The future of reading

If you were one of the nerds who evaluated a number of options in order to pick a good replacement for Google Reader,1 or if you’ve paid any attention in the past couple of years, you probably noticed that almost all feed readers are in one or the other of two styles. Magazine style (Flipboard, Feedly, Zite) and inbox-style (Google Reader, Newsblur, FeedWrangler, Reeder, etc)

My preference is for the latter, but I never bothered to wonder why until the tornado that attended Google Reader’s passing sucked everyone into the air and deposited them (after much circling, and many hundreds of reviews later) on a hundred different new solutions. I did some thinking and was sitting down to outline an article when I came across an oldish piece by Ben Brooks that more or less aligns with my own opinion.

Why I Don’t Use Flipboard, but My Dad Does — The Brooks Review:

Essentially my problem with FlipBoard is that it does too good of a job curating the content it displays. That was true at least until the most recent update, as you can now link FlipBoard to Google Reader — all of your RSS subscriptions displayed in FlipBoard.

That maybe a pretty cool feature for people that subscribe to just a handful of sites, but when you subscribe to more than 500 and are getting around 50-100 new items each hour — well flipping through virtual pages becomes highly inefficient.

That’s the crux of my issue: magazine style reading is great where the content is highly curated (hence of an averagely good quality) and there’s a lot less of it. That’s just not how I read RSS. I can get that, nowadays, from skimming my Facebook news feed, which I find rarely edifying. I read from a lot of sources, and actually rather few of them have high quality images. The inbox style reader is just more efficient: faster and easier and more enjoyable to use.

The weird present becomes the comfortable past

The interesting thing about the future of RSS isn’t really where the nerds end up. There’s never going to be a drought of options for tech-tinkerers — in a worst case scenario you can always rig something up with PHP and MySQL.

No, the more interesting question, to my mind, is this: whether more people will start to read like I do, using tools in order to curate their own content, relying less on others to accumulate it for them. It seems to me that this would follow the pattern we’re already familiar with — people taking more responsibility for gathering the things they read or watch or listen to. Some examples of what I’m talking about (some recent, some not so much) include:

  • Podcasts and streaming music — picking what you want to listen to, when you want it, as opposed to just tuning into a limited number of radio stations.

  • On-demand video — same as above, instead of turning on your TV and watching whatever the network decided to show that night, now you can pick from pretty much the entire sum of created watchable content.

  • Ebooks, comics on iPad, etc — Most major publishing houses now push their books on electronic platforms as well as physically. If they don’t some kind soul will do it for them.

Even magazine style reading experiences like Flipboard are a big step in this direction: a newspaper which you assemble for yourself.

The thing about nerd tools is that very often over time they become everyone tools. Computers, for example, or email. I’m betting the way people consume content will go the same way: a departure from the agencyless spoon-fed paradigm where some authority decides what you get to see, towards much greater and more granular personal control over exactly what’s presented to you. Perhaps in the future you won’t have to fiddle with it to get it to work, but it’ll be assembled based on your preferences just the same.

  1. RIP, July 1, 2013