browser/ip that would also percieved pressure of medium value postings at inoppertune times.


  19. Perhaps you might review the feeds you subscribe to?

    I believe there's no difficulty in 'unsubscribing'.

    Personally, I don't read them in 'reader' at all - I click and go to the host site, where there's infinite variety of design and style.

    I suspect you are missing the point of Google reader - maybe I should unsubscribe from your posts?

    Reader is a tool, no more, no less. What you choose to do with it is entirely your decision, and your responsibility. Good Luck!

  20. If it weren't for Google's RSS Feed reader, I would not have read this post. The whole point of a feed reader is that you can pull all the information into one clean interface. You don't have to deal with a different "personal" type newsletter for every single site. You don't have to visit ten different sites to get the news for each site, and the news isn't cluttering your inbox. The clean and consistent user interface is the REASON I use Google Reader.

    As for not reading everything... do you read everything in the newspaper each day? Of course not; you skim for titles that look interesting, and read the ones that interest you. The news feed allows you to do this quickly and easily. Even better, you can apply filters or search to quickly find the topics that interest you the most.

    I love Google Reader - It's just about perfect

  21. Multumesc for contributing for that "mission" with another post :)!

  22. something is out of character with this posting. This seems more like a criticism of the driving human condition to consume information, which can never satisfactorily be accomplished, rather than a criticism of specific computer tweaks and gadgets. Almost like this is not the same author that we are used to.

  23. Posts like these are turning me off from this site. Random commentary on personal opinions is not why I come here. I come here for comprehensive news on what google is doing. These sorts of posts just waste my time.

  24. No way, dude. The precise reason you state:

    >> I don't like to read feeds in Google Reader or in any other feed reader. After subscribing to sites that seem interesting, Google Reader makes them boring and uniform. <<

    is the EXACT reason I prefer everything in Google Reader. I tire of figuring out a site's layout and their own "way" of doing things. I am able to read more and cover more ground this way than I am if I had to visit all the sites I subscribe to on their own.

  25. Well, I agree that reading feeds in a reader is a bit of skimming exercise..but then the problem is self-created,...not Google's creation. And skimming the feeds, and then saving the good ones by sharing(which i can read in friendfeed) works fine for me. It may seem too much of work, but after all I am self-acclaimed information-addict

  26. Although I understand your points (been there), ultimately I have to disagree.


    I also once had too many subscriptions to handle. The answer is, of course, to unsubscribe from the less important feeds. The secondary answer is to subscribe to your friends' feeds. I don't subscribe to Digg anymore, but a friend of mine does and so I get a filtered Digg. With this I'm down to 100-150 items a day - quite manageable.

    Even so, sometimes they accumulate, for instance after a trip. Then I simply check the VIP feeds first and ignore the remaining items. The key here is that the feeds are there for your enjoyment, and that you don't owe it to anyone to read every last one of them.

    Finally, the uniformness can't be helped but it's a matter of taste. I'd say that you should figure out which ones of your feeds actually belongs to a site worth seeing in its original form - then remove those feeds and visit the original sites instead, while keeping the rest of your feeds.

  27. Um. Ok. That was a random and vaguely insulting post. If reader-feeding is shallow, then are feed-readers by extension shallow? I agree with karchesky YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG.

  28. I agree. 100% . While every one loves GReader i simply hate it. its like inbox. You see title 1000+ unread item and you run ..! I still like sage. I wish it was three pan like Thunderbird. I just read what i want to read. I use all google products like anything. Apart from greader and gmail. Google..Please convince me to use them..:)

  29. I agree and I think it goes beyond feed readers. It is like the email conumdrum.

    If people wrote to you with paper and pen, or had to call you to tell you something, then communication filtering would happen on both ends: people would only make the effort to communicate to you when it was important to them to do so, and you would only accept those communications from people whom you believe will have something to communicate which is worth your scarce time. Email changes that by its efficiency, and we find ourselves struggling to clear our inboxes. No one other than a celebrity ever got so much hand written mail that they had to work to clear their mailbox, but everyone with a inbox faces overload.

    Feedreaders are more efficient than email as a medium, but they make the human task even worse. There may be 300 feeds that are sometimes worth reading, but not every post is worth reading for every reader. More selectivity of what to read is the answer, and perhaps we need some AI filtering going on.

    The dilema of the new information age: we see everything, but what we want to see is hidden behind layers of everything else we're seeing.

