How I Made My Online Diet Healthier in October: Here Come the Visual Aggregators!

24 Oct 2012

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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.

Hobble Creek natural dam

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.

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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).

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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?


How interesting, Hanna - I thought was only for those daily email things (which, to be honest, I'm no fan of, either). I didn't realize it was a personal aggregation tool, too!

So really, the dream tool for me would be a hybrid of Sulia and Google Reader. I'd like a primarily customized feed, with some new-to-me discovery content trickling in, and some ability to follow, favorite, share, discuss, and archive specific posts.

Wow, the world of content is growing complex. :-)

Interesting, it looks like Sulia is trying to capture the male demographic. Not one craft photo! The homepage looks like a news site with so many sports and politics photos. I wonder if that's a response to the fact that Pinterest is so overwhelmingly popular with women.

Well, I'd guess that the homepage is being driven by some algorhythm or other that detects high-interest topics in news feeds. I'm not aware that they're specifically going after a male audience. Although I have seen more than one attempt at a "Pinterest for men" cross my field of view. If you go into the topic sections of Sulia, you'll see loads of pictures.

YES - if there's one thing the internet can be counted upon to do, it's present us with way too many options! :-)

I'll mention here that my contact at Sulia mentioned to me that Etsy listings were being pulled into the Sulia stream because of an algorhythm that determines what high-traffic content is. So, that makes sense it would pull from Etsy. But what I understand is that they're making adjustments to the algorhythm right now so commercial sites' content won't be picked up. So I'm hoping we'll see an Etsy-free feed soon.

A magazine like page that you've currated yourself sounds like the future, thanks for writing about it! But a quick look at Sulia and I doubt it's for me. Way too big images, too much set up time for content that I'm not really into and no categories for my craft interests either. ;-) It might grow, but not for me right now. I think maybe something like the twitter feed is something to look at? It takes links and photos from MY twitter friend feed and presents it to me and everyone else with interest on one page:

People, just don't set it up to tweet out the link every day with mentions, it's so anoying!

I think the same potential pitfalls exist here as anywhere. Some of the content on Sulia comes in from existing feeds. If Sulia identifies a blog as influential, they might broadcast its entire feed through the tool. In that case, we can mostly assume that all the content is properly attributed (unless this influential blogger is using bad practices, but in most cases, you don't really get to be influential unless you're using good practices, right?) Was the blogger invited to share his or her feed on Sulia in all cases? Probably not, honestly, but in my experience, Sulia has been very responsive if a blogger prefers his or her feed removed.

The rest of the Sulia content comes from these "experts," and it's incumbent upon them to use proper attribution in their posts. Does everyone featured get contacted in advance for permission? No. And this was also the case when I worked for CRAFT. Given the volume of content going up on the site daily, and the fact that it's a properly-attributed, linked feature, AND the fact that so many crafters don't even respond (in my experience) to permission-requesting emails, there's a point at which asking becomes a bit moot. (Although obviously, it's the ideal.)

I think Sulia wins over Pinterest simply because Pinterest takes a copy of every image pinned and saves it to its own server. That raised significant copyright infringement red flags, as did the frankly-terrible attribution practices of a great many of its users. Sulia links to images in their original locations, and I think the feed-plus-experts model at least allows for some attribution consistency.

I know that's a long answer - there are few simple answers to this stuff, and this is one of the challenges presented by any aggregator. Does this help at all?

How do these new tools work in re to copyright and such? I deleted my Pinterest account not long after starting it when I delved more and more into the world of copyright and infringement issues. I've password protected my Tumblr blogs so I can gather ideas there but not post images and ideas to the world without the creators' and writers' permission. As a visual artist I am keenly aware of copyright and what it means to me so I try to treat others with the respect I'd like to receive. Thoughts?

WOW...The options continue to grow and almost overwhelm, don't they?! LOL... At a glance, I'm not sure Sulia is for me either right now in it's current incarnation. Like you Diane, I would prefer more of something like a mix of Sulia and Google Read, but with more personal customizable options. I don't mine some new-to-me content popping up...but too much of that, or too much of what would essentially be marketing (like all the Etsy listings), that would put me off fast. I like visual, but I like real content too.

