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How I Made My Online Diet Healthier in October: Here Come the Visual Aggregators!
We've talked a lot about RSS readers (and their various benefits and challenges) over the past six years. I think many of us have loved and relied on Google Reader and Bloglines and such. But increasingly, I feel like the RSS reader is about to give way to something else. And it's pretty exciting.
K, for example, has an app called Flipboard on his iPad, and it's a wonder. It takes his Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ feeds, and for every post that contains a link, it builds a magazine-like display of images and short text intros. Reading there is a very pleasant, serendipitous (and yet curated) experience. (There's also a mobile app called Zite, which does something similar.)
Recently, Laura tweeted about a new web-based tool called Sulia. I hadn't heard of it, so I clicked over. I was pleasantly surprised by the initial sign-up. Within one minute, I was looking at a display of topics curated to my interests. Pretty impressive! (Sulia pulled this information from my Twitter account, which I used to log in. More on Sulia in a moment.)
There's also Storify, Pheed, and even the reboot of MySpace on our horizon. And what do all these things have in common? They take the speed of social media sharing and turn it into an attractive visual environment.
Image by doc(q)man, via Flickr
I think tools like these are the future of blog-reading. They give us the color and variety of the web without the heavy responsibility of an RSS reader.
To get all metaphorical about it, an RSS reader is like a dam in the stream of information. It collects and collects and collects unread posts to a point where you never feel like you're "caught up reading." And there are all kinds of "bad person" feelings associated with this, and as such, I think many of us tend to avoid our RSS readers. (I know I do.)
Visual aggregators like I've listed here present the stream itself, and you can dip in a toe at any moment with no obligation to read it all. Tools like these also render the stream pretty, with a unified design that's more like a candy store of ideas than a daunting list of unread posts.
Image by Spencer C. Curtis, via Flickr
…And this heralds an important change I see beginning in how we relate to online information. Back when we started reading blogs and using RSS readers, we were fresh off an era that had way less information available, and we felt it important to "keep up" and "be well-read."
Add in the fact that blogs were a far more personal medium than any magazine or newspaper, and we felt a very human wish to be good to each other, subscribing to everyone's feeds and promising to read it all.
Well, we're coming to terms, I think, with the fact that we can't possibly keep that promise, and we're embracing serendipity. I think this is good and freeing on the whole. But of course, it radically changes how we use the web to reach people. I have some ideas emerging about this, but let me share them in a separate post next week.
Back to Sulia. A couple days after I discovered it, they asked me if I'd like to spend a little time as a "content expert," posting links to the site in exchange for a small compensation. I'm curious about the tool, so I agreed. That's why, if you keep up with me on Twitter or Facebook, you've been seeing a lot of Sulia-branded links.
I do like Sulia. The user interface is really smooth and simple, and the display is engaging. I find myself going there for visual refreshment (dipping in that toe, as it were) several times a day. I like that all I have to take in is an image and about 300 words, and if I want more detail, I can click through to a full post. (And yes, I like it better than Pinterest so far, but then I've never gone back to Pinterest after the attribution mess).
Is Sulia a perfect platform? Well, it's a brand-new one. These things have a way of evolving in response to user feedback, and there are several evolutions I'm hoping to see. Right now, Sulia is focused on what its development team considers "top content providers," meaning, I don't have control over whose content I see in my Sulia stream. I tend to think that everyone has her own idea of who the important content providers are for them, and nobody can declare anybody a "top content provider." I would love to be able to add and mute feeds in my Sulia display, and I've shared this with the development team.
(Updated to add: I should mention that you can "follow" individual posters on Sulia, and then see a feed of just your follows. So that's close to having a customized feed.)
Right now, my Sulia craft pages also contain a healthy portion of Etsy listings, which I would very much like to screen out (the way I currently screen them out on Twitter and Facebook). Etsy listings are not content. They're marketing, and I would prefer a content-focused tool. I've also shared that with the development team. (And for the record, I don't see this kind of marketing presence in my non-crafty Sulia pages.)
Should you be using Sulia? There are no shoulds. Check it out and see what you think. But I do think we're going to see a lot more visually-based web-reading tools popping up in the near future.
Are you using one now? Which one? How do you like it?