Information overload and the limits of RSS

Bloglines | My Feeds (1232 ) - FirefoxI went on vacation for a week and during that time I didn’t get around to reading the 224 feeds that I normally read/scan daily. Five days into my vacation I fired up Bloglines and I had 1200+ posts sitting in my feed reader!!! (Actually I think it was more like 1600+ because I had already clicked on a whole set of feeds and inadvertently marked them as “read” before taking the screen capture of the 1232 posts.) Now, prescription a normal person would simply click “mark all as read” and be done with it, mind but I’m not a normal person. I don’t want to accidentally miss something important. What if I skipped over a whole week of feeds and missed the launch of a new Web 2.0 site? Okay, nurse I’m be facetious, but you know what I mean.

Having a mind that gravitates toward solving problems, I started thinking about how to tackle “feed buildup”. This lead me to ponder the nature of a feed: it isn’t email where a person addresses a piece of mail to you specifically and is waiting for an answer. Rather it’s akin to a TV broadcast–a newscast really–where the information just flows out to an audience. The difference between a broadcast and a feed however is that a broadcast is fleeting. A feed on the other hand (depending on the feed reader that you use) will accumulate in your reader until you read it. It’s almost like a broadcast/email hybrid in that it is sent out like a broadcast, but it’s caught like email. This works great if you read your feeds regularly, but if you only check them periodically you’ll be overwhelmed with an overflowing feed reader every time you load it up. To deal with this you’ll more than likely select everything and mark it all as read, or you’ll quickly scan through it and possibly miss information that you’d normally want to read.

The trouble of information overflow isn’t going to go away, and with the rapid adoption of feeds by every Tom, Dick and Harry on the web, it’s just going to get worse.

Solving this problem requires a rethinking of feed management. I’ve come up with a few disparate propositions but hardly anything revolutionary or conclusive. Rather, I’d like to spark a conversation through which solutions may be found.

So? What are your thoughts? I’d share mine, but it would quadruple the size of this post.