An idea for a smart modular RSS reader and surrounding community

Note: I wrote this way back in May 2018 as a simple Google document to share with a few friends, after reading a few things from other people about the ‘return of RSS’ and my personal frustration at the lack of a substantial RSS ‘community’. It’s pure ‘stream of consciousness’ (ajkak ‘ranting’)

Just this week Matt Webb posted an article to his blog called How would I improve RSS? Three ideas in which he talks about the issues around RSS and community and ‘the money thing’, so thought it was worth dusting this off and posting it here. Might spark a few ideas.

(For a bit of context you might want to read this and then maybe this as well.)

The problem with RSS readers (and Twitter, and Facebook and most of the social web) is the idea of the feed. With RSS readers it was too much work to build up and then too inflexible to be of any real use in such a fast-moving world. It needs constant pruning and attention.

With FB and TW the feed was taken out of your control and handed to the highest bidder, which is a huge problem too.

The solution? A modular feed reader that’s plug and play. Fed by curated ‘packs’ centered around topics and themes that you can turn on and off when you like (and some which even turn on and off automatically).

Imagine you want to keep up to date about independent cinema. You come to me and say ‘Rob, you know about films, do you have an indie cinema pack you can give me?’. I don’t, but I can make one out of my existing feeds pretty quickly. It’s just like building a short Spotify playlist.

I drag all the relevant feeds into a new pack and give it a name. In there are feeds from blogs, newspapers, youtube channels, twitter accounts, Instagram accounts, even podcasts. I pack it all up and share it with you via the reader interface.

The reader interface then prompts me to upload the pack to the public library of packs where you can share your curated feed collections with the wider community. There isn’t an existing indie cinema pack so I give it a cover image and a little descriptive blurb and upload it. Soon hundreds of people are plugging in my pack to their readers and I start uploading more tailored packs to the library because I like that warm fuzzy feeling of helping people, plus it boosts my ego.

These are all ‘Perm Packs’ – centered around those general, evergreen topics you probably always want to keep on top of. Current affairs, favourite sports teams, entertainment,  tech etc. The general stuff.

But there are also ‘Temp Packs’ for more finite events and topics: the trends that you want to know about but just for a short time: a month, a week or even a day. These packs are set to ‘self destruct’, or you can turn them into perm packs by ‘disarming’ them.

So when the Cannes film festival is a month away, I create a Cannes Temp Pack that kicks in a week or so before the festival begins and ‘self destructs’ a week after it finishes. Anyone who plugs that pack in to their feed will get all the best news and insight about Cannes, just while the festival is on. Then when the pack is about to self-destruct, they get a message to let them know that it’s disappearing and the option to keep it turned on if that’s what they want.

After I’ve made a few packs and they’ve become popular I decide that I want to start creating ‘Live, curated feeds’. These are special packs that I can create and ‘publish’ instead of, say, writing an email newsletter every week. Instead, each time I see something interesting on the web I use a browser plugin to add it to my Curator feed – I then add my annotation on top of it: a few notes on why I’ve chosen to share it etc. The article is sent out as part of my feed with my annotation attached to it. Anyone who then plugs in my curated feed is essentially plugging into my brain – seeing what I find interesting and why in pretty much real time (but, unlike twitter they don’t need to be checking their feed at the exact right time to see it).

The service would be free – the revenue would come from people sponsoring packs and paying for their packs to be featured in the library – it’s essentially an App Store for information.

This solves The Twitter Problem – no longer do you have to follow and unfollow people and wade into a sea of hot takes and RTs – you just subscribe to a pack that includes a ‘micro feed’ of tweets that for that topic. So you can jump off and see the whole thread on twitter if you want to or just skip past if it’s rubbish. You’re not following people, you’re following information (and the curators of that information).

Personalisation is a doddle. The most successful personalisation/recommendation engine right now is Spotify’s personalised playlists. They work because of user-generated playlists – human curation beats AI hands down every time. Packs are our playlists. We can recommend new packs and people to follow based on your pack building behaviour.

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