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How (and Why) I Replaced RSS With Twitter Lists

By Will Smith

I haven't used a dedicated RSS reader regularly in years. Here's how I use Twitter lists for that same functionality, and why.

Yesterday Google announced it will be shutting down Reader, its web-based RSS feed reader, in July. Google Reader was the RSS market leader, most other RSS software I’ve used in recent years, including clients like Flipboard and Reeder were tightly integrated with Google’s service.

Naturally, the death of Google Reader has caused a scramble amongst its users to find something to replace it. This is the moment where I’m supposed to tell you what the next best RSS reader is, right? Unfortunately, I’m not going to. I haven't used a dedicated RSS reader in years.

You see, I was never particularly happy with RSS. The problem is that RSS feeds are undiscerning. They create an unrelenting torrent of stories to read--if you follow a few dozen sites, you can easily have a queue of a few thousand stories pop up in your queue every day. RSS doesn’t differentiate between a publication’s best work--stories that contain original reporting or unique insights--and the stories that are just links to someone else’s original reporting. While there are news editors and other masochists who need to bathe in a never-ending flood of stories from fifty bazillions sites, I do not. Frankly, too much time spent in Google Reader made me a little crazy.

I do, however, love to read great articles from a variety of websites. Google Reader was just the last of several RSS services that filled that role for me during the 2000s, but it wasn’t a particularly good solution. The constant deluge of minutiae wore on me. When I started using Tweetdeck, I dedicated a column to the people who consistently posted the stories, videos, and other links on Twitter that I found most interesting. After several weeks, I realized I was logging into Google Reader less and less frequently.

I was able to skip the filler and get straight to the content that the interesting people find most interesting

By putting authors and editors, as well as curators and generally interesting people in this list, I was able to skip the filler and get straight to the content that the interesting people find most interesting. If you follow the editor-in-chief of a publication, he or she usually only shares stories from their publication that they’re most proud of or that they feel are most important. This is a powerful filter. I also added my favorite freelancers, Twitter accounts for brands that are selective (not spammy), some personal friends, and a handful of aggregators. When I noticed I’d clicked on links from the same person two or three times, I added them to the list. When I realized someone was clogging up the feed, I was ruthless about culling them.

I’ve set Tweetbot to display this list in a column, but Tweetdeck, Metrotwit, or any number of other clients let you display lists the same way. When I want to know what people are talking about, I check my list. My favorite thing to do is hook that list into one of the social readers--Flipboard, Pulse, etc--which strips links people share from the Twitter posts and generates a ready-to-read list of great stories. This is pretty close to magic.

I strongly encourage you to make your own list--it’s easy once you get going. You can add Twitter accounts from their profile page, or from your lists page at twitter.com/yourusername/lists. Like using a password manager, managing a list a pain in the ass at first, but it gets easier every day. If you’re lazy and don’t want to make your own list, I’ve made a public-friendly version for you. I’d encourage you to use my list as a seed while you make your own custom list of interesting folks.

This isn’t a perfect solution for everyone, but it works great for me. Your ability to collect info relevant to you is still dependent on Twitter to stay in business and maintain the lists feature. And of course, the teams that make existing RSS readers will endeavor to fill the void left by Google Reader. Desktop and tablet client Reeder has already announced that it will work without Google’s service, and the open-source NewsBlur seems to be a favorite replacement (although the site is down due to increased traffic at the moment).