Thursday, April 11, 2013

Newsblur Reminds Us That Choice Breaks Ruts

Like pretty much the entire Internet, I was pretty bummed/blind-sided when Google announced they were shutting down Google Reader. I’m a fairly simple Reader user. I have a ton of feeds that I use daily, but I don’t do anything with them other than reading them. I don’t star or tag. If I see a link I want to use, I either bookmark it, mark it to be read later, email it to myself, or put it on my calendar as a reminder to post it.

So while I knew I’d need to find a new web-based RSS reader, I didn’t have a long list of features I needed and I didn’t have to worry too much about moving anything other than the feed links out of Google Reader.

Like pretty much the rest of the Internet, I looked at Feedly, Newsblur, and The Old Reader. And like pretty much the rest of the Internet, I had to wait a bit to play with them, since the announcement of the impending death of Google Reader ground those sites to a halt.

When I started looking, I gravitated toward Newsblur, since I wanted to actually pay for a product, Google Reader’s demise having been a strong illustration of getting what you pay for. Newsblur had some scaling issues, so while I was waiting for it to come back up, I played with Feedly a bit.

Feedly doesn’t have a pure web interface. It requires you to install browser plugins, which felt like a bit of a barrier to me. I know it takes a moment to install something like that, but I don’t want to do it on every browser I’m using, every time I want to read some news.

I also wasn’t knocked out by the interface, which is either Flipboard-esque or overly simple lists of items. It worked two design extremes when I was trying to hit the middle.

Feedly is also built on the Google Reader API. I know they have a plan B ready to roll, but I was still a little nervous about what might happen when Google shut off Reader.

Around this time, Newsblur scaled up and became more available. The interface was much more familiar to me and I was able to seamlessly import my Google Reader subscriptions. It uses a lot of the same keys, like j/k to move up and down. Instead of using m to mark something read/unread I now have to use u, but my fingers are slowly adjusting.

Newsblur has a social component that interests me, but that I haven’t really touched. The feature that I love is what Newsblur calls training. Training allows you to tell Newsblur elements of a story or feed that you like and dislike. It can be a title, tags, author, or even publisher. When a story with any of those elements comes through your reader, it’s indicated with a green mark if you like it, a red if you don’t, and yellow if you’re indifferent. You can choose a view where you only see stories you’ve indicated you like (it’s called the focus view), or you can just use the green as an indication that something you like is somewhere in the entire feed. It’s a great way to get stuff you want to see called out before you go through a feed. It’s a killer feature for me, in terms of making sure I don’t miss things in my hurry to clear through a long feed, like the daily New York Post sports feed.

screenshot of Newsblur

I liked Newsblur so much, I quickly signed up for the paid premium account (as did my wife). It’s a great tool and I haven’t been tempted at all to return to Google Reader. Not only do I prefer it to Google Reader, it’s got me thinking about what other Google Services are replaceable. I never thought I’d leave Reader, just because it never occurred to me that something better might exist. But now that I’ve seen there are a lot of solid non-Google services, I just might see what else is available. For instance, Outlook.com says IMAP support is eventually coming. Microsoft has lost enough prestige and marketshare that I’d give their new email interface an extended look without feeling like I was selling my soul to the devil. Or at least not selling too much of my soul…

What does this have to do with Linux? Well for one thing, Newsblur is open source, so you can build your own version of it if you don’t want to pay for it. But also, it’s another reminder of how important choice is in our digital work. The more we explore tools, the more we learn about our own work and work preferences. Choice isn’t just good from a political and economic perspective, but also from a creative one. Choice breaks ruts and helps you see familiar tools and services in new ways. Ultimately, the death of Google Reader turned out to be a good thing for me.

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