Hmmm, that's interesting, Veronique - thank you for letting me know. I'll pass that on to my contact at Sulia.

I feel a little weird about all that... even though I'm very visual, visual aggregators of RSS feeds don't seem to work for me. When I tried Flipboard a few weeks ago, I didn't like it, and actually didn't like any of the other RSS apps I tried on the iPad. Perhaps it's because I managed to reduce the number of my RSS feeds so drastically, and therefore really wants to be sure I read everything in those feeds? Perhaps I'll give Sulia a try, though, who knows :).

Oh, and by the way, when I try to follow one of your Sulia links on my iPhone via Tweetbot, it's as if the link you tweet about stays visible as long as the page is loading, but when everything is loaded, then I see your complete page and have to browse to find the link again (hope that makes sense).

I'd starred this post on Twitter last week so I could come back and read more about Sulia. I'd noticed your posts and checked it out, but hadn't had much time to play with it. I do like how easy it was to set up an account and start sharing items, and I like being able to filter by subject. With Twitter, I used to have folks I follow divided up in to groups on Tweet Deck (mostly all my science peeps and my crafty peeps) and could follow subjects in that way. I switched Twitter clients, though,and no longer have them separated. Sometimes it just gets too overwhelming to sift through everything - and sift through a lot of chatty tweets when I'm really just looking for interesting content. Sulia kind of helps with that, but I did also find it a bit visually overwhelming at first.

My initial feeling with it is that it's kind of a nice (I almost want to say "smarter," but know that may come off as smug...) version of Pinterest. Does that make sense? In some ways, I see Pinterest getting better - more often than not, links I click on in pins actually take me to the original post & not some random google image search or Tumblr, which is a big sign of improvement in how folks are pinning/repinning these days. However, it also feels like there often isn't as much thought in the things pinned there. I don't know how to place it ...

I love the idea of being introduced to new content avenues along with ones I've already subscribed to and trust (a la Reader). That's the dream!

As always, Diane, you are the leader in this arena. Our community is lucky to have you investigating and sharing this information and leading these great conversations. :)

I think you're hitting on something important, Rach, and I've been trying to formulate another post about it. In a wholly user-created universe like Pinterest, I think we often find ourselves looking at a lot of "junk" - or rather, what reads as junk to us. (It isn't junk to everyone, of course!)

In a wholly curated universe, the chance of encountering "junk" goes down, but so does our chance at discovering truly innovative stuff. I feel like the curation engines we're evolving (and yes, CRAFT is among them) so often become echo chambers, sharing the same makers over and over. Too much curation, and we start to rebuild the walls created by traditional media. Then it's mostly the already-famous who get featured, and thus opportunities aren't available to everyone equally.

So the best platform, it seems to me, will find a way to walk this ever-so-tricky balance point between curators we trust and fellow users who can show us things that aren't on the curators' radar. Is Sulia that platform? Time will tell.

This post and the comments are really interesting. I still say that putting my blog reader in priority lists was the best thing ever. And as someone on the other side of the Pinterest coin, I don't really see a lot of junk. I guess I don't really understand that statement, because if someone is seeing a lot of junk in their feed, it's their fault for curating junk. I keep finding more and more feeds full of amazing things from people I've never heard of before. And it's because they are curating their own reading on the web and actively looking for good stuff. That, in turn, curates what I see in a wide spider web effect.

I continue to enjoy reading your explorations into all corners of the web for us. :)

Well, let me reiterate, "junk" is a wholly subjective thing. I agree with you that seeing junk in your feed is a fault of curation - that's an excellent point. I'm working on a post about curation right now (another one). I do think that curation is evolving in general from a model where we maybe DID curate a fair amount of "junk" in our efforts to "keep up on all of it." But lately, we've given ourselves permission to let go of the feeds that don't really interest us, and that's resulting in better-curated streams in these completely user-created environments like Pinterest.