Microsub and the new reader evolution


I was an avid Google Reader user.  When it shut down, I started hosting my own RSS reader: first tt-rss, and later miniflux. I very much liked being able to subscribe to sites and read them at my leisure. I also appreciated not having my reading habits tracked or quantified. I had maybe two dozen feeds, loosely categorized. Some were tech, some were friends, and some were simply entertaining.

Some time back, I ended up shutting down my Miniflux instance. I decided to reduce my consumption of information, in order to be more intentional about what I read, and when. I had noticed myself pulling up my reader at times when I was bored, and then later at times even when I wasn’t bored. I kept passively waiting for something interesting to come along, rather than actively making an effort to do interesting things.

The same thing happened with Twitter. I ended up removing it from my phone, so that I couldn’t fall into the trap of the always-updating Tweet stream. I only ever read Twitter in my browser, on my computer, to make sure I really wanted to do it. It wasn’t quite Fear of Missing Out, but it was something similar.

Twitter also became frustrating to use. I enjoy seeing what my friends and family have to share, and I’m interested in a few other accounts. But a single user can post and retweet so much stuff that it drowns out the people I really want to follow.  William Gibson is such a user: I generally like his posts (and many of his retweets, for that matter), but he retweets so much that my stream will be filled with his retweets and I’ll miss out completely on something a close friend posted.

There were – and are – various ways to deal with this, but I never really tried any of them because, frankly, I was on the fence as to whether I was even going to keep my Twitter account active.  It’s not something that provides me tremendous value; and I could live my life just fine without it.  I’d miss out on some of the goings-on from my friends, and be somewhat less informed about breaking news, but that’s about it.

I’ve also been making a conscious effort to POSSE: post on my own site and syndicate elsewhere. To retweet or reply to a Tweet required me to copy the URL of the Tweet and paste it into a different tool (Quill, Micropublish, etc), and write my reply there.  This would post it to my site, and then use the Twitter API to send it on to Twitter.  This worked just fine from a technical perspective, but from a user experience perspective it was decidedly sub-optimal.

It was with great interest that I read Aaron Parecki’s Building an IndieWeb Reader post. He built the next iteration of the RSS reader, using IndieWeb principles and technologies, and in so doing he’s unlocked some significant functionality.

His Monocle reader is slick, and when it (and the underlying Aperture service, which actually performs the feed data collection) became available for public beta, I jumped in with abandon.  I brought over my old feeds from Miniflux.  But that wasn’t much different from what I had before.  What I was really after was the confluence of RSS feeds and Twitter and the ability to post to my own site.

In order to get my Twitter stream into Aperture, I first finally organized all the Twitter accounts I follow into lists. I then used Granary to create an RSS feed of each list.  Then I plugged these RSS feeds into channels I had created in Aperture.  Within moments I started getting Tweets and posts in the channels I had created.

The only outstanding problem was the same one that kept frustrating me about Twitter: prolific (re)tweeters were still flooding me with data, drowning out my friends and family. Interestingly, Aperture provided the facility to exclude reposts, likes, check-ins, etc from a channel’s content.  This was neat, and meant that I could get a view of just original tweets.  But I do actually want to see what some people retweet.  I could have created a channel for just original tweets, and a second channel for tweets+retweets, but that would have had me seeing a lot of duplicated content.

I opened a feature request on Aperture asking for the inverse of the current functionality: the ability to see only content in a channel that was a repost.  Within hours Aaron had added that functionality and I jumped on it.  Now I have a channel in Aperture called “Reposts”.  This channel contains the same RSS feeds from Granary, but is explicitly set to “reposts only”.  All my other Aperture channels are set to “exclude reposts”.

This gives me a view of all my friends’ and family’s original Tweets, uncluttered by retweets.  Retweets all go to my “Reposts” channel, and I can scroll through them as I desire, and as time allows.

The other great thing about Microsub, the technology behind Aperture and Monocle, is the separation of “feed collection” from “feed display”.  I don’t have to use only Monocle to read my feeds. On my phone, I use an app called Indigenous.  I could also use Monocle from a mobile browser. Or I could use Together.  Or I could write my own reader interface, if I so chose.

All of these are open source solutions, and relatively easily self-hosted, to boot.

I still need to be mindful of when (and why!) I read the content to which I subscribe, of course. The most powerful motivator for me to use a Microsub reader is less the reading aspect and more the interactivity it allows me.  I can now more easily engage with my friends on Twitter, while ensuring that my own site is the canonical source of all content I create.

Microsub, and all the tools I’ve mentioned in this post, are still very new. They have rough edges. There’s stuff missing. But the open source ethos and IndieWeb mentality give me great hope that these solutions will continue to evolve and unlock even more great functionality.

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