    Oh, and what you really wanted to read about this morning? That was on a feed you don't even subscribe to.

  30. If someone new and excited subscribes to so many feeds, like I once did, it only makes sense.
    But if U, who goes thro' a lot of posts every single day, for years now, can say this, it surprises me.
    Like other people, I too look forward for interesting tips on how to manage this, from U.
    And for that particular problem of 'out of context' I use netvibes. Most of my tabs are shared.
    Also, with techmeme around, one doesnt really need to subscribe to any other feed, or so I think.

  31. I'm a little confused by this article.

    I use a reader so that I don't have to go looking at every bookmark just to see if something is new.

    You'll also find there is no obligation to read every item, nor to clear the list daily, Google Reader imposes no such restrictions, nor would I recommend imposing them on yourself.

    What Google Reader does do is exactly as this article describes, it presents content in a uniform way, without the hassle of digesting each site's own format.

    I read articles for the content though, if the fluff and the ads are more important to you, then a reader probably isn't the way to go.

  32. you bet... and believe me, this was just one of those i was going to do "mark all as read" in my Google Reader widget in igoogle...i frequently keep cleaning up my subscriptions, but feel guilty that something that seemed so interesting, i am deleting it because i don't have enough time or lost interest.. can't help... that's life. Thanks for invoking the feelings :)
    -Yogendra (

  33. To help with this, as suggested by a recent Mashable article, I put a "Daily" and "Archive" folder in my google reader, then I keep stuff I want to read daily and the more indepth stuff in archive. Ironically enough this is how I found this blog post. I do a quick skim through looking for post titles I think sound interesting, sharing on Google reader public page as I go. This filters it down to just the creme de la creme which I read in depth :) (See here for mine

  34. What was your point? The only reason I saw this post was that I am subscribed to your blog with Google Reader. Nobody is going to waste the time to actually navigate to your site and read through your posts unless they have time to burn.

    Like mama always said, if you don't have anything good to say...

  35. OMG, its like you read my mind. I feel exactly the same way and couldn't figure out how to explain it. I have at least 200 feeds going into my reader and am having trouble figuring out which ones i don't need more.

  36. An interesting article coming from one of my favorite blogs to read in Google Reader. :P

  37. I agree and I think it goes beyond feed readers.

  38. Nathan, I think blogs can also contain personal opinions and criticism as in this case. News are for information only. Blogs are for info, opinions, humour and sometimes even for a bit of off-topic posts.

  39. I have to agree with Ryan (comment: and those that point out that we only read this via RSS...

  40. This is the most bizarre post that have came out of this blog which I have subscribed in my GReader for a while now. The article has no point whatsoever and it certainly has no ending, and above all, it has generated so many responses because this topic is near and dear to many people.

    Well, I will add my two cents as well (sucker).

    The solution is to diversify your feeds. Do not rely on one feed reader for everything. I use combination of GReader, Popurl etc, and I have recently discovered the Newscred. You should also never worry about the feeds/stories you're not reading (skipping) or else you'd never be satisfied with anything. If I come across news which is one or two days old then I'm marking them read.

  41. The main idea of this post was that it's difficult to read articles in a feed reader because you lack the context: the site's unique interface, comments, widgets etc. Feed readers make all the sites look the same.

  42. In theory, a site's "unique interface" should be irrelevant to interesting, thought provoking content (i.e. the stuff that still comes through in a feed reader).

    Personally, if I find a story/post/article interesting, I will click through to read the comments. If it's not interesting I stop reading and progress on to the next unread item that catches my eye. Looking at things in List view makes it very easy to separate the wheat from the chaff and "read deeply" the stuff you actually care about.

  43. One of my issues is that most web sites aren't very good about how they divide up their RSS feeds. If they do divy them up into even semi-reasonable categories, often times you'll see duplication across categories (would be nice if Google recognized that and eliminated dupes). Some sites post the entire content of the article into the feed. Others give you a title only. Neither works well enough to skim.

    If there were a standard that said any RSS feed needs to be at least a title and a sentence and no more than a two paragraphs and no images over 320x240 (or something relatively small like that), and feeds must be categorized into a standardized tiered ontology (tiered based on # of posts/day), it would make our lives enormously more productive.

    Filters that highlight the stuff you most likely want to see into a priority "inbox" would be hugely helpful. The filters would either need to be based on search terms or tags, or for example on Google Reader anything with a star would be considered someting that Google should look for in future feeds it reads in. Stars are helpful, but not enough.