Online Reading Redux

I feel like I start almost every post this way these days, but given the ongoing global pandemic, I’ve been spending a lot more time at home doing things like staying on top of my reading. You’d think I got paid by the COVID-19 reference if you were silly enough to think I get paid to write anything on this blog. Recently, though, I had a bit of an epiphany while catching up on my web-based reading. Prior to the pandemic, both my RSS feeds and Pocket account were largely ignored since I didn’t have time to keep up with them. I’d periodically log in to each, cherry pick a few things to read that were the most useful and/or interesting (and usually 2 or 3 months old by that point), and then just delete or mark-as-read the rest. A few months would go by again, and then I would rinse-and-repeat the entire process. Over the past 350+ days at home, I’ve noticed some trends regarding how I interact with reading from each platform that I found a bit interesting.

RSS

Historically, I’ve been quite the fan of RSS. I’ve even taken extra steps to ensure that the content I produce is fully accessible via RSS. I used a plethora of RSS applications back in the day before eventually hopping aboard the Google Reader hype-train like so many others, only to inevitably be let down when Google decided to kill it. After that I moved things over to Feedly, widely seen as the second coming of Google Reader, and have used Feedly for the past 5 or 6 years. However, over the years I didn’t read the overwhelming majority of content that ended up in my Feedly account simply because I didn’t have the time. Logging in and seeing 400+ new articles waiting for me was more likely to cause me to just mark them all as read and start over than it was to make me attempt to read them all.

When the pandemic started, I felt motivated to take my RSS feeds more seriously. I know people who leverage RSS for a lot, especially since it’s often viewed as a way around the creepier aspects of the web. For example, you don’t need to worry about being inundated with advertisements, trackers, subscription prompts, cookie acceptance prompts, notification prompts, and all of the other junk that accompanies browsing the web in the modern era when the content that you care about is sent straight to your RSS reader and the chaff is left behind. (Of course, this is also why some sites will only publish an excerpt to their RSS feed, forcing you to go to their site to see the full content.) Similarly, while plenty of people want to pretend that RSS is dead, there are plenty of cool things happening in the space. For example, Miniflux is an awesome open-source RSS platform that you can either pay to access or host yourself. Ru Singh put together a great post on how she leverages it for GitHub, YouTube, blogs, and everything in between.

My struggle, though, turned out to be discovering content that I wanted to consume. I found a handful of blogs like Ru’s through Mastodon, Hacker News, etc. that I ended up following, but on the whole the web is a very different place now than it was in the heyday of RSS. Many people end up posting their content to places like Medium, dev.to, or (I feel physically ill as I type this) as giant Twitter threads rather than at their own blog. For many authors, where the content lives has become much less important than where the links centralize. For example, someone may not care that they have posts littered across Medium, dev.to, and a GitHub Pages site as long as they all link back to their Twitter account. The blogrolls from the early 2000’s that would largely assist with finding like-minded people are largely gone.

As a result of this, my RSS feeds devolved into mostly follow corporate blogs that, to avoid throwing too much shade, churned out content regularly that was pure garbage 95% of the time; I don’t want to have to scroll through 9 posts that are essentially advertisements just to see the 1 post that has relevant, technical information I’m interested in. While I’m sure that plenty of people out there have put together content lists for this exact reason, the fact remains that what’s relevant is extremely subjective to the person in question. A technology blogroll that’s immensely interesting to one person might be tangentially interesting to me at best if my focus is in a different area. As a result of this, opening my RSS reader always ended up feeling like more of a chore than something I wanted to do because I found it to be interesting.

Pocket

As opposed to RSS, Pocket has historically been an afterthought for me. I admittedly wasn’t even familiar with the company until they were acquired by Mozilla in 2017; I have not been a massive Pocket user like Craft Brew Geek. Pre-COVID, I would occasionally add things to Pocket and then proceed to ignore them until they were no longer relevant. During COVID, though, Pocket has been increasingly interesting and valuable to me. Throughout the day I regularly find myself stumbling across links posted to Twitter, Mastodon, Reddit, Hacker News, Apple News, etc. that look interesting but that I don’t have time to read at the moment. Instead of trying to bookmark them in Apple News or favorite them on Twitter and hoping I remember to go back later, now I just throw them into Pocket. In fact, I now keep the Pocket app install on my phone almost exclusively for adding content to my account and almost never for consuming it. Is there something cool I see while doomscroll through Twitter while waiting for my carryout order? Just add it to Pocket. Did an interesting-looking Hacker News article get posted that looks like it’ll take me longer to read than it’ll take for my coffee to brew while I’m working? Add it to Pocket.

This has ended up having a handful of major benefits for me. First, I’ve noticed that I tend to have a lot of content in my Pocket account, much more than the article or two week — at most — that I would previously add. As a result, my Pocket account isn’t an afterthought that I tend to forget about since there’s so rarely anything in it. It’s become one of the first places that I go when I want to sit down and read. Just the other day after work I thought I would read an article or two. 2 hours later, and I still hadn’t emptied out my account.

Another benefit is that while I’m adding a ton of content to Pocket, the content is also good. Unlike the disaster that is my RSS reader, everything in Pocket is something I intentionally added, even if the act itself only takes a second. Occasionally my quick glance at an article before deciding to add it to Pocket turns out to have been misguided, but the overwhelming majority of what gets added is content that I actually look forward to reading.

The final benefit is that I’ve streamlined my ability to find good content a bit. While sitting down every other day and scrolling through all of Hacker News trying to find the handful of articles that are of interest to me seems burdensome, for example, seeing them posted to their Twitter account throughout the day during my many doomscrolling sessions makes it more manageable. I’ve started following many accounts on Twitter for the exact same reason; previously I may not have bothered because even if I saw them post interesting content, I typically would never think to come back and read it when I had time.

I mentioned before how nicely the iOS app for Pocket fits into this information flow because I so frequently discover interesting content on my phone that I can save to Pocket. I similarly have to give a nod to my iPad that I bought a little over a year ago for the flip side of that workflow. I almost exclusively end up reading what I’ve saved to Pocket via my iPad just because it makes for such a comfortable and convenient reading experience. It’s just easy to sit on the couch in the evening or on a weekend morning with a cup of coffee and catch up on my Pocket account, whereas I’d be less inclined to do that sort of reading with a laptop.