The Secret of Being Well-Read

By | September 17, 2008

By Jeremy Wagstaff

If you’ve been following this column closely, you’ll know I’m a huge fan of Really Simple Syndication, or RSS. I reckon it’s the single greatest thing to come out of the last few years on the Web. Well, that and Facebook. And Skype. And blogging. And disposable socks.

(For those of you not sure what I’m talking about, think of RSS like this: lots of interesting people, sending you news and thoughts in a way that suits you, not them. For more, dig around my site which explains how to get up to speed on RSS.)

The problem is that RSS has been too successful. Everyone now offers their data in RSS form—newspapers offer dozens of RSS feeds, as they’re called, diced according to topic (sports, cookery, foreign news, corruption and skullduggery in high places; whatever the main issues are).

They’re not alone. Government departments are doing it; every blog does it; you can subscribe, as it’s called, to feeds of people’s bookmarks, their Facebook updates, their Flickr photos. It’s great stuff—it makes it possible to stay on top of all sorts of things, from big international stuff to what your kid’s doing at school—but it creates its own chaos.

The tendency, for us end-users, is to add feeds when we come across them. Visit an interesting blog and you want to take the feed so you can stay on top of what that person is saying, or see the photographs they’re sharing. Which is good; much better to grab it before you forget.

But this quickly gets out of hand. Before long you’ve acquired dozens of feeds and you’re now drowning in information. You have no time in the day to read it and now it feels like you’ve traded one bulging in-tray for another.

If this is what’s happened to you, here’s how to fix RSS excess:

The first point I’d make is to make a clear distinction between your email in box and your RSS. Email is for action: other people sending you stuff that you need to act upon, or for you to create emails and send them to other people.

RSS, by contrast, is for reflection: A chance for you to grab a cup of coffee and “read yourself up to date.” And don’t be shy about including in this stuff that which is personal—your football team, say—as well as professional. RSS is flexible enough to deal with this (as should be your boss.)

OK, a check list:

  • A feed reader that lets you create folders (Google Reader, for example).
  • An easy way to add feeds that doesn’t eat into your day (once again, check out for the simplest way to do this.)
  • An idea of what feeds you want, or you have already.

Now you’re ready to go.

First off, create folders that describe your interests, professional and personal: football, art, productivity, currencies, geraniums, etc.

When you grab a new feed, make sure you put it into the appropriate folder. Don’t leave it lying around for other people to trip over, or so you never find it again.

Get into the habit of checking your RSS feeds on a regular basis. Don’t let them pile up.

When you start to feel you’re getting more feeds than you can possibly read, you need to move to the next stage: creating super folders.

Create a couple of folders called ‘want to read’ and ‘must read’ (or something similar; I’m not necessarily going to come round and check you’ve done this exactly as I say.)

Move the feeds that you really need to stay on top of into the second folder. In the first put the feeds that you’d hate to miss, but upon which your job doesn’t depend. (Google Reader lets you put a feed in more than one folder, so you can keep these feeds in their original folders as well.)

If you put an “+” in front of the folder’s name you’ll find it usually sits at the top of your folder list, which makes it easier to find: Mine’s called +brainfood. Go figure.

The rule of thumb here is that you should have had time to read all the feeds in those folders by the end of the day. There’s nothing more demoralizing than coming in to work and finding a bunch of feeds piling up from the previous day. (OK, I suppose more demoralizing is coming into work and finding your company has gone bankrupt, but it’s all relative.)

If you find your new super folders are still bursting at the seams, start weeding. One way to do this is to remove those feeds from these folders that you can’t manage until you reach a comfortable level.

What I do is create another folder called “brainfood+” which contains stuff I really, really must read. I move the vital stuff from “brainfood” into this new folder until I’ve reached that sweet spot where I can manage reading the folder without breaking a sweat.

(The advantage of this, apart from it qualifying me as Grade–A Nerd, is that you’ve still got a backup folder of stuff you’d like to read if you had time. The old folder becomes a sort of wish-list of stuff you should read, whereas the + folder becomes the stuff you really have to read if you want to keep your job/spouse/house. Follow?)

Now keep pruning as you go, since the balance is likely to shift. I avoid subscribing to feeds where lots of stuff is coming in: I really, really like bloggers and writers who just write when they need to—sometimes only once a month. The beauty of RSS is that I’ll catch that rare post of distinction without having to do anything—and it doesn’t clog up my folder needlessly.

I hope this helps a bit. I’d love to hear from you if you’ve got your own solutions for dealing with RSS excess.

Jeremy Wagstaff is a commentator on technology and appears regularly on the BBC World Service. He can be found online at or via email at