When I’m consuming information, I’m either marking it off, or gobbling it up in a sort of un-demarcated stream controlled by mysterious third parties with their owns rules. I’m forced to use a half inconsistent dozen tools, and nobody gets it right. And I have to put forth a lot of effort to mentally merge these streams, constantly prioritizing one stream over another, jumping from tab to tab. This is irritating, time consuming, and leads inevitably to human error. There’s got to be a better way. A unified theory….
For me, homebase is my email, obviously I need to mark every item directed right at me as ‘read’, and my mail client is quite helpful here. Wether using gmail or Mail.app or Sparrow, there are visual clues for read, unread, and when I’m done with an item, I can toss it into a folder for later, or just delete it outright, lost to the ages and do the done dance. Of course, not all emails are created equal: a high traffic mailing list is different than an email from my mom. Even within this oldest of systems, I’m prioritizing.
Now the question is what to do with news? I consume my news via several mechanisms, but the most common is Google Reader. I have a hundred or so RSS feeds dumping into folders that I’ve sorted into strange ways. In fact, my folders are actually largely sorted into folders that can be easily read on my phone vs folders that can’t. Sites that are heavy on video for example or lengthy 1000 word essays I’m more likely to want to read on a tablet or computer. At a place where I have either big bandwidth, big screen, or big time. But many other items are tiny, single line items that I can chew through rapidly while waiting in a line.
But I’m marking them off. Either in large blocks with a “Mark All As Read” button (available in any good RSS reader as well as the native web UI). This appeals a bit to my OCD nature: I don’t want to miss an important item. But the other side can also happen: A bit of news might show up on 3 different websites in a 24 hour window but I don’t necessarily need to consume each item individually. Google News and Techmeme both do a good job with this problem, grouping multiple closely related items together allowing me to drill down when I’m exceptionally interested. But this information is lost to an RSS reader where a single atomic RSS item is essentially unaware of a million other items even tho they might link to similar or even identical items.
But it’s not always this easy. Other mechanisms for consumption are more passive: Twitter and Facebook both make a sort of effort to remind you of your place in line: when you come back you might see a marker letting you know where you last left off, but you have to be somewhat linear about your consumption. It’s not really practical to skip over an item and say “I want to come back to this later”. And every system has a sorting mechanism: some are better than others, but maintaining all of them is an absolute nightmare. How many facebook items have I lost because I didn’t bother to come back for 24 hours? Some of them might actually have been important to me because they might have come from higher prioritized sources.
Web pages work in differing ways too. Hacker News or Reddit like to shuffle the order of the contents on their pages making reading the directly a bit of a chore: a reload a few hours later might yield half new items, but they are obnoxiously mixed with ones that I might have read 24 hours ago even on that same page. The Drudge Report of the Huffington Post lay out their page in a ridiculous manner that defies any sense of linear organization. I’m sure they’ve done the research that this drives up time on site, but for me, it’s mostly spent with my eyes confusingly jumping from place to place. Flipboard lays things out in a somewhat more linear fashion, but I don’t see myself going back and finding an item even tho it has brought numerous sources into an at least reasonably consistent UI.
I see a slew of intersecting problems: prioritization, reputation, categorization, and completionism.
Right now, my browser requires 4-6 tabs open at all times into different systems with different UIs, and different requirements. What is required of the user of an RSS reader, a Mail User, and a couple of social networks, and a few popular news aggregators is complicated and confusing. And it seems like the tools required to happily consume one is rarely available in another.
I want a tool that contains all my information, but allows me to slice it apart intelligently. I want the system to be aware of the targeting of certain kinds of information: an Email sent directly to me by a friend is very important, and it ought to require a sort of ‘Mark as Read’ action. But when I finish my email, I should be able to keep scrolling and see highly rated content from other systems. What you are talking about there is reputation: A story on Slashdot might be of higher value to me than a story elsewhere because “Slashdot” has some rep value to me. But if 20 of my friends +1 a story on G+, then perhaps that has a higher rating as well.
Each system has its own internal measure of importance, and they aren’t directly comparable. A story with 500 comments on Slashdot is a significant story… and right now the top story on reddit has 2054 votes. And for all I know right now the top story on Digg might actually be good. I doubt it… but it’s possible. Each system has given me a few signals which are only useful within the context of that site, but utterly untranslatable to the others.
I don’t want a system that requires endless fiddling… that will guarantee that nobody will use it. You want a system that will passively observe your actions, distinguishing between an explicit action like a Google +1 or a Facebook ‘Like’ from a passive action like “I looked at this for a few seconds”. Each time you positively interact with an item, the source increases slightly in value to you. But within each system you need to capture the unique signals it is broadcasting as well.
But once I’ve marked an item as “Done”, you want to try to suppress additional information about it as well, freeing me up to eventually get to increasingly less likely items to click. As you clear out the urgent stuff, such a system starts having some visual space to try experimenting… “I’ve noticed that you keep clicking through on items from photography blogs, here’s a few more items from sites you might not have heard of.” which would I guess be the ultimate goal… to break me out of my 100 RSS feeds and a dozen popular sources, and maybe introduce me to #101… and then maybe delete #36 when it notices that I haven’t clicked through on an item from that source in a few months.
It’s a hard problem. I imagine smart minds inside Facebook and Google are working on exactly this, to say nothing of a number of smart start-up types. I imagine a unified theory for physics would be slightly harder to sort out, but this would probably affect more people on a day to day level…