I am constantly fiddling around with RSS readers and various strategies for “RSS readering” — William James remarked that you coin a new word at your own peril, so verbing “RSS reader” may be dangerous for me, but I do so with a plan.

I want to be an RSS reader: by which I mean to say that I would certainly rather (in theory) receive alerts about posts and — perhaps even the posts themselves — within some some window of time of their being posted. However, I haven’t generally liked the various RSS readers I have tried. And I have tried gazillions.

I tried NewsGator integrated with Outlook when I was still (hiss) living on a Windows laptop. Yes, in principle I keep my email client open all day, and, yes, in some way getting email is similar to RSS-transmitted posts. But the email metaphor, of folders and messages doesn’t quite jibe with my experience of browser mediated blog reading. So, ultimately, I dropped it.

The same is true of standalone RSS reader tools, like NetNewsWire and Fire. I tried them for a time, and then dropped out. These annoy me for similar reasons: I don’t like the Pez dispenser feel, where all posts are like another, and you assume the role of a pigeon in a Skinner box, hitting the button to make the pellets roll out.

I have been lusting for something, a new solution, that actually parallels my most rewarding reading experiences. The way this generally works is like so:

    • I stumble across some link, or reference — perhaps in an email, or in the midst of reading a post in a browser — and I decide that I would like to invest some attention to this concept, or meme. Note: I am not just deciding to click a link and go to a specific page — which is all typical browsers do. I am deciding to investigate the theme, thread, meme, or whatever, and assimilate and collate information about it.


    • I then use a variety of techniques to uncover what I am interested in:


      • I might click on tags embedded in the post, that take me to Technorati, or I might simply decide to search at Technorati or Del.icio.us for references to the piece or for tags to the topic or the names of individuals writing about it.


      • I might follow backlinks, from the post back to earlier sources: other posts, or articles.


      • I might ask specific contacts of mine what they know about the object of my interest.


      • I might write a post, summarizing what I have uncovered, and offering some thoughts on the subject


But what I seldom do is just sit there reading a stream of posts, based on their chronology, or other intrinsic factors. No, I am on a hunt, skipping from place to place, and these tools constrain me more than they free me.

What I would rather have is what I imagined Flock might be (and well might be, in later incarnations): a browser-based solution, perhaps a suite of plugins, that augment the browser-based “readering” experience. One part of that might be a buddylist-ish sort of minimal RSS tool that would simply remind me that people I like have posted something somewhere. I have a strong bias that this should be implemented along the lines of what the geniuses at 2entwine implemented in Gush, about which I have written a lot in the past, including various posts this year about the Nerdvana client. I have stopped using Gush because I find the Mac version painfully slow, but I loved having a multi-headed instant messaging client that included an RSS reader. I had tried to persude them to strip down the RSS reader to be just an alerting tool, and to conflate the IM buddylist and the RSS alerts into a single list, rather than two separate worlds, but, alas, the Brothers Carr never did get around to those tweaks.

So, when I recently was alerted to RSS reader doings at Yahoo, my mind filled in all the gaps, and I dreamed that dream again. However, while the new Yahoo Mail Beta does in fact include a now conventional RSS reader integrated with it — and it appears to work as it should, given the email metaphor — it won’t actually fit in with the model of readering I am chasing after. However, Yahoo is rolling out feed alerts, as part of Yahoo Alerts (although I didn’t see it running, yet), which may implement part of what I’d like, since these alerts can be sent through IM. But Yahoo and the other major IM players don’t want to provide IM capabilities as Firefox plugins: they want us to use their proprietary clients.

The rest of the browser modules might include these:

    • A tag browser: given a tag, or a boolean expression involving tags, present an ordered list of sources (both authors and blogs). This could be a Technorati plug-in, perhaps.


    • A backward link and forward link sniffer: give the current webpage, collate other pages pointing to that page, and a list of the pages referenced. This I envision as something like the radar widget found in video games, in a way. But instead of being displayed in a circle, two ordered lists would be fine.


    • A Del.icio.us module: given the current page, who of my friends has bookmarked the page, and what have they said? And I would like to get away from the javascript contraption that I use for Del.icio.us now, where bookmarking a page moves me to Del.icio.us, and creates a problem with use of the back command.


    • A journaling module: I would like to drop an anchor in my clickstream when I decide to start some exploration and to drop a second one when I stop, and be able to retrace my steps at some later point, or to pick up the thread again, and add more stuff to it later on. I have written a bunch about “search as a shared space” vis-a-vis various services like Jeteye, but I would really rather have something embedded in the browser experience that I could also publish in some way, to allow it to be shared with others.


  • A IM presence module: I’d like to be able to share the location I am currently browsing as my iChat/AIM presence, and I would like to have my circle of friends do the same. Of course, people would like to turn this off when they are reading Fleshbot (not me, but others might), but in general it would be a simple source of new sources of clueful information.

There’s more modules that could be conceived, but I think I have waved my hands enough to get across what is profoundly off about RSS readers: they don’t work the way I read. I need support for active reading, or “readering” as I dubbed it, which is a very social activity, not a solitary one. I am no pigeon in no cage.

It could be argued that my needs or wants are wildly atypical — I am a blogger, I have more time on my hands than others, blah blah blah. I maintain that because I am a blogger, and heavily invested in it, I am willing to do manually what others don’t have time or patience to do, even though in the final analysis it leads to a much richer experience of the web.

Now all I need is for inventive souls out there to start building the bits and pieces of my dream world. It shouldn’t be hard for someone to build an RSS alert plugin for Firefox, should it? Maybe someone already has done that. But I suspect that the other pieces of the puzzle have yet to be built. I can dream, can’t I?